From Solar Cars to Web Apps: 3 Project Management Tips to Take to the Bank

By: | February 22nd, 2014

Working on solar cars and web apps might seem like unrelated endeavors.  Not so.

In college, I spent four years working on the University of Michigan Solar Car Team, which designed, built and raced a solar electric vehicle. Now I’m a Project Manager at software company ExtensionEngine, building web and mobile applications for innovative companies.  Looking back on my time in both roles made me realize that there are three critical steps that drive project management success – regardless of what’s being built:

1.  Stick your nose in a book

Managing a successful project requires a vast array of knowledge.  You have to understand leadership, scheduling, budgeting, execution and communication.  No one is perfect, so chances are that you lack knowledge in at least one of these areas.

Reading is one of the fastest ways to get over the learning curve. I’m not talking about staying on top of new technologies or trends, but entrenching yourself in the softer skills of management.  So set a goal to finish one management book a month. Amazon serves up good lists based on keywords and the NY Times book review covers management books too.

With e-books, getting your hands on books is easier than ever today.  With a click of a button you can have a book delivered to your iPad, cell phone or computer.

Don’t like to read? Get audio books at

2.  Explain the big picture

Projects are typically managed according to what is called the “Iron Triangle”:  Scope, Schedule and Budget.  But, this triangle doesn’t account for a critical vector:  Why?

The “Why” of the project connects the Iron Triangle and gives it meaning.  It is easy to assign tasks with due dates to your team, but it is nearly useless if they do not understand the reasoning behind them.  This is especially true if you are working with team members across the globe, given the ease for miscommunications.

For example, I’m working with a development team in Croatia to deliver a project with an extremely tight turnaround.  Taking 30 minutes to explain how the team’s tasks fit into the bigger picture and giving them the logic behind my decision making has saved us hours of miscommunication and rework.

3.  Manage expectations – early and often

On any project, you’re dealing with multiple stakeholders – team members, clients, management – all with different motivations and goals.  Managing all of their expectations is a huge part of the job. You must communicate up front what is realistic – and remind stakeholders again and again as the project unfolds.  After all, a project’s ultimate success or failure is determined by comparing the results to the expectations.

And don’t forget the old adage:  it’s much better to under promise and over deliver than to over-promise and under deliver.

This is my list what other project management tips would you add?


Chris Hilger

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