What My Former Life as a Project Manager Has Taught Me

Sixteen years ago — following in my father’s footsteps, albeit somewhat by accident — I became a project manager. Many of the things I learned in that challenging role have helped me succeed as I’ve moved into different roles: product management, engineering management, product and marketing operations, and eventually operating the bulk of a small company. One thing I learned as a project manager that has stuck with me is the importance of crisply defining success for any particular project or task.

Good project managers already know this well: a project’s successful completion must be defined by “critical success factors”, a clear set of deliverables with associated expectations of timing, quality, and cost.

It’s no different when, instead of a project, you’re managing an ongoing program — and the program is the company itself. At Journyx, I’m responsible for helping the company to operate profitably and to a path of growth. At the end of the fiscal year, we define our goals (both financial and non-financial) for the next fiscal year. We break down the goals into component goals (project managers call this “project decomposition” or “work breakdown”), and we keep breaking them down until we get to a set of tasks that are easily defined and executed by a small group of people. In so doing, we identify all sorts of actions that are required to achieve our annual goals.

There are two critical next steps for each of those actions: assigning ownership (who specifically is responsible for its success), and clearly defining success. For utter clarity, we ensure that the completion of each of these actions is clearly quantifiable in some way AND has a clear deadline (or milestones if there’s more than one important date). Everyone involved – both the people responsible and the manager (or myself as the COO) – must agree on who’s going to own the action, and what success looks like.

Armed with that level of clarity, each person responsible to get these things done can much more adeptly schedule their work, measure their own progress toward completion, and adjust as necessary. Most importantly, when the milestones/deadlines pass, everyone can clearly see where we have succeeded and where we have fallen short — which helps the company to adjust resources to address the shortcomings. After all, the best-laid plans of mice and men…

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