22 February, 2021

New Project? What are Your Big 7 Project Management Priorities?

By Mike Clayton

22 February, 2021

Big Levers, Brilliant Project Leader, priorities, split project manager

Let’s say you have just been tasked with starting up – or perhaps taking over – a new project. You have a day to read up about it, to think, and to prepare yourself, before traveling to where the project is. Towards the end of the day, you sit down and make a list of your top Project Management priorities. What’s on that list?

This actually happened to me, as I prepared to travel out of the UK to manage the toughest project of my career. The project had been going for a while and had some challenges. I had spent some time talking to a fair number of people, so I understood the challenges. What I needed to do was figure out what my priorities would be, from Day 1.

This can happen to you too. Indeed, if you are applying for a Project Management job, this is the sort of thing you can easily be asked at interview.

Taking Control

The needs of every project will be the different. But one thing will be the same: the need to get control of a complex situation.

The needs of every #project are the different. But one thing is the same: the need to get control of a complex situation. Click To Tweet

I still have a set of 16 index cards, on which I wrote my top priorities then. Some of these addressed specific problems with that project. Others were not as high on my priority list. The remainder represent some of the common Project Management priorities that will arise time and time again. All of those are, in one way or another, connected to taking control of the project.

The One Thing…

The One Thing a Project Manager Craves, above all else, is Control

I have said many times that the one thing a Project Manager craves, above all else, is control.

The one thing a #Project Manager craves, above all else, is control Click To Tweet

So it does not matter whether you are starting a new project or taking over an existing one. Your Project Management priorities are all about creating control.

The Project Control Paradox

Project Control may be a crucial part of our discipline as Project Managers. But it does carry within it a paradox…

Seven Project Management Priorities

New Project? What are Your Big 7 Project Management Priorities?

I was stepping into a live project that was slipping badly. So, control was crucially important. If, like for me, your predecessor had failed to create that controlled environment, what do you most need to take control of?

Distilling my experience from many projects, and reflecting on two, in particular, where I had to quickly take control of a messy situation, here are my own seven top Project Management Priorities.


I have arranged these seven Project Management priorities in a specific order. This sequence is not an order of priority. Nor is it the sequence you should do things in.

To me, this order starts with the most fundamental items and moves towards the most sophisticated. All will make a difference, and you need to work on them all. But, if you don’t have the earlier ones in place, then the later ones will not be enough to give you control.

1. Team Wellbeing

Your team will deliver your project. So the first of your Project Management priorities must be to create the conditions in which they can do so as easily as possible, and with the minimum distraction, frustration, and hindrance.

Invest in ways to make their lives as easy as possible, by giving them the tools to do their job well. On a large project, set up a team administration function that can lift some of the logistical and admin burdens from team members that will allow them to focus on their work.

Once you have the dull but crucial basics out of the way, it’s time to properly get to know each of your team members. I cover this a lot, in my book ‘Brilliant Project Leader’.

Unless you know people well, you cannot allocate them to the best possible roles, and you can’t optimize your approach to motivating them. Once you start to build relationships and allocate roles (of confirm/restructure in the case of taking over a project), you can also work on things like team meetings and routines, team communication, and the low-key social activities that can do so much to boost morale and team cohesion.

2. Governance and Decision Structures

Projects don’t exist in a vacuum. They sit within a corporate, political, social world. Someone wants your project and you will be spending other people’s money and hazarding their reputations to get it. This means that you need to be properly accountable. If there are not already robust structures and processes in place to ensure this, start work to sort them out.

On the face of it, oversight and decision-makers sitting above you will remove some of your control. What is important, though, is that your project is under control. And decision-makers with the right authority will support you in doing this.

Arguably, of all your Project Management priorities, this is the least glamorous and feels like it contributes the least to progress. What it does do, is create the superstructure to help you enforce the control you need. Without good project governance, no progress you make will be secure.

3. Progress Tracking

Where are we now? This is a question you ought to be asking yourself constantly. And therefore, you need the processes and systems to answer that question quickly and reliably.

It starts with knowing what indicator you will rely on. This will be different for each project. At its simplest, you may be focusing on the delivery of project products. But even then, you will probably need something more subtle than either ‘not done’ or ‘done’.

Milestones are the same. They are simple, but if you don’t know how close you are to achieving the next one, you don’t really know your state of progress.

Tracking task completion is a level more sophisticated. But you may also need to track resource deployment, usage of consumables, or expenditure against budget. What tools will you use to do this? These can be anything from simple milestone charts and histograms to more sophisticated approaches, like Earned Value Analysis (EVA).

4. Reporting and Issue Management

One of the reasons why progress tracking will be one of your Project Management priorities is that people will be asking you questions. So another of your priorities will be to set up reporting procedures.

For a larger project, this can be a substantial workstream you will need to think about:

  • Data gathering and collation
  • Data analysis and sense making
  • Drawing and articulating conclusions
  • Report creation and data presentation
  • Report dissemination

This process can take anything from a few hours to a few days, and from one part-time person to a small team. And it may happen anything from monthly to weekly. You may even sometimes need to produce daily flash reports summarizing today’s progress and issues.

Another of the reasons we need good reporting is because of its intimate relationship with your issue management process. Another of your Project Management priorities is to be able to handle issues rapidly and effectively. And a part of this is the need to be able to escalate thorny problems quickly to the right person. And that is part of your reporting process. Not all reports are scheduled, so set up the formal exception reporting process that you will need, to escalate project issues.

5. Communication and Stakeholder Engagement

No project can succeed without good communication with its stakeholders. So, setting up your whole stakeholder engagement management process is another of your Project Management priorities.

No #project can succeed without good communication with its stakeholders. Click To Tweet

Here is not the place to go into the detail of stakeholder engagement. Suffice to say that, as soon as I can, I will always want to find out who my most important stakeholders are and start to get to know them. As a Project Manager, you need to be come adept at relationship building.

Stakeholders will Determine Your Success or Not

Split Project Manager

I do have a concept of a ‘split project manager’ with two PM roles working together: one inward-facing, focusing on the team and the progress they make, and one focusing outwards on the project’s stakeholder community. However, this is an exceptional approach that will not be common and will always be hard to make work well. Your best approach is always to build your capability to manage both aspects.

You can't please all of your stakeholders all of the time

6. Complexity Management

On a small, simple project, a good Project Manager can hold everything in their head. You may need to supplement (or back this up) with good notes in your day book. Let’s set aside the key person risk that creates!

But, as your projects gets larger, this cannot be sustainable. Not only will there be many more people wanting access to the facts, but it will become harder for you to manage them. It’s time for some systems.

It may not seem like an attractive or energizing part of your role. But for larger projects, one of your Project Management priorities must be to set up the infrastructure you need to track, control, and record: 

  • deliverables
  • documentation
  • versions
  • configurations
  • change requests
  • time utilization
  • expenses
  • and anything else

7. The Big Lever

What is the one thing that can have biggest impact on the success of your project?

I don’t know the answer, by the way.

It will be different for different projects.

Finally, the last of my seven Project Management priorities is to find that one ‘Big Lever’ for your project… so you can prioritize it. Let me give you some examples from my project experience:

  1. One of my projects was driven by a hard deadline, with the absolute need to create a vast number of ‘product packages’ and get them in place by that deadline.
    …My Big Lever was tracking the status of each product using a Kanban-like approach.
  2. One of my projects was highly planned, with a dedicated and skilled project team, doing something new and uncertain. I concluded early on that the biggest threat to delivery was the huge number of risks we had identified. So my focus was on daily risk management meetings.
    …Whilst colleagues tracked progress, I vigorously worked the Big Lever of active risk management.
  3. A third example saw me managing a vast team that needed to collaborate on a huge set of overlapping tasks.
    …My Big Lever there was tracking who was doing what on a daily basis. We planned the daily activities of a team of 80 people across a 65 day period, and monitored this actively.

Your Big Lever may be different:

  • stakeholder engagement
  • quality of deliverables
  • schedule compliance
  • control of scope and functionality
  • budget monitoring
  • process compliance…  

My list could go on, but those also examples of Big Levers from my own Project Management history.

What is important, is that you take the time to figure out what your Big Level is. Because this is the one thing that will, day-to-day, dominate your own list of Project Management Priorities.

What are Your Top Project Mangement Priorities?

My seven project management priorities are nothing more than a considered point of view. So what is your point of view? Which of my priorities do you agree with, and what would you add? If you had to stick to seven, which would you remove?

Let me know in the comments below and I will respond to every contribution.

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Mike Clayton

About the Author...

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 ProjectManager.com 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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