At Cohaesus we’ve been delivering projects for agencies for over nine years now, and over those nine years we’ve learnt a thing or two about what makes a project work – and what can make the whole thing come unstuck.

No project is plain sailing from start to finish. (That would just be boring, wouldn’t it?) But hopefully these four tips will give you some thoughts about how you can make your next project run that bit more smoothly.

If you can think of any other key points we’ve not mentioned, let us know in the comments.

1. Keep a strong and consistent team

Our clients often hire contractors, which helps with keeping the head-count low but sometimes means that key people get changed mid-way through. It’s one of the recurring nightmare scenarios we face, and more often than not it causes more trouble than it’s worth.

Whilst a change to any of the ‘trades’ is usually easy to overcome, a change to the product/project owner (typically the project manager but sometimes the account manager) is highly disruptive. They are the guardians of what the client wants and needs. If they change during a project the fallout can be dramatic. The only guard, is good documentation including contact reports after every meeting to capture why decisions have been made.

At the very least you should ensure all key roles are occupied by full-timers, preferably who are used to working with one another.

2. Maintain strict document control

Making sure the ever-changing versions of PSDs, style guides, wireframes, etc. are kept in order can feel like an unforgiving, perhaps even impossible, task. But keeping all these items properly versioned and making sure everyone is kept up to speed with developments is essential to prevent wasted time and crossed wires.

An extra note worth mentioning is making sure new versions aren’t just assumed to be in scope; the whole team needs to review and agree a new version before it’s accepted as in scope and allowed to proceed. This may sound time-consuming, but believe me it’s far preferable to the alternative!

We accomplish this simply by having a folder structure that provides three key states (archive, in scope, pending review), at any time there must only be one version in the ‘in scope’ folder; and by making sure that we rename any file with our naming convention which encodes the version number into it. If the document doesn’t have a version number we use the date received in the file name.

3. Always know where you are

This is generally useful life advice, but in the context of projects, one great benefit of the Agile movement was to provide a simple means of letting everyone know where you are in a project. Using burn-downs works well. So whatever you granular metric is, use that as a burn-down. We tend to use the number of failing UAT tests, and this method has always served us well.

Remember: if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.

4. Use a shared terminology

The final big problem we’ve found with keeping a project on the right track – especially with a distributed team – is terminology. Most other professions have a lexicon of terms – technical terms, jargon, acronyms or other abbreviations that are required for everyone to be able to communicate effectively.

Maintaining some sort of glossary or dictionary will allow everyone in that profession to understand the meaning of each term. In our field, this hasn’t really happened yet. Does everyone agree what a “hero image” means? What does “UAT” mean?

Using a shared, consistent dictionary of terms can go a long way to avoiding confusion in communication. (And save a lot of confused Googling in-between emails.)

Various online sources exist, like the PMI’s lexicon (which requires registration), or this free alphabetized project-management lexicon reference site. But – depending on the scope of your project, and on the size and distribution of your team – you might want to maintain your own collaborative online word-list, glossary, dictionary or lexicon.

But first you’ll have to agree on what to call it.

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