16 January, 2023

What’s the Secret Sauce to Make Yours a Brilliant Project?

By Mike Clayton

Projects make change happen. And they create things and add value to our organizations. In a very real sense, the outcome of your project dictates the future of your organization. So maybe running a good project is not enough. I want to focus on some of the things that will make a merely good project into a brilliant project experience.

What We’ll Look at

In this article, we’ll consider:

Why Should You Want to Run a Brilliant Project?

What's the Secret Sauce to Make Yours a Brilliant Project?

In a very real sense, you can create a simple equation:

My career = My projects

What this says is that the sum total of everything you look back on at the end of your career will be a series of projects. This is equally true if you are not a full-time project manager. In today’s workplace, most managers will be involved in a series of projects too.

So, what will you want to look back on? Will it be a bunch of ‘okay’ projects? Or would you rather reflect on one brilliant project after another?

Think about it… Looking back, what will constitute success?

I don’t think it will be simply doing a good job. I think you will see a brilliant project wherever you have created worthwhile change, and done something other people truly value. It will be linked far more to the way you and the people around you – your team and stakeholders – feel, than to what you actually did. It’s as much about how you delivered the project as it is about what you delivered.

You need to deliver your projects with style!

Every Project can be a Brilliant Project

If brilliant project management is about style and feeling, then any project can be a brilliant project. It’s a result of the passion and commitment you bring, and the way you motivate and support your team.

Never underestimate the impact of your emotional state on the team around you. People look up to the people who lead them. And, as a result, they take a lot of their emotional cues from you. If you are positive, enthusiastic, and confident, that will rub off. So too will pessimism, frustration, or bitterness.

The key to brilliant project management is therefore excellent project leadership. You need to ask:

‘how can I make my project inspirational, exciting, fun, …’

14 Approaches to Creating a Brilliant Project

Here is my list of approaches you can take to make your project a brilliant project. At the bottom, you’ll be able to download a checklist.

Craft a Carefully Researched Goal

There is little worse in the project world than delivering a great product only to find it is not the right product. So a brilliant project starts by carefully researching the needs and wants of your stakeholders, to specify the right outcome at the right cost-value balance point.

The more you can involve your team, the more commitment they will feel to your project’s goal. And, whilst a lot of the writing you will do in creating your project documentation will be solid, clear, and business-like, this should not be the case for your goal.

Take time to craft the language you use to express your project goal. Make it easy to understand, and as powerful, compelling, and inspiring as you can. Remember, your goal will be the answer to the question:

‘what’s your project about?’

Craft you #project goal. It's the answer to 'what's your project about?' Click To Tweet

There is more about how to define your project in this article about creating a clear project brief.

When you are researching your project goal, always test it against the question ‘Why?’ Not only is a strong reason essential to justify your organization’s investment; but the answer to ‘why’ will hold within it the most fundamental key to motivating your team members and your stakeholders. 

Your project must matter. It must create worthwhile change. So think about how your project will help people. When you articulate your goal, you must also answer the question:

‘for what purpose?

A brilliant #project goal must answer the question: 'for what purpose?' Click To Tweet

Create a Buzz around Your Project

Generate a sense of excitement about your project by involving stakeholders wherever you can. And publicize key project successes along the way. Focus publicity communications on stories about the teams and team members who have contributed to them. This will increase readership because people like to read about themselves and they like to show stories about themselves to their friends and families.

And it will also boost morale, because people like to see that they are being recognized. So, create a buzz, by promoting your project shamelessly, articulating a compelling vision, and getting people talking about your project. Be creative about the media you use to do this. There is so much available, as long as you respect confidentiality where necessary. When people see publicity about successes, it can enhance the sense that yours is a brilliant project.

Bring Rigor to Your Planning and Estimating

Most people see careful planning and estimating as a worthy, but dull, discipline. I don’t. When you apply rigor to your planning and estimating process, you will increase the levels of confidence among your team and stakeholders. And when you engage them in testing the initial plans, you engage their commitment too.

And, of course, the more rigor you apply, the greater the likelihood that your out-turn will fall within your error margins. This will allow you to deliver on budget, on target, and on time. Not only is this a good thing in itself, but if you don’t have to work so hard on keeping to budget and schedule during delivery, you will have more time to devote to making your project exceptional and building a brilliant project culture.

Build in Planned Successes

Plan into your project the sort of successes that will motivate team members and stakeholders. Build prototypes that people can play with and test out. This excites and energizes people, as well as being the foundation for valuable learning. Likewise, pilot projects and other tests can set you up to learn, and to fail quickly and safely. Any time you set up a form of test, the outcome is always, by definition, success. The objective of tests, pilots, and prototypes is learning.

And don’t forget to build in plenty of milestones. Then use them as reasons to celebrate as your project progresses. Success motivates your supporters and counters your critics. And of course, success creates momentum and the sense that yours is a brilliant project.

Work Hard to Generate Team Spirit, an Esprit de Corps

Foster a great spirit among your project team. Instill a sense of pride in what they are doing, a desire to work collaboratively and help one another, and mutual respect that leads to openness and shared responsibility. To do this, build a team that will do justice to your brilliant project.

And for this, you must pay attention to the four essentials of a project team:

  1. Each individual
  2. The team as a whole
  3. Your purpose and plan
  4. How you encourage great communication

Do You Have Total Engagement?

Would your team pass the $2,000 dollar test? Partway through their induction and training, Zappos offers new recruits $2,000 to quit. The fact that 97% stay is a tribute to the engagement and commitment the business can create. I’m not suggesting you put $2,000 at stake, but if you were to offer team members a transfer to any other project, would they accept it? Or would they prefer to stay with yours? If they prefer to stay, then you on your way to a brilliant project.

Are You Acting like a Brilliant Project Leader?

A great leader will not take credit for a brilliant project. But without a doubt, no project can be great unless it is well-led. Inspire and engage your team and pay attention to their needs for individual attention, a clear plan, a sense of team belonging, and first-class communication. There is more on what it takes to be a brilliant project leader, in my book… Brilliant Project Leader.

Brilliant Project Leader by Mike Clayton

And do you display Confidence, Generosity, and Integrity?

As a project leader, your attitude can easily dictate the culture of your project, flipping it from good to great or from great to grim, in the blink of an eye. Choose your attitudes with care and watch them infect your team colleagues. Here are some examples of brilliant attitudes for a project leader to display:

  • Smiling, confident, optimistic,
  • Calm, resilient, and undaunted by setbacks
  • Focused on outcomes and progress, rather than blame
  • Collaborative, generous, supportive
  • Curious, imaginative, and observant
  • Giving people the opportunity to succeed and shine, develop and grow
  • Courageous, passionate, and energetic
  • Values-led decision-making, and 100% integrity

Foster Innovation and Creativity on Your Project

One of the things people most enjoy about project work is the opportunity to innovate and think creatively. Despite the risk and additional cost, actively encourage this. And then teach team members how to properly evaluate their ideas. Remember that, in your role as a manager, it is not to stop people from making mistakes and failing. It is to ensure that they don’t make the wrong mistakes; and that the ones they do make are constructive opportunities to learn.

If you think that sounds strange, ask yourself this: ‘what have been the times you have learned the most?’ I’m prepared to bet that some of your answers refer back to mistakes you made.

We learn more from mistakes. Are you giving your #project team enough chances to fail? Click To Tweet

Cultivate Easy Adaptability to Change

Project plans are great, but the universe won’t respect them.

#Project plans are great, but the universe won't respect them. Click To Tweet

If you build into your plans the chance to innovate, you may choose to change them yourself. So adopt processes that allow managed and controlled change, which can be evaluated robustly and accountably, before it is adopted. Flexibility is the only rational response to the reality of projects. The reason we build plans is so we know when we need to adapt!

Make time for Frequent Feedback and Reflection

A truly brilliant project is one where everyone comes away feeling they are better people than before. Projects should be a chance to learn, develop and strengthen your professional resumé. Giving and receiving feedback, and allowing time for group and individual reflection is the best way to ensure that everyone learns from your project and can take that learning forward.

The chance to learn one last time, at the end of your project, is your last chance to make your project truly brilliant. Don’t do a lessons-learned review to create paperwork – no matter how valuable that may be in your organization. It’s just an added benefit. The value of the lessons learned review is the reflection time for the people concerned. The way we develop from smart people who know the basics, to wise professionals with good judgment, is by considering the choices we made, the actions we took, and the consequences that followed.

Foster Excellent Communication among Your Team and with Your Stakeholders

I doubt I’d be the first project manager to assert the primacy of good communication as a project discipline. But it is hard to over-stress this. Create a culture among your team members that encourages them to communicate well with one another and to take responsibility for it. Ideally, everyone will want to take care of each other, and disputes and conflicts will get resolved within the team quickly, before they escalate.

Encourage this to spin out into the way your team communicates with other stakeholders. The better informed your stakeholders feel, the less resistance you will get. And the resistance you do need to deal with will be more focused on the facts, and less based on fears, misperceptions, or simply frustration.

Tom Peters’ criteria for Wow!

It is worth acknowledging Tom Peters’ concept of a Wow! Project. He wrote about it in his 1999 book, The Project 50. In this, his version of a brilliant project is one that is beautiful, impactful, revolutionary, and has raving fans. It is one that makes people say ‘Wow!’

Celebrate success

My final behavior that will allow you, as project leader, to create a brilliant project is this… Cheer each other on. Acknowledge, reward, and celebrate every success. Catch people doing things well or inventing something new. Use Eureka moments, project delivery, and milestones as your excuses to recognize contributions, and celebrate success. Brilliant projects are fun, so take opportunities to lighten the mood and enjoy your work, every day. And, when your project comes to an end, don’t let it fizzle out. Use the end of your project as one last chance to celebrate your collective achievement, so your team can go to their next projects with a sense of confidence that will raise their performance even higher, and lead to even more success.

The real mark of a brilliant project is the legacy it leaves behind. And a brilliant project team, who go on to create and deliver their own brilliant projects is a real tangible legacy you can be proud of. When I look at some of the people who worked on my project teams, I see my own lasting legacy. And I am far more proud of them than I am of anything I have ever achieved myself.

What are Your Tips for Making a Project into a Brilliant Project?

Please do share your tips below. I’m keen to see them and will respond to every comment.

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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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