4 min read

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).