As an entrepreneur, you’re always undertaking projects. Whether you realize it or not, your work is split up into distinct groupings of tasks around a specific goal (what I'll call "projects").
Related: The 5 Biggest Reasons Projects Fail
Ideally, your tasks drive completion of your projects, and the projects drive the accomplishment of your larger business goals.
More times than not, however, entrepreneurs -- especially those just starting out -- don’t prioritize their projects enough. Instead, they try to do everything at once. This is a bad idea. It increases stress, decreases the likelihood that you’ll finish what you need to and makes it that much harder to progress effectively toward a business goal.
To help you avoid that fate, here are five top project-planning tips to start or tune up your own project management:
1. Define your projects.
The first and most important thing in project planning is to figure out what projects you are dealing with. First, what is a project? My definition is anything that takes more than a few easy tasks to get done. Setting up that new sales software? That’s a project. Expanding your network? Yep, that’s a project, too. Growing your business? That’s a collection of projects!
Some of your projects will be pretty obvious, but others will lurk in the background unacknowledged. To unearth all of your projects, write down everything you’re currently working on and everything you want to be working on. Then, group that list around specific goals.
That action will likely lead you to your project list. You may have 10 to 20 (or even more) projects on this list, but to be effective, you’ll want to pick the two to five projects that are most important, and focus on those for the remaining tips.
2. Give your projects a start and end date.
You should know (or decide) when each project should start and end. This will allow you to sequence projects by prioritizing them based on when they need to start or be finished. Start and end dates will also allow you to plan around your own business cycles and prevent projects from going on for much longer than they should.
3. Make a one-page plan.
A little planning goes a long way to helping a project succeed. To create a one-page plan, jot down your answers or notes for each of the following questions:
- What problem will the project solve?
- What is the benefit to the organization?
- What kind of staff and budget do I need?
- What are the major milestones?
- What are the potential stumbling blocks?
- What risks does this project pose?
- What is my work plan (list of tasks or sub-items to be completed by when)?
- What are the specific metrics for success?
- How will you know the project is done?
Note: if you’re going to keep the plan to one page, your answers need to be relatively concise!
4. Establish communication routines.
For any project that involves multiple team members, set up communication routines in advance. Will someone be reporting progress weekly? Monthly? Will there be a recurring call for all parties to check in? Who is responsible for checking on whether the project is meeting its milestones?
5. Know if and when to quit.
While it’s best to finish what you start, sometimes it’s necessary to pull the plug. If you have all of your projects laid out, with start and end dates and a clear one-page plan that includes milestones and communication guidelines, you should have all the information you need to know when to quit a project.
Certainly it’s not always easy to quit, especially if you’ve already committed a lot of time, energy and emotion. But if a project is dragging on, here are some questions that can help you think through whether or not to abandon it:
- Is the goal of this project still important to my organization?
- What was the planned ROI for this project? What is the ROI now?
- What is my opportunity cost in working on this? Could I better achieve my goals by spending this time on other projects?
- What is the emotional toll of continuing with this project.