“If you could speak at next year’s Craft + Commerce conference and teach people one thing, what would that be?”
I didn’t need to think long to answer this question from a fellow attendee.
Here’s what I said: I’d teach my fellow creators basic Project Management because that’s one thing I’ve missed here.
I bet you can relate: You attend a conference, come home inspired with a bunch of amazing ideas, and then what? How do you turn those ideas into action and actually make the thing happen?
The answer is Project Management. It’s the bridge between “hey, that’s a cool idea. We should do that!” and that thing existing/having happened in the real world.
Project Management is the art and science of getting sh*t done (on time and on budget).
But it’s not top of mind for most solopreneurs, small business owners, and creators. Isn’t PM something only big businesses need?
That’s certainly the impression you get when you google “project management”. Most resources out there make it look complicated and will mainly apply to large organizations.
But there are basic principles that are useful for solo creators and those with a small team.
Before I dive into the best practices, let’s briefly discuss what a project even is and why it’s so important to work “in projects” in the first place.
Ever had a task sit on your to-do list forever? You just can’t seem to get to it (and you probably beat yourself up about that).
In 99 out of 100 cases, that’s because your task isn’t really a task, it’s a project! It’s too big, complex and/or uncertain and that’s why you haven’t tackled it yet.
I first learned about this through Building a Second Brain and since haven’t approached work the same. Tiago Forte stresses the importance of organizing your information by your active projects so you always have what you need to move them forward front and center.
But what makes a project a project? These three criteria:
- A concrete outcome: You can picture what you want to bring to life.
- A deadline: You have a certain timeframe in mind by when you want to see your project finished.
- Takes more than one work session to complete: You know you’ll need to sit down multiple times to get it done (otherwise it would just be a task).
I found that by making something a project, I take it more seriously and am more likely to see it through to the end.
The same is true with a team. Formally kicking something off as a project has more weight than half-heartedly typing in the group chat that this thing needs to get done (hoping that someone will do it).
So, how do you ensure everyone is on board from the start, follows through, and stays on track with projects? Let’s look at this next.
Here are seven best practices that I’ve found useful whether you’re working on a project alone or with a small team.
Have you ever heard the saying “A dog with two owners dies of hunger”? It could also read “a project with two owners never sees the light of day” because there’s the assumption that someone else will do it.
If no one truly takes responsibility for completing the project it will likely go nowhere. You need ONE project owner who will see it through to the end.
This is another potential pitfall: People on the team are working towards different definitions of an outcome.
Let’s say you’re developing a new self-paced course. If one part of the team believes the final outcome is simply a series of videos within the course platform but the other part of the team believes the course should also have accompanying exercises, then there will be confusion around expectations, timelines, and the amount of work that needs to get done.
Everyone on the team needs to get clear together on what “done” looks like for the project before you kick it off. Go into detail here! That way, everyone is moving towards the same outcome.
Now, that you’ve agreed on a definition of “done,” by when do you want to see the project complete? A deadline makes it real!
Also identify which in-between milestones you need to hit in order to meet your deadline. Those could be crucial handoff points from one team member to another. If one of them isn’t met on time, you’ll likely have to move the final go-live date.
Making the decisions mentioned above is an important first step! But verbally agreeing on something isn’t enough because people hear and understand different things (even if you think you’re all on the same page…you likely aren’t).
That’s why the crucial next step is to document your decisions! I recommend creating a simple project kickoff one-pager that captures the following:
- Goal: What do we want to achieve with this project?
- Scope: What are the guardrails for this project? What will we do/ not do?
- Criteria for Satisfaction: What does “done” look like? How will we know this was a success?
- Estimated Business Impact: What revenue and costs might we expect? What other KPIs are impacted?
- Timeline: When will we be done and what are the milestones on the way?
- Assumptions: What assumptions are the timeline and business impact based on?
- Roles & Responsibilities: Who is leading the project and who is supporting it?
- Open Questions: What questions do we need to address right away?
Even with a written project kick-off one-pager, I recommend hosting a kick-off call with everyone involved in the project led by the project owner.
You’ll go through everything together and clarify any open questions. With everyone on the same page, you can decisively move forward.
How do you know if the project is still on track and any roadblocks get addressed asap? Weekly check-in calls with the team help surface any issues. I recommend scheduling them ahead for the entire duration of the project so everyone has them on their calendar.
While technically everyone could just give an update in a pre-recorded Loom video, email, or Slack message, I’ve found that talking through any questions and roadblocks live all together is way quicker. Async communication can only take you so far.
Inevitably, things will change as the project is underway through external or internal circumstances. Maybe a collaboration falls through, a team member gets sick, or a previous hypothesis proves false. That’s completely normal. What’s crucial is how the team responds to these changes.
If the scope, deadline, or responsibilities shift, everyone should be informed asap so the implications can be discussed together.
Essentially, what you want your team members to do is to take your vision and make it reality.
Can someone run with a vague description of what you want to achieve, concretize it, and take the necessary steps to make it happen, while leveraging you and other team members as well as external collaborators?
Project Management is a crucial skill to look for in new hires, especially in a small team where a wide range of responsibilities fall on one person.
When you’re interviewing, ask for concrete examples of projects they’ve seen through from beginning to end in the past. How did they approach these projects and what did they do when things went sideways (no project ever goes completely smooth)?
It’s too easy to focus on someone’s wins. What projects needed to happen for them to get there is way more interesting!