June 13, 2011 - 6 comments

Stick to the budget, man!

All projects operate on some sort of budget, and the work that we do as project managers is scoped as a part of that budget. It's hard to measure a lot of what we do, because there are few "deliverables" tied to managing a project. But how do you estimate the time you need to manage a project when there are so many variables, like changing timelines, client requests, team meetings, and so on?

For any other work, a budget is a budget and you need to work with it, right? The same can be said for project management. We need to do what is right for the client and the project, and keep our work within the constraints of the project budget. I've been thinking about this a lot lately, as I have hit my hours budgets on projects earlier than expected, or have seen a trend toward using my hours before a project is done. I had to take a deeper look at what I was doing on those projects to see just where the time was going. It's true, you read it here first: I'm not perfect. I completely exhaust budget hours! (If you don't, you must have some amazing budgets to work with.)

Here are some things I noted that were maybe taking a little more time than I needed. I'm still in the process of figuring out just how I can do more with less hours, but this is a start for me, at least.

Status Overload!
I do weekly status reports and a follow-up calls weekly with all of my clients, whether we're working on large or small projects together (read: regardless of budget). I had to wonder, was I creating needy clients or setting expectations improperly? That's a tough one. Part of what we do is keep the lines of communication open and keep everyone informed of all project details, and status reports contribute to that. I also think that speaking with a client on the phone to actually discuss details of the project only contribute to the health of a project, so using a weekly check-in to make sure we're all in agreement makes a lot of sense. But, I just don't have the budget to use that time every week. 30 minutes a week really can add up!

Resolution: Maybe a weekly call is overboard. Let's reduce them to bi-weekly to see how that goes.

Mr. Meeting
It's important that a PM be involved in all conversations on a project to know what is happening on all fronts. In many instances, I find that even sitting in on a meeting between team members can help me in many ways:

  • I gain a better understanding of my team's process and working relationships, which can inform future decisions and responses to client questions
  • I can get a sense for any possible project risks (and ask about them on the spot)
  • I tend to learn things about UX, design and code that I might not learn while sitting at my desk (a selfish one, but critical to career growth)

Here's the thing: I can no longer be Mr. Meeting. It's a fact: sitting in on every meeting eats up a lot of project time and you never know if you will actually be able to contribute or get anything out of a meeting. So, what to do when budget hours are running out?

Resolution: Make better decisions on what conversations you need to be a part of and ask the team to fill you in on the details when you can't attend. And, of course, always ask questions if you need to.

Expect the Unexpected
I find that at least 20-80% of my day can be spent answering unexpected questions and requests. How do you budget your time when you have a percentage of the project hours and have to answer to random client calls and requests? It's a part of what I do, it can't be avoided. I know that I can't plan for it, but I can expect some level of "unexpected" work in my day. It can be fun, actually. It can also be miserable if it gets in the way of your planned (budgeted) work.

Resolution: Delegate when possible. It's not just about passing work off to save your own time. When it comes down to it, it makes sense for some people to respond to questions/requests that relate to project specifics. In the past I've made myself a part of that process. Now, I watch it all go down and make sure everyone is communicating (rather than doing the communicating and running it by my peers).

That Plan? Yeah, It's Always Gonna Change
I find that I can spend a lot of time making adjustments and updates to project plans and thinking about how resourcing will work for the next month. But, really, project plans will change often, and so will the details that they affect.

Resolution: Budget time each week to make updates to your project plans and other project-related tasks (like updating milestones in Basecamp, ugh).

I'm still auditing my own practices and trying new things. Hopefully I'll get to a point where I can just sit back and watch projects just happen. But seriously, I know that I can always improve how I work and save budgets (and make everyone happy), it's just a matter of how to make it happen and still provide a quality work product to my team and my clients.

Do you take any steps to work more effectively and stick to your own budgets? I'd love to hear all about it! Check out the comments, man (or woman).

Published by: brettharned in Uncategorized
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Candi Ligutan
June 13, 2011 at 3:12 pm

Thanks Brett! Always a pleasure reading what you have to say.

Sam Barnes
June 18, 2011 at 2:41 pm

Good post Brett, and something I think many Project Managers and Account Managers rarely do… look at their own time usage and ways to streamline it. The biggest reason for this I believe is it requires humility and zero arrogance, and that’s not a common thing.

When I started out I believed I was doing everything the right way, the best way and thus the most efficient way, but my boss would challenge the amount of PM hours I was spending. Although I think there was an element of underestimating from him on how long it takes to manage a project, as painful as it was I took a look at how I spent my time and tried spending less… to my humbling horror he was right, I could achieve the same results in less time by just always being mindful of my own time.

I do wish though more focus was placed on PM and AMs and not just the production guys… in fact this was the very motice for one of my Web PM Interview questions “What % of a project should be spent on project management?” The trend seemed to be between 15-25%, and I’d agree with this range, so if a PM or AM is clocking up 50%+ (which I’ve seen) it warrants a closer look!

Mike Watson
June 21, 2011 at 5:17 am

I am amazed at how many project managers have no idea where their time actually goes on a day-to-day basis. Try keeping a personal timesheet for a couple of weeks, and you will be amazed too!
Without the real data that comes from such an analysis you will never be able to manage your time (who said ‘what we don’t measure we can’t manage’?).
Your lawyer will keep a record of every minute he/she spends on your case; surely our time is just a s valuable, and should be treated in such a precious manner.

    Sam Barnes
    June 21, 2011 at 3:53 pm

    That’s so true Mike!!! I started tracking my own time in quite low-level detail originally because I’d get to my part of the weekly agency catchup meeting and found it hard to articulate what Id done the previous week, despite knowing Id working my ass off!!!

    What I found was it was literally a 5min call here n there, 50 5min emails, 50 5min chats and a whole heap of things i could never recall. But ever since, when not even needing to track my time like that as per company rules, i still do.

    I also track in such a way that allows me to analyse my time by day, week, month or whatever timeframe i like. This is what i find most interesting e.g. How much time did i spend on project A and B, and on what; client comms, spec work, planning, testing etc.

    Once i know these figures, i can compare to the value of the project and determine if im spending too much time for what will be less return, or identify high maintenance clients and set expectations internally on that – also pull out figures and trends on what % of a project im spending on PM tasks, and so on…

    All sounds a bit hardcore but isnt this what we do with production team’s timesheets to analyse where bottlenecks or overspend is happening?

    Plus there’s the added bonus that there’s something satisfying to me to KNOW exactly where my day has gone!! Because as youll know, sometimes its a blur!!

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