Big projects require big thinking, says Kathleen Drum
In my career I have been fortunate enough to work on three major projects: the London 2012 Olympic Games electrical infrastructure, the London 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony and Crossrail, a new railway for London. I’ve come to realise that although they seem very different, successful projects share similar characteristics which you can adapt to your own work.
What is a Project?
- it has a beginning
- it has an end
- it is temporary
- it is unique
- it is not part of business as usual
As PAs, we undertake projects every day – the office Christmas Party, a management away day, a travel itinerary – can be classified as projects using the above definition. Note that “unique” doesn’t mean “only once”. For example, organising the office Christmas Party happens every year, but each party is unique. In the same vein, “temporary” doesn’t necessarily mean “short term”. When I worked on the electrical infrastructure project for the London 2012 Olympic Games, that temporary project lasted six years! It is also important to note that although the project itself isn’t part of business as usual, the finished product (eg electrical infrastructure) often is, and the end of the project often coincides with the product being subsumed into the everyday business.
So, now we know what a project is, how can we bring that mindset into our working day?
- Begin with the end in mind
Or, in other words – have a plan! What is the ultimate end goal of the project? On big projects this is fairly simple to ascertain – complete the infrastructure for the Olympic Games before the opening date; build a new railway for London on time and within budget – but for smaller projects it can take some expert questioning to get to the heart of the matter.
Let’s take the example of organising a meeting with a number of people across departments. Is the purpose to make a decision or impart information? What does the outcome look like? Eg the purpose of the meeting is to review presentations from Departments X and Y regarding new products in development. The outcome is taking two products forward to Phase 2. Working backward from the outcome (“the end”) can then inform who needs to present, who needs to attend, how long the meeting will take and even where it should be held. Asking the right questions at the beginning can save a lot of grief at the end.
- Create a team culture
On some projects you will be flying solo, but on others you will be part of, or in charge of, a project team. When you are working with people from different backgrounds and who have different motivations and aspirations it is important to create a shared identity. Human beings are hardwired to form groups but we need to start from the same platform and align our personal goals to the project goals.
On both the London 2012 Olympic Games and Crossrail this has been achieved in a variety of different ways – logos, badges, uniforms, internal websites and publications, opportunities to participate in site visits or celebratory events – all manifestations of values statements that are acted upon and rewarded. This constant reinforcement of the team ethos keeps it uppermost in everyone’s minds and also creates a framework where behaviours that don’t complement the goals can be challenged safely and corrected accordingly.
- Get the fundamentals right
Do you have the right resources to complete the project on time and within budget? For example, when booking an external meeting room have you considered what equipment is included or not included in the price? Will you need flipcharts, pens, paper, laptops or other presentation equipment? Do any attendees have mobility issues? Even simple things like food preferences and dietary requirements can be forgotten if they are not specifically mentioned. The more items you can provide for at the beginning of the project, the better off you will be in the long term. It is always easier to scale back an event and reduce the budget, than it is to try and increase a budget to include something that has been forgotten.
- Practice, practice, practice
All major projects have at least one full run-through before commencement, installation or opening. Even the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games had two full dress rehearsals, with audiences, in the Olympic Stadium, prior to the actual live event. On smaller projects, this full rehearsal may not be possible, but, in the case of a meeting or full day conference, at the very least a site visit of the venue, with a mental walk through of the day from start to finish, can help. As an assistant, you may not always be there on the ground on the day, but everyone will still look to you for the answers. The more knowledgeable and confident you are about the project and the plan, the more reassurance you can provide to the attendees and your executive.
- Make it easy
Make information available to everyone involved in your project. If it’s a meeting, conference or product launch, set out your expectations clearly, and do whatever preparation you can in advance. Provide location maps, a detailed itinerary, and briefing notes – whatever it takes. I have an “off-site meeting kit” that I use when hosting meetings in an unfamiliar environment. This is a small backpack that includes pens, pencils, highlighters, whiteboard pens, staplers, staples, batteries, post-it notes, Sellotape, scissors, Blu-tack, paperclips, phone charger and anything else I can think of! I spend some time before the event re-stocking and adding as necessary; on the day I am prepared for most requests from most people. Yes, an external venue will provide you with a lot of these items but it saves you time and anxiety if you have these things to hand.
- Build in contingencies
Even the best-laid project plans can be derailed by external factors. Do you have a back-up plan for any transport issues? Strikes, traffic jams and weather can all play havoc with an itinerary. What if a speaker falls ill or is unable to attend at the last minute? Even less dramatic, but no less vexing – how will you recover timings if one speaker goes over the allotted time? Building in extra breaks and having options, will allow you to move from panic to poise very quickly.
- Fail fast
Mistakes do happen, but the key is to acknowledge the problem and communicate the solution as quickly as possible. Give yourself time to find a solution or ask for help – you may have an expert in the room just itching to help out, but not wanting to step on your toes. Your attitude and ability to solve the problem will be remembered more than the problem itself.
Communication is the key ingredient in a successful project – both the frequency and the clarity of your messages are important. On large scale projects external websites, Twitter, Facebook, written publications, press releases and community events communicate the key messages to stakeholders and other interested parties. Whilst those tools may not be appropriate for your project it is still essential to agree a communication plan and frequency with your executive and stick to it. Too little information makes people anxious, too much information and they feel overwhelmed.
On a long project it is important to celebrate milestones along the way – it is easy to lose sight of the big picture within the day-to-day push to get the work done. During the construction of the London 2012 infrastructure we celebrated 3 years / 2 years / 1 year to go before the Opening Ceremony; on Crossrail we have recently celebrated “The Great East West Breakthrough” – the completion of tunnelling under London. These occasions were marked with events for staff and stakeholders, and press conferences to announce the milestones to a wider audience. Celebrating a milestone doesn’t need to be a big event; it can be as simple as a team lunch together – anything that lets you step away from the work and look at how far you’ve come.
- Embrace the new
Working on a project that is not part of “business as usual” gives you the opportunity to test-drive new technologies and methods of working. For example, Microsoft One Note (free to download), is a good way to share and store documents; if you don’t use it in your business, your project might provide a great testing ground – and provide you with some valuable new skills at the same time! You may also be able to experiment with remote working (working from home), video conferencing or using social media.
- Leave a legacy
No matter how big or small the project, it is important to share knowledge and lessons learned. If you organise the office Christmas Party every year, keep a file with things that worked well (or not so well). Lessons can be learned from the positive and well run aspects of a project, as well as from the negative. Keeping good notes from previous projects also means that you can hand that project on to someone else if need be.
- Have fun
No explanation required!