Efficiently managing projects is one of the most important leadership skills an engineer can learn. That’s according to the IEEE-USA e-book Project Management, written by Harry T. Roman, an IEEE life senior member. He gives basic, practical advice on what it takes to lead a project and how to build a team, and he lays out pitfalls to avoid. The e-book costs US $3.99, but IEEE members can buy it for $1.99.
Engineers who can develop new plans for critical products and services, improve internal processes, develop technologies, and then manage and lead others to make those things happen are never going to fear unemployment, he writes. “They are going to have a great time working on interesting, innovative, and sometimes groundbreaking projects,” he adds.
Now retired, Roman spent more than 30 years as project manager for the R&D group of Public Service Electric and Gas Co. in Newark, N.J. For 10 years he taught courses in R&D project management as an adjunct graduate faculty member at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, also in Newark.
PATH TO SUCCESS
The first steps are to identify the problem and then sell your solution to senior management. That might sound easy, but Roman says it is the most difficult part. Make sure the problem is one your company actually wants to solve, that the business can benefit from your plan, and that senior management is likely to support the idea. Your proposal should be achievable in a reasonable amount of time and should coincide with the company’s investment philosophy.
Next, select the team members. Don’t pick your friends—choose colleagues who have the right skills. You’ll need people who can address what Roman calls the project’s hard and soft issues. Hard issues are the technical and economic aspects; soft issues include environmental impact and legal concerns.
As the leader, you’ll need all team members to buy into the project. Ways to sell them on it include showing how the project supports and enhances your company’s operational and strategic goals and explaining how the work can benefit their career.
Make sure the team meets regularly—Roman recommends at least twice per month. Select a time that’s convenient for the majority of the group. Those first meetings should be brainstorming sessions at which members offer suggestions and voice their concerns. Be sure you don’t monopolize the discussions. Keeping negativity out of the meetings is a must, Roman says. Otherwise, comments such as “This will never work” would start to take over.
After about three meetings, start forming a consensus on how to tackle the project. Also define what success means by establishing critical benchmarks that need to be met.
Get the project’s schedule down on paper. Write detailed descriptions of the tasks and hold team members accountable.
During the meetings, have members provide updates on their progress, problems they’ve encountered, decisions made, lessons learned, and what steps they plan to take next. Check if anyone is encountering roadblocks that might hamper the team’s progress, and work to remove those obstacles.
FEEDBACK TO MANAGEMENT
Keep senior management informed of the project’s progress. Roman recommends quarterly updates, either given in person or as brief written reports. Including information about the project’s costs is essential, he says.
For in-person updates, let someone from the team present the work. Don’t take the credit for the team’s accomplishments. “If they are doing the work, let them do the presenting,” he says. “Introduce them as experts in their areas, and then support them when the managers start asking questions.”
After those meetings, share with the entire team any comments made, concerns raised, and questions asked.
The final presentation should include the project’s value to the company, both operationally and strategically, as well as its cost and how and when it can be implemented.
At the end of the project, be sure to acknowledge the team’s hard work with a dinner or a small gift, Roman says. Be sure to ask team members what they liked and disliked about the experience. Such feedback can be valuable in leading future teams.
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