Like a lot of people in analytics, I have had a winding career journey that led me to phData. I was an academic research scientist performing in vivo experiments on models of glioblastoma multiforme, I was performing genetic editing experiments to knock out novel cancer genes, I was later a business analyst at a healthcare company, and penultimately, a consultant for a larger consulting firm.
Joining phData has made me grow significantly as a consultant through analytics trainings and webinars, but also through projects that don’t always go 100% to plan.
Admitting mistakes and shortcomings is never easy, but I feel it’s quite important to reflect back on project work so you can avoid making the same mistakes on your next project. People never seem to focus on the rough part of project work, so here are five tips on managing a difficult analytics project that you may find helpful as you go throughout your career.
1. Establish (and Manage) Your Project Scope
Establishing your project scope is one of the most important things you can do on a project. If you are unfamiliar with project scope, this refers to what is within the bounds of your project. Whether this is outlined in the statement of work, during the project kick off, or standard for your company, your scope must be documented somewhere.
You do not want to put yourself in a position where a late addition gets added to the project from leadership and you have nothing to defend yourself. For example, if you are building a house and your client asks you to put in a pool on the second to last day of the construction, you would very likely say, ‘No, this wasn’t agreed upon and does not fit within the construction timeline’.
Very similarly, if your project is approaching the end of the timeline and your leadership team requests a new feature, dashboard, or workflow, you would tell them this is not within scope. Managing scope can be uncomfortable at times, but just know it is extremely important and commonplace to manage this and you should feel empowered to establish and manage your project scope.
2. Be Relentless with Your Communication
When managing a project, one of the most powerful aspects of the project is communication. If something small is going wrong, send a quick email to get it resolved. If someone bigger is going wrong, schedule a call with your leadership team or project sponsor to discuss. Further, anything in a weekly status report should never be a surprise; always over communicate.
There is sometimes a feeling of nervousness or trepidation when communicating over something that is not necessarily a positive, but that feeling will get even worse if you don’t speak up and say something. A quick ping before your weekly status saying, “Hi there, the project is going well but I wanted to bring a small blocker to your attention before status so as to not surprise you. Can we have a 5 minute call?” can quell issues before they get out of hand. This goes right into the next point.
3. Determine a Line of Escalation
This is an important one. If you are on an analytics project or managing an analytics project, there are likely a number of teams across data viz, data engineering, data science, and cloud architects.
If you are struggling to gain updates on the status of the next data load or not hearing back from your data viz team about when the dashboards will be moved to production, it’s important to have a clear path of escalation.
Now, you shouldn’t abuse this escalation path but if deliverables aren’t moving forward, you aren’t getting responses from different teams, or work is consistently late, escalate escalate escalate. This goes back to the point of communication and how important it is to not let things devolve into a disaster.
4. Monitor Work Streams with Tracker Apps
Whether its Jira, Trello, Monday, or even an Excel spreadsheet, a work tracker is extremely important for keeping deliverables and milestones on track.
Create a board and have one card/tile/row for a project item and gain updates from your team once or twice a week. These teams should be relatively self managing, but having a weekly or twice weekly update for your end of week status or steering committee meeting is key.
Gaining regular updates helps you stay on track, helps you identify what is lagging behind, helps you know what to escalate to leadership, and allows you to communicate more effectively.
If your project is run in an agile environment, this should be fairly common knowledge. However, if your project or project team is a little lower on the agile maturity scale, these can be a fresh addition to a project that may not have anything being tracked.
I’ve managed small projects with more advanced project tracking tools and have also managed large projects with Excel spreadsheets, so this tip is very technology agnostic.
Additionally, tracking your work touches back to the first point of scope management. If you keep track of the work being done and the progress made so far, it would be difficult for someone to jump in and add another half dozen project items. If it’s not in scope, move it to the future enhancements backlog.
5. Track Finances
As a technical consultant, you may ask ‘why do I need to bother tracking finances?’. Because it is all part of the consulting deal! By keeping track of hours and finances, you know exactly where you stand in the project.
Getting to the end of the project and having no hours left on the engagement, or even worse, not knowing how many hours you have on the project, can blow up a project very quickly. If someone on the project took a week off and another person was sick for a week and you didn’t track anything, you are now underburning and have an additional 80 hours that won’t be used. These hours could then be applied to high priority backlog items or allow another project team member to work a few extra hours to finish up their python code in their jupyter notebook.
Conversely, if a team member has been working an additional 5 hours a week for the entirety of the project, you are now over burning and must have the conversation of an extension. If you followed the advice of the points above, you luckily won’t have to have this conversation since you’ve been communicating project updates and tracking work and hours. Good job!
6. (Bonus Tip) Be Confident
Confidence can be tough to embody, especially if you are earlier in your career. It can be difficult to speak up or be the bearer of bad news, but being confident is one of the most important parts of managing a project.
Updating leadership that you haven’t heard back from your dev team in three days isn’t being rude nor are you attacking anyone, you are simply keeping the project on track.
Managing the scope of your project requires you to understand that, sure, additions come in along the way, but also requires you to stand your ground to ensure the success of your project. Adding future enhancements to the backlog or reprioritizing work can also lead to future work, so it can be a win-win.
There are many aspects of being a technical consultant, but bolstering your project management skills can be incredibly beneficial. It allows you to get your hands on project hours and finance, allows you to develop your leadership skills, and allows you to support your team in ways you wouldn’t as an individual contributor. Or, if you are the only one on your project, you are forced to do all of these things since you’re the only one developing, tracking, and providing updates.
I hope you found these tips useful for your next data analytics project.
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