Herd Workplace Cats like a Pro


Sometimes a project leadership role falls in your lap, maybe it happens more often than you care to admit. You’ve been effective in your other work, as a manager or an individual contributor, so piloting an internal initiative seems like the next logical step. This is the situation that gives birth to many “accidental” project managers. You’re great at what you do, so are often delegated more.           

Your first instinct might be to strictly follow all the steps prescribed in a highly structured project management methodology, but often that’s not necessary. As an accidental project manager turned certified professional consultant, these are the five touch points every initiative needs to be successful. Equipped with this knowledge, and some basic tools that help you stay organized (whatever those might be in your organization, more on that in another article) to help you stay organized, you can excel at yet another aspect of your job---project leadership.

Define the Objective

The first and most important step in effective project management is to clearly define the end goal, or where the organization, the team, and you want to be at the conclusion of the project. A clear understanding of the objective of the project gives you your North Star to work toward.

Getting the sponsor and organization locked-in on a clear objective provides the gravity to then develop, motivate, and deploy a team. In the world of project management, a charter is the tool that facilitates this alignment. The charter doesn’t need to be a formaldocument, but it certainly helps if it is. A formalized document gives you weight and something to point to if there are any questions or disputes about the project direction at a later point. While how you get there isn’t critical, whether you choose a formal or informal charter, or choose not have a charter at all, the takeaway is that clarity around the objective is vital to your project’s success.

Understand the Stakeholders

Stakeholder may be a buzzword, but don’t underestimate the influence of this group. You should have a good idea of who’s impacted by the project and how they’ll be affected Your stakeholder group includes the folks on your team; those who will experience the impact of your project, or who will live with the outcome of the project when it becomes operational; the decision makers and sponsor; and those who contribute knowledge and feedback at an advisory level.

These people will help you understand the organizational context of what you’re trying to do, why you’re trying to do it, and which people care. It’s important to understand that the stakeholders aren’t just the people who are directly related to the work, or your core team. It’s anyone affected both up and downstream.

Plan the Work


Create a clearly articulated plan that defines the work and how you’ll get it done. Without a plan, people (the broad group you’ve identified as your stakeholders, and your team) don’t know how to help you. They won’t know where to support you and you won’t know if you’re making progress.

Thinking about navigating with a GPS can provide a helpful parallel. You know where you’re are today and where you want to end up, but there will generally be multiple routes to move from A to B. You can’t take all of the routes, so you must choose one. The GPS will then show you the distance, the estimated time it’ll take to get there, and what the traffic looks like.  If you understand how long it’ll take, you can then communicate out to your stakeholders so they know what to expect and when to expect it.

In the case of the project, this estimation allows people to plan their work as well as how and when to support the project to keep things on track. This also helps you set expectations of due dates, milestones, dependencies, and the understanding that if the team runs into roadblocks, it’ll affect your project in some way.

Work the Plan

The pre-work and planning develops a picture of the possible activities and timelines. How long do we have to complete the project? What needs to be done at a high level? And, then what needs to be completed in order to achieve the high-level results? Who needs to be involved, or what resources need to be involved? The execution of the project and its subsequent success comes from doing the things you planned. Learn how to get your team together and provide them the management and leadership oversight to move work forward.

Success requires personal perseverance and tenacity to work through the issues. Execution is where project managers often feel the impact of the full-contact nature of the job. It’s like playing any sport. You may get hit, bruised, or beaten, but you learn from that experience. Your job as a project leader is to provide coverage so your team stays focused and can keep moving down the field.

Problems will inevitably crop up during the project, and that’s okay. You’ll run into roadblocks and need to adjust the plan; like a calling a different play on the field, a timeout to regroup, or even making a player substitution. It’s in these times that the vision (the objective you worked so hard to identify at the start) becomes important. As a leader, you’ll need to drive people through the unavoidable down days and setbacks to get closer to the goal. During these situations use good project management tools, like status reports and check-in meetings to help you stay organized. This phase is also where communication becomes important. You’ll want to communicate regularly with the stakeholder group you identified previously.

Land the Plane

The close of a project is just as important as the initial planning. Just like flying a plane, you have to complete the final steps to land safely: Get the flaps out, line up with the runway, calculate how far you have to go and how much space you have to land.

Photo credit: USAF

Photo credit: USAF

Have the closure process planned before you reach the end. Know who will validate the project or end result, who receives the output of the project so that it can become operational (because most projects become part of the business), how those transitions will take place, and finally how lessons learned and results will be discussed. If you’ve set a clear objective, you should know when you’ve hit it and can have a final conversation to signify closure. This discussion is a time to bring up lessons learned, celebrate successes, and take down action items of things to do differently in the future.



Steve Brook, president of Atainium, is an accidental project manager who initially assumed the role through his leadership ability. He’s now a certified professional project management and consultant. His early trials and experience with bank merger-acquisition, Y2K ERP-upgrade, and later dot-com projects inspired him to develop a way to speed up the learning curve for new project management professionals. Through thoughtful university-level instruction and client-tailored workshops, his goal is to bridge the gap between entry-level experience and 15-years of hard-won practice.

Steve is an adjunct professor at Portland State University and has conducted hands-on workshops for clients, such a Linear Technology, PGE, and the Oregon Food Bank. He’s offering this curriculum for the first time to a broader audience with a two-day Effective Frameworks Accidental Project Manager workshop held November 10 and 17, 2017.