navigation – navɪˈɡeɪʃ(ə)n/ (noun) – the process or activity of accurately ascertaining one’s position and planning and following a route.
One of the hardest parts – perhaps the hardest part – of project management is navigation. Continuous navigation. The project manager is constantly assessing the position and navigating the project through an ever-changing landscape of priorities, deliverables, corporate restructures, stakeholder divergence, and morale black-spots. Any respite is short-lived and quickly forgotten when the next storm hits. The route changes regularly as the landscape changes and, often, the planning process is only able to go a few steps ahead with any kind of accuracy.
The challenge for the project manager is to understand and track all of these moving parts, continually modify the route, keep stakeholders up to date, take everyone with them on the journey, and to do it both calmly and with pace. If you thought that the project manager simply writes a plan at the beginning and then tracks it, you would be wrong. If you recognise that project managers are constantly bombarded with new information and have to immediately assess and assimilate, you would be right. It should come as no surprise when, in a project with hundreds or thousands of moving parts, the project manager cannot immediately articulate every impact of the information they only found out 3 minutes ago.
While it is important to recognise the nature of the environments we operate in, it is more important to develop ways of operating successfully within them. A good project manager can navigate successfully given sufficient time to do it, but the luxury of time is rarely afforded. Navigating within the time available, and with the responsiveness expected, is what matters.
Intellectual flexibility is important – you need to juggle a lot of things in your head and be comfortable with constant change – but the ability, and bravery, to take intellectual shortcuts is more important. To stop you running aground use these 6 tips to steer towards calmer seas:
- Looking ahead. Work out how far ahead you can see. Sometimes you can see to the end of the project, sometimes only a few weeks or months ahead. Knowing how far you can see determines how you approach planning, team management, governance, and everything else.
- Recognising pitfalls. You cannot critically assess everything in the landscape so you need to prioritise. You are unlikely to trip over a blade of grass but a large boulder may fall on you. Work out what to spend your time on.
- Knowing your toolkit. Every project manager should have a toolkit of methodologies, processes, templates, techniques, etc. The more tools you have, the quicker you can select the right one, and the better you are at using them, the faster you can operate. Even the simplest job, like finding the right template, can waste an hour if you don’t have it to hand.
- Delegating. If you take everything on yourself then you will quickly be bogged down. Being an effective delegator can save you hours every week.
- Using experience. If you have done something before, or someone you trust has, use that knowledge. That can be anything from “here is a plan I prepared earlier” to “the last 3 times I have run identical projects, this activity has taken 40-45 days”. Don’t go back to first principles when you already have a reasonable estimate.
- Communicating. Navigating depends on information. The project manager must be constantly gathering and sharing information. And everyone on the project should be keeping the project manager up to date.
There is no silver bullet for successful project navigation. Sometimes you receive emails faster than you can read them, your phone doesn’t stop ringing, you spend 8 hours a day in meetings, and there is a seemingly endless merry-go-around of status reports. This is when navigation – and everything that it takes to do it well – is most important.