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Find the Key: What are the Basics?

Oak Sapling

Here is something that has always been one of the most important insights, for me:

“Focus on the basics, do them well, and do them relentlessly.”

The Project Management Elements

I have always applied this rule to project management and, through a series of projects, I have recognised a pattern of behaviour in myself that has allowed me to apply it effectively. Let’s start, though, with something that I speak about, in one way or another, in just about every project management talk I give or course I run: the project management elements. These are the unique “types of stuff” that a project is made of.

All project managers are familiar with these – and, non project managers will recognise them too. Projects consist of tasks, milestones, gateways, resources of various types, funds, risks, issues and so on. Each task, deadline or person is indivisible – the project atoms, if you like.

The Key to Project Success

It struck me in early 2002 when I started training project managers professionally – rather than being one – that in every significant project I had managed, I had done one thing pretty much at the start: I had sat down and thought through which of these elements were key to the success of the project? Which ones would I have to really focus in on if I were to bring the project in successfully? Let me give some examples.

A Focus on Risk

In one project, I had a great team – most were deep experts and the work-stream leads were pre-eminent in their fields. The whole team was committed to the project, able and diligent. They were well managed by their work-stream leaders, who had carefully developed and well-co-ordinated project plans. We had a tight deadline, but the resources to meet it. On the face of it, my job was easy – keep the work-streams together and enjoy our success.

On reflection, I concluded that only one threat dominated our project. This was a highly innovative endeavour and our risk register was bulging.  I focused on that.  At least half my time was spent actively working the risk register: meeting risk owners, chasing up actions, working out new solutions with experts. We came in on schedule.

Co-ordinating a Large Team

Another project was quite different. The task was a familiar one – little innovation needed. My challenge was to keep a large team highly co-ordinated, to deliver a very specific set of highly integrated products (actually a set of formal recommendations) by a firm deadline. I had scheduled a decision-making meeting for all of the top people, 16 weeks ahead, and I was determined not to re-schedule.

Told by one senior colleague that we’d never deliver to deadline, I concluded that the two things I needed to manage tightly were the large number of team members and the precious time we had. Team leaders focused on supporting their teams, daily quality assurance, and flagged risk to me.  I relentlessly reviewed the progress and activities of each team and their respective members with them, day-by-day and sometimes hour-by-hour.


If you were to accuse me of micro-management, you wouldn’t be the first. The judgement we have to make, as project managers, is how close to look at our projects. In this case, with tight deadlines, I chose a magnifying glass.  But we must also choose what to focus on.  Detailed planning and rigorous monitoring of the right things paid off. The meeting started on time and even finished five minutes early.

The “so what?”

Figure out what you need to focus on, build your plans around those few elements, find ways to track their progress closely, pay attention to them relentlessly, don’t be afraid to get into the detail…  if you need to, and don’t take your eye off the big picture while you do.

About the Author Mike Clayton

Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 14 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.

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