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5 Secrets of Successful Project Management

By 03/10/2017 July 20th, 2021 4 Comments

A professional in any industry will tell you that there is no specific recipe for success. Whether you’re a teacher, doctor, lawyer, or work in retail or finance, there may be a bunch of formal processes and guidelines to adhere to, but the best of the best in any field tend to have a few methods and rules of their own. Project Management, of course, is no different. There are certain things most PMs tend to learn early on, like planning, allocation, and budgeting, but over time, you may discover your own methods and approaches to tasks large and small.

Here are five little “secrets” of successful project management I’ve relied on over the years – because the best kind of secrets are the ones you can’t help but share!

5 Secrets of Successful Project Management

#1 Set Reasonable Expectations, and Over-Deliver Occasionally

When I first started out working in agencies, I heard the following trope over and over again: “Under-promise and over-deliver.” This common platitude makes a lot of sense, pragmatically – the idea is that if you only commit to the bare minimum of deliverables as compared to time/staff/budget, the odds are better that you will deliver on everything required and perhaps even have extra resources leftover to allocate to “over-delivering” in some way, (in other words, giving the client more than they’ve asked for.) Over-delivering on a project is great. It pleases clients and stakeholders, and it’s great for team morale. Who doesn’t like wrapping up a project knowing they went above and beyond yet still stayed within the project scope?

However, I think it’s a bit dangerous to get into the habit of UP/OD on every project. First of all, setting low expectations might be a strategic move on certain projects when you really need to ensure 100% success and remain conservative with your resources, but in general, after a while, this sort of “under-promising” can warp a PM’s, team’s, and client’s perspective on what the work actually requires. I find it a better practice to always estimate resources accurately, and set reasonable (not high and not low) expectations. It might mean you have more projects that get close to creeping out of scope, but this is the only way you will truly get better at estimating and managing your projects and teams, and become skilled at handling scope creep when it arises.

As for over-delivering, I like to think of this practice as a special, once-in-a-while occurrence. I love my clients and I want them to be thrilled when we wrap up a project together. I want them to come back to me for more projects and refer me to other clients! The thing is – if you constantly over deliver, not only are you training your clients to expect more than what they are paying for, but they might become used to it and feel slighted if, at some point, you aren’t able to over-deliver on a project. This actually happened to me somewhat recently! A long term client for whom my team was always over-delivering (because we really liked the client and the projects) got a bit annoyed when we weren’t able to throw in anything “extra” on a particular project. And while they were not owed that little bit of extra work, I can see how they had become so used to it that it seemed cold when we couldn’t over-deliver.

Again, my secret to keep everyone happy and stay at the top of your game is to, whenever possible, set 100% accurate and reasonable estimates and expectations, and deliver your projects fully, perhaps over-delivering once in awhile, when it seems natural for the project and relationship.

Successful project management set reasonable expectations

Neither high nor low. Set a reasonable expectation

#2 Get to Know the Team

Every project has 1 thing in common: people. Clients, managers, makers, users, vendors, and many other players are at the heart of what we do. Whether your project team has 2 people or 200, it’s always the people that make a project succeed or fail, and that’s why I happen to think this little secret is the most important of the bunch.

Get to know the individual players on the project team as best you can. Do a little research if you have to. Is the client well-versed in the technology and process or will they need things broken down in lay terms? What program does your designer prefer to work in? How often does your programmer like to have check-ins? Not every project can be tailored to meet every participant’s individual needs, but the more you know about the team going in, the more informed and prepared you will be throughout the life of the project, and the better prepared you’ll be to envision how different team members may interact and work together.

Successful project management - get to know your team

Once you got to know your team, you are one set closer to make your project successful

Getting to know your team is also integral to this next secret, which is also highly important:

#3 Put the Right People in the Right Roles

There are many different ways in which individuals get staffed on certain projects. Sometimes it’s just a question of skills and availability. Sometimes you don’t really have a choice. But if and when you do have some say in putting together project teams, knowing your candidates will come in extremely handy – a huge factor in project success is involving the right people and giving them the right roles.

A seasoned PM should be able to identify the right mix of team members for a particular project before the project begins. What kinds of personalities and skillsets do you need on the team in order for the project to succeed? Is this a quick turnaround, lower budget project that is going to require your most-skilled, fastest makers and doers, or is this a longer-term, less frantic project that might be a good learning experience for junior staff? Is this a good opportunity for a highly creative team member who hates doing what’s already been done and is inclined to experiment with new ideas, or do you know that this client is very particular about what they want and do you therefore need someone who is excellent at taking directions? Everyone is different, and that is one of the most wonderful things about working in creative digital services – it’s your job as the PM to make sure that you are putting the right people on the right projects in order to maximize efficiency, get the best work out of your teams, and keep your staff engaged and motivated.


#4 Not Everyone Needs to Know Everything

Honesty is the best policy. This is something that I believe in 100%. I also believe in full transparency – I do not hide anything from my teams or managers and make it very clear to all project stakeholders that they can come to me for information or insights at any time. That being said, one of my little Project Management secrets is that not everyone needs to know everything all the time.

There are many ways in which information is shared with team members and clients over the course of a project. For the most part, I share information with management and team members throughout the week in a series of small breakout meetings for each project, and one all-hands staff meeting at the beginning of the week. This agency-wide meeting is pretty general, checking in on the overall health of each project and addressing major concerns, but we reserve more granular details for the break-out meetings. Even more dialed-in than that, I will frequently have one-on-one meetings or conversations with team members in order to focus on just their portion of a project, and frequently we don’t involve other team members.

The goal of this “need to know” model of information dispersal isn’t to hide things or keep team members in the dark, but rather, I think that only burdening people with the information that is relevant to their workflow, the “news you can use,” helps people stay focused and limits confusion. The less information each team member has to keep track of and feel responsible for, the less cluttered their brains will be which gives people more energy to dedicate to making great work.

For example: if one designer is working on a brochure design and one designer is working on a website design, I might encourage them to check in on each other’s’ work to ensure cohesive style and tone, but wouldn’t insist that the print designer sit in on web design feedback calls or that the web designer know what kind of paper the brochure is being printed on. As far as I am concerned, it’s my responsibility as the PM to make sure everyone has all the information they need to succeed, and to facilitate communication across teams as necessary, but also to protect people from brain-drain and information overload.

Of course, I make it very clear to my project teams at multiple points throughout the project lifespan that nothing is ever being purposefully kept from them, and if anyone has any questions at any time or needs help filling in any blanks, all they have to do is ask.

Successful project management needs know everything

Provide all the information your teams need. But do not overload them.

#5 Pad Deadlines

Ok, remember in # 4 when I said honesty is the best policy? Well – I meant it – except when it comes to one particular situation. I have met PMs who do this on the regular, and some who are totally scandalized when I tell them about my practice of padding deadlines. It might not be for you, but personally, I think it’s a lifesaver. So, what do I mean when I say “padding deadlines”?

Essentially, when a project kicks off, if possible, I set the internal deadline to be a couple days or even weeks before the client’s deadline. Of course there will be many instances where you need as much time as possible, but I find that getting the team to focus on a deadline that is a bit earlier than the actual deadline means that people will be less likely to put things off until the last minute (because they literally don’t know when the last minute is) and there is a far less likely chance that you will run into overtime and end up blowing a deadline. (If the project ends up needing some overtime, you have already built that time into the schedule!)

Frequently, what ends up happening is that when I check in with the team right before the internal (padded) deadline, depending on how we’re doing, I may reveal that there are a few extra days to fine-tune the work and get it to the client. Sometimes I’m nervous that my team will think I’m diabolical for tricking them, but most of the time I find that everyone is relieved to have a bit of breathing room before shipping the final version of the project out into the world.

Successful project management pad deadlines

That’s not the exact deadline, but shhh. They don’t need to know.

What Do You Think?

So how about you? Do you have any dirty little PM secrets of your own? Would you ever pad deadlines? Let me know in the comments!

Joanna Leigh Simon

Joanna Leigh Simon

Joanna Leigh Simon is a producer at The Heads of State, a design and branding studio in Philadelphia, PA. Working in small, busy agencies for the past 7 years, she has delivered hundreds of projects across various media including websites, videos and films, advertising, branding, and graphic design. A Jane of all trades and a master of some, Joanna's roles shift daily from pure project management and traffic monitoring to client services, strategy, copywriting, vendor acquisition, business development, and process implementation. Some clients include Johnson & Johnson, The Greater Philadelphia Tourism & Marketing Corporation (GPTMC), Interboro Spirits & Ales, New Balance, Conan on TBS, and Penguin Books.


  • image Sacha Holmes says:

    Under-promise and over-deliver, maintain team motivation even when things don’t go plan, find your talented ‘hidden’ resources, maintain project visibility with shared social spaces and don’t have deadlines too far in the future

    • image Joanna Leigh Simon says:

      Yes to all of this! (Although you know how I feel about the first one, ha!) Especially love the idea of “maintaining project visibility.” I need to incorporate that! -JLS

  • image Mugdha says:

    This is a very helpful article for less experienced PM’s. Especially points 4 and 5 are very useful.

    • image Joanna Leigh Simon says:

      Glad to hear it, Mugdha! As someone new to the world of project management is there anything else in particular you’d like to see posts/articles about?

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