Hands-on or hands off… what’s the best way to manage a project?

If the figures are anything to go by, the odds are stacked against successful project delivery. According to a study from The Standish Group of 50,000 projects (external link), 71% fail to meet three basic criteria: on time, on budget, and with satisfactory results. Reasons for failure range from a lack of executive support and ways of measuring effectiveness through to not having enough skilled staff.

Interested but not controlling

According to Alistair Godbold, Nichols Group Consultant and board member of the Association for Project Management, there is no simple solution to project success. Instead, he believes the right approach is to ‘take an interest; to be clear on who is accountable for what, ensure there are good plans in place and regularly hold people to account.’

Godbold’s approach may sound hands-on but is, in fact, the opposite. By taking interest, rather than control, you decrease the risk of disrupting the project. Jack Duggal, author of The DNA of Strategy Execution: Next Generation Project Management and PMO recommends a similar strategy.

‘You don’t have to micromanage everything,’ says Godbold. ‘But there is nothing wrong with micro-interest.’ This could be anything from pre-empting problems to monitoring project milestones in order to help expedite delivery.

Smart delegation

So, managing the perfect project is all about trusting your team – being eyes on but not hands-on, taking interest but not control. Stepping back, however, is not always that straightforward. One of the most common mistakes made by project managers is ‘not letting go and having to manage projects at a detail level’, according to Duggal.

‘The trick is matching the need. Do not overmanage a simple project as you will waste time and effort, slowing the project down,’ adds Carl Jones, Head of Business and Technology Solutions at Capgemini UK.

However, undermanaging a project can be just as problematic. According to Duggal the answer is in mastering the art of delegation. ‘The tendency to manage and control everything is understandable,’ continues Duggal. ‘But the opportunity, particularly for small businesses, is to find ways to delegate.’

The advantage of delegating is twofold. First, it ensures the workload is distributed correctly. Second, it defines what needs to be done and by whom. For Colin Bentley, author of Project Management for All (PM4A), delegation also needs to have limits. ‘Delegate authority, but not responsibility. Agree on a plan, then let them get on with it.’

People over process

The next step is making sure your team has everything they need to get the job done. If they’re lacking certain skills or knowledge, then it’s up to you to educate them.

This could be done by yourself or by a third party, whichever is most suitable for the task at hand. Either way, be sure to correct any deficiencies as early as possible and as quickly as possible. This is especially important for newly formed teams who might not have the required experience or training.

Software skills, interpersonal skills, reporting skills - everything can be fixed with the right amount of education, so long as you have enough time and resources to make it happen. After all, it’s people not processes who make or break projects.

‘Processes and reporting are necessary, but not sufficient,’ adds Godbold. ‘It is skilled and competent people who deliver projects.’

Clever communicating

The single most important thing to remember when managing a project is communication. ‘Make sure people understand what you are doing and why it’s necessary. Listen to what they say and how they will use your project,’ says Godbold.

 Project health checks are a great way of maintaining communication between the team, as are group meetings and individual catch-ups. Just don’t go overboard or you’ll run the risk of delaying the project. And then you might need to take a more hands-on approach to get the project back on track… which takes us back to the start.