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How to Get Started with Project Management

Posted by

Ana Wang

Published on

September 30th 2020

Want to learn how to plan better, be more organized, and move projects along without burning out along the way? Project management is the superpower, the secret sauce and the invisible magic holding up creative work across industries. But you don't have to be a "project manager" at work to reap the benefits for yourself or for how you work in a team. Here are easy ways anyone can get started.

Learning project management as a discipline can mean many things, that you become a more valuable and empathetic team member, that you learn to manage your own creative work more effectively, or it could kickstart a path towards the new blended roles of the rising creative class and the leadership roles it tends to correlate with, many of which actually require project management skills.

None of these outcomes have to do with becoming a “project manager”. That’s because the skills are that transferable, that important and that useful.

Just to give you an idea of what project management skills actually are, when we break them down, on job postings, these are project management “soft”/essential skills:

  • organization
  • leadership
  • agility
  • ability to multitask or work on multiple projects
  • ability to work cross-functionally

And these are the hard/technical ones:

  • project scheduling
  • strategic planning
  • scrum management
  • kanban
  • forecasting
  • budgeting
  • meeting facilitation

If you’re looking closely, these are skills that benefit almost anyone who works on things, whether at work or even personally—that could mean entrepreneurs, freelancers, creative hobbyists too.

No one really talks about this but if you’re good at managing projects and getting things done, you become super valuable especially on creative teams and teams made up of creative people trying to do cool things. I can say this because when I was a manager, these were the people that you could trust to do the work, do it well and push the work forward. When I was on a team, these were also the people I loved working with. They make great leaders and colleagues. You probably can think of some people you know who are like that too.

And, if you’re the creative and can do all the project management stuff, to me that’s this decade’s unicorn, not the design/code savant hybrid. I mean, we pretty much pump out designer slash coders here at SuperHi.

That being said, project management is a great career path for someone who wants to be a part of the creative process and work with creative projects, but doesn’t necessarily have those skills—these people might also become startup operators, product managers, strategists or leads. They enable and empower others to make the creative work. They’re the glue and engine of a team, a leader and a supporter.

So you don’t have to have a specific goal to get started as a “project manager”.

It’s a cross-functional, transferable skill for whatever you do. That’s what I love about it; you don’t have to have your mind made up to try, and you won’t waste your time learning. It’s not something that expires after a season or a year—you take it with you.

Imagine…being able to make projects faster and with less stress!

As an online school, SuperHi’s teaching methodology is rooted in learning through doing and also framing concepts and learning around practical, real-life projects and things you actually want to do.

So here are some pretty universal ways to incorporate PM concepts into whatever you do to help you prioritize, work, and build better:

Life may be a marathon but sprint!

Ever have a project, meeting or day that just felt like it was dragging on forever? And probably actually did?

Or do you ever wonder how some people seem to have so many energy, how they’re so productive and good at getting things done, whereas you’re just dragging your feet from all your half-finished, half-baked ideas?

Enter the sprint.

While life itself may be a marathon, and we’re just jungle-gymming our way around, when it comes to making creative work and getting ideas out of your head and out the door, breaking things up into short, manageable chunks of time with a specific deliverable or outcome within that timeframe, is better for my energy, keeps me focused and accountable, and allows me to produce the things I want to without actually spending more time.

I usually have one personal creative project in progress, and in any given “sprint” (I like 2 weeks), I have just one thing (or group of things, if they’re smaller, related tasks) I’d like to accomplish.

This just takes the concept of breaking big scary projects and goals into smaller bits. The project management piece is managing your timelines and assigning outcomes based on these timelines.

Tip: Whatever your goal or project is, start small! You really can accomplish a lot if you do 10 small things over 10 sprints. And take into account your life too. During COVID-19 lockdown, I could handle a lot more because, well, I had nothing else to do at home after cleaning out my closet twice. But now, back to real life, I’m sticking with the tried and true one small thing every two weeks.

Get Kanban-ing

If you’re here reading this, you just might be a visual thinker. Just a guess. I mean, that’s how we started: teaching code to designers who just wanted to make their projects come to life on the internet.

That makes Kanban a great tool and process for you.

And this is one of the easiest project management skills that you can get started with, without having to do it for work (though you easily could!). You can do this in Notion or Trello or lo-fi with sticky notes on your wall or in a bullet journal.

The idea is to limit the number of the things that you have in your “doing” column at any given time and have a visual system for moving tasks through a project timeline. The most important two principles here are: limit your active tasks (out of sight, out of mind) and use cards to track your progress.

Tip: Notion has a built-in database called “Kanban”. What’s great is that you can have multiple views for one database. So if you want to view your Kanban tasks in a calendar format, and switch back and forth between the two, you can.

By the way, Notion is what we use and teach in the Digital Project Management course, but you can apply the same principles to various tools.

Set the pace and tone of your projects

I’ve seen it time and time again: what causes a lot of stress at work is how much all of us think we have to do, all the time. After having a go at this thing called work a few times, I’ve realized, it doesn’t really stop. When you finish one thing, there’s always the next. That’s the nature of work.

Similarly, we think that once we’ve “made it” and proven ourselves, that maybe things will get easier. Some things do, but the more I know and the more I do, the more responsibility and the more I am given to do. It doesn’t stop.

There’s an important principle to remember here: you as the project manager of your life are responsible for setting the pace and tone of your projects.

Unless you are saving a life, nothing is as urgent as it may first seem. Now, it may be important, but it’s probably not urgent in the grand scheme of things. You may have experienced this: when you’re in an environment or working with someone where everything is always urgent— that means that nothing really is. (Maybe they need to brush up on some project management skills, am I right?)

But where do you fit into this? If you’re always feeling behind, frantic, stressed out and like there’s always so much to do, try to get a system in place for understanding, more objectively, and without your insecurities getting in the way, what’s really important and urgent. Then practice how to say no, when to say yes, and getting close to the big picture why.

Are we talking life goals or project management? Both!

Tip: There’s a handy concept called the Eisenhower Matrix that breaks down how you should start to think about tasks or projects within this urgency/importance scale. You only have one life—are you really going to spend it organizing your canned food alphabetically?

Why are you even doing this?

Ever played a game of “should I or shouldn’t I” in your head?

Let’s talk about a big part of what project management is — really, just to take the best ways to get things done (specifically in the context of projects that are more complex than singular non-complex tasks like taking out the garbage - hopefully you don’t need a system or thought process for that) and break down the process for wider and repeat application.

You may never get to the right answer by thinking through an idea because all sorts of feelings (guilt, obligation, etc) get in the way.

We teach many tools in our Digital Project Management course, using risk and goals to assess what things you want to work on.

Practice the art of being agile

So many project management concepts are just “how to do life” concepts in disguise.

More than just a project management methodology, agility is a key to any project manager’s toolkit, and it’s proving to be more and more important as society keeps changing at the rapid pace that it has since the democratization of communication.

Your biggest misconception about a project manager may be that they’re hyper-organized people with perfectionistic tendencies. For anything to stray from the plan is unacceptable and they’ll hound you down until you give them what they need.

That could be further from the truth, at least for an effective, high-functioning PM.

It’s that fine balance and superpower combo between a planner’s mind and an agile step that’s challenging to find, and these are the people that make the best project managers. That, and some top-notch people skills. After all, they’re the ones who often will have to manage and herd teams through rapid change.

This is incredibly difficult to do. I mean, yes, it sounds great in theory but it’s extremely difficult to “be agile” in practice. There are some things that can help get you there though:

  • get feedback early on and throughout
  • learn to detach from perfect outcomes and focus instead of better processes
  • keep your backlog light - this is anything that’s “holding you back”, any sort of mental and sometimes physical, even emotional, weight
  • polish up your soft/essential (and transferable) skills, and put as much effort and time into improving these as you do learning new technical skills

“Those who plan do better than those who do not plan, even though they rarely stick to their plan.” – Winston Churchill

Project management doesn’t mean you always stick to the plan. Nope, definitely not.

That’s highly unlikely, in a world of constant change. Expect the unexpected and learn to ride the wave.

Project management skills will help you stay on top of that wave of change. You don’t have to learn how to scope projects, how to communicate with stakeholders, how to hold effective and productive meetings because you have a goal of becoming a “project manager”. Everyone will need to have these skills to work successfully on their own and on teams, especially leaders doing creative work.

Illustration by: André Cândido