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5 Tips for Better Project Management

Managing projects offers plenty of challenges for any business or institution, but higher education faces its own unique set of difficulties. Consensus decision-making and a focus on collaboration, the need to share information more freely, and the importance of the institution's mission rather than profit motives—all of those factors can turn conventional project management on its head.

Project management in higher ed differs from corporations in key ways, according to Patrick A. Bennett, director of the Project Management Office at Franklin University in Columbus, OH. Those differences, in turn, mean that approaching project management using conventional corporate techniques and tools can lead to failure. Instead, when campus project managers understand and embrace a different approach to decision-making, they can produce better outcomes.

Franklin University serves about 7,800 students a term, mostly adult and transfer students. With some 350 employees, the university has a business and technology focus, and offers masters degrees in computer science and marketing, among others.

At Franklin, Bennett uses a tool called TeamDynamix, a Web-based project and portfolio management solution specifically designed for higher education CIOs and their staffs. He sits on the company's advisory panel, and has written about project management challenges in higher education.

Bennett, who worked in corporate settings before joining the world of higher ed, is also an adjunct faculty member at Franklin, teaching virtual communication strategies and learning strategies.  

He shares these suggestions on successful project management in higher education.

1. Choose the Right Project

Serious cost-savings begin when you avoid projects that are going to waste time and money down the road. "It's one thing to do a project well; it's another to select the right project initially," Bennett counseled. Good project management software lets you compare and contrast potential projects in different ways, then dial up or down depending on projected outcomes. At Franklin, "we're not starting nearly the number of projects we used to," Bennett said. "We just don't have to [in order to see the outcome]. That's the power of transparency--of putting all the facts in one tool."

2. Share the Facts Freely

Making pertinent information available to all interested parties is key to success with any project, and that's especially true in higher ed, where there's a focus on consensus rather than a single decision-maker.

Franklin's situation is true of many smaller schools in that many people wear various hats, and staff resources are often stretched thin. Giving the right people access to the correct level of information during a project is key. "We have 350 or so full-time employees, and maybe 120 have access to the [project management] system. That's a large number," Bennett explained. For project management with limited resources, a staff member that might not report to Bennett overall will report to him for a particular project. In those cases especially, he makes sure that everyone involved can view the project plan, the documentation, and the project paths. "I believe we end up with a better project because of that--and better buy-in," he said. And if anyone outside the project has questions--such as another team, university administrators, or others not involved directly, "anything we've published for mass consumption can be seen."

A useful component in project management software for sharing information easily with appropriate parties is dashboards--quick and colorful graphical summaries of specific facts. With dashboards, "you as the manager or leader can check the dashboard to see where trouble spots are," Bennett explained. With TeamDynamix, he can display a pie chart that shows all ongoing projects, then select and zoom in on any one. A reporting mechanism lists projects that must be completed with a given period. For an employee managing a single task who is less concerned with the project overall, but who has work to contribute, the product can be set up display just that information.

3. Focus on the Mission

One key way in which higher education differs from the corporate world, Bennett said, is that in business, the main driver is financial gain for the shareholder--with the company's mission sometimes falling far behind. But at a not-for-profit, he said, "our mission is first and foremost to what we do." This means that project valuation based solely on return in dollars in not always the goal. Rather, projects are chosen because they fulfill the institution's mission. For example, a university may create a new major that costs more to offer than it will return. However, it serves a societal need and supports the school's mission.

4. Follow Your Governance Model

Governance models also differ in higher ed versus corporations--as does their importance. "You've got to identify key leadership, and they've got to serve on the governance committee," Bennett advised. "You have to let them hash out what is going to be done, and what isn't." Without the right leaders at the table, he said, projects can be decided based on social favors or perceived political gain. Instead, he said, "It [should] come down to prioritization. You have limited dollars and human resources and time. What do you want to get done?"

For a basic governance model, Bennett suggested starting with a list of everything key leaders want to complete. Then have the governance committee align that against institutional mission, strategic framework, and goals. Any documents that help to guide the direction of the university are helpful. Next, have the governance committee prioritize the list--having all the key leadership in the same room is key to ensure honest conversations and consensus-building. From there, he said, leaders can start developing a basic, repeatable, and sustainable governance model.

5. Embrace Consensus

Here's another way in which corporations and higher ed are drastically different: the decision-making process. At corporations, a vice president typically has complete autonomy over a portion of the budget, and executes accordingly. "It's the golden rule," Bennett says. "Who has the gold, makes the rules. If I have the dollars, I deploy the project."

Not so at a typical university, where a number of people, usually from different departments, interests and backgrounds, often need to be brought on board. "In higher ed, it's much more about a collaborative process," Bennett said. Rather than struggling against that, he suggested, understanding and embracing the collaborative process--and using project management software to spread the word and bring all hands around--can result in a better project.

Finally, while software is important, there's more to good project management than the tools. "There are three components to good project management [in higher ed]," Bennett said. "One, you need a project management information tool. But you also need a good governance model--and support for that model--and you've got to have a good project management methodology. The tool is useless without those other two."

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