Tips from the trenches: Preventing process breakdowns in project management

Project management is equal parts strategy, people skills, and increasingly, technical prowess. But the latest project management tool or your ability to sweet-talk a client doesn’t mean much if process breakdowns occur.

At Leff, one of my roles is to manage a client account with many constantly moving parts. We manage the editorial process; collaborate on editorial strategy; write, edit, and design all content; and handle the nuts and bolts of web publishing. The account has grown in size and scope over the past year, requiring more editors and designers to meet demand.

To make sure projects are done well, I’ve learned a few things about how to prevent tasks from slipping out of mind and ensure our internal team hums along efficiently. While some of these tips may seem simplistic, when we get caught up in the adrenaline of getting things done, good project management practices can get short shrift.

Overcommunicate: The golden rule of project management

It can be so easy (and tempting) to lay out the next steps for a project in an email, cc everyone involved, and check the job off. Even if you are an email-writing expert, I still advocate for quick check-ins with your internal team to ensure responsibilities and goals are clear, especially in advance of client calls. For instance, even though I include my colleagues on all client communications and call-agenda emails, I still try and make time to chat before the call. These discussions—just 10 or 15 minutes—can either reinforce someone’s specific point or query or bring to light a small detail that was potentially misunderstood or misinterpreted via email (and could have led to a slipup).

And in the case of following up after the call, instead of assuming your coworker will send that recap email or remember to read through a post one last time, simply ask. Frame it as “I just wanted to make sure we don’t duplicate efforts—confirming I’m sending the recap email?”

You’ll never regret overcommunicating.

Hold weekly check-in meetings

Related to the point above, each week I meet with my other colleagues on the team to go over status updates and next steps for active projects. We try to keep the meeting short, just 15 minutes, but carving out time for a formal meeting means we can focus on any project challenges, changes to the editorial schedule, or urgent questions.

Sometimes it’s just easier to hash out problems or process issues on the phone or in person than over email. And putting a recurring meeting on the calendar means that at least once a week your team can connect and talk about what’s on their plates. This becomes even more important when team members are spread across different time zones. Since face-to-face time is rare in these instances, ask remote coworkers to call in via video conferencing software, such as Google Hangouts. Bonus: video conferencing gives these coworkers (like me) a reason to get dressed in the morning—at least from the waist up. 

Reduce complexity by making a process list for each team member

Keep a roles and responsibilities checklist and update it regularly. Ideally, the list will include higher-level responsibilities as well as the day-to-day or weekly tasks each person manages. This way, no one will have to rely on their memory to contain everything.

This exercise can also help identify potential areas for improvement and reduce complexity by identifying any overlap among roles. For example, instead of having one editor manage design feedback and another proofread tables and charts, why not collapse those responsibilities under one role? Unnecessary process complexity increases the likelihood that something will fall through the cracks. Think of the game of telephone. How often does the original message make it through unscathed after everyone has added their two cents?

Ask team members to update their roles

On longer-term projects, roles may evolve along with the project scope. Instead of the project manager updating each role and checklist, after an initial debriefing, ask team members to update their responsibilities checklist. Putting the onus on them to outline their role can help reinforce tasks and identify any gaps in understanding, which could manifest in a process slip.

Seek an outside perspective on process

If you’ve been managing a team for more than a year, you may be running on autopilot and likely can’t see potential issues on the horizon or places to optimize the process. Whenever someone new joins your team, ask for their thoughts on process after they’ve had a few weeks to get their bearings.

I’ve also found it helpful to talk to someone on another project team about how they manage things or how they’ve structured their team. Don’t be afraid to ask about the dirty details—when a project went wrong and how they fixed it. Their insights might help you identify potential process breakdowns before they happen. After all, good project management requires striking a balance between executing the current process and preparing for the future.


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