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4 Steps to Better Project Management

Just like you shouldn’t begin construction on a new building without a blueprint, you wouldn’t want to start a new initiative around your store without a well-laid plan. A carefully devised strategy can help you finish on time and on budget, even in the midst of unexpected turns. Whether your goal involves a capital improvement, such as a full store remodel, or an operational procedure, such as creating an employee training plan for the year, knowing a few project management best practices will help keep your plan going smoothly. How effective you are at managing projects will determine how efficient you are at using your resources, and ultimately, how effective you are in business.

To learn more about how you can use project management strategies to be successful, Hardware Retailing editors spoke with two project management professionals and two home improvement retailers who have been integral in steering their companies through major change. Regardless of the size of your project, four basic strategies will help you stay on track.

1. Communicate across the company.
Before starting any new initiative, communicate your plans with everyone who will be affected, including other managers or owners and board members to whom you’re accountable. Include the team of employees who will be executing your plan. Get their support and help in the process while you’re still in the planning stage.

Mike Kokesh and Mark Schaefer, co-owners of Gopher Ace Hardware in Long Lake, Minnesota, had an opportunity last year to open a new location in nearby Minnetonka. Rather than assign employees to help with the setup of the new store, they asked for volunteers. Approaching a project from a team mentality helped get employees excited about the project and helped carry them through what would become a difficult year.

“We decided we weren’t going to force people to work at our new location,” says Kokesh. “We asked for volunteers, and everyone was excited about the new opportunity. It’s important to work alongside your employees and show them we are just as involved as they are.”

Adrianne Naillon has been leading projects for Oregon-based cooperative Wilco for most of the 25 years she’s been with the company. A few years ago, she was tasked with helping open the co-op’s location in Vancouver, Washington, where she is currently the manager. She says a good first step is to find diverse perspectives from across the company.

“One challenge of being in leadership is that you think ‘this is the way we should go,’ and you can get stuck in a rut,” she says. “But there could be a lot of other great ideas out there, so start by looking outside your own box.”

Each stakeholder will have a different perspective and ideas about how to get to the end goal. But those are the perspectives that can help spot potential problems, help the team be more efficient or just help out with the workload.

“Managing your stakeholders means aligning your resources to what the project is, why you are doing it and how you will complete that project. Those resources include your employees and anyone whose help you need in getting the project done,” says Diane Flynn-Brake. She is the director of business project management at Ace Hardware’s corporate headquarters, where her team leads strategic projects that improve the retail store model.

“When you ask for your employees to help on a project or even a task, the average employee wants to know ‘what’s in it for me?’ A successful project manager has the skill to answer that question and help people understand the goal and adapt to the changes,” she says.

Getting active team participation will also give the project momentum. When you are choosing the team that will spearhead a special initiative, don’t be afraid to include a newer employee who may have little experience with what you’re doing. Being closely involved on project teams offers employees a chance for growth.

2. Focus the project scope.
You are always at risk of getting sidetracked if you don’t have a clear direction of where you are going and how you plan to get there. Defining the project scope means both keeping your goal in mind and knowing how to deal with potential distractions.

“This is where projects can really go off the rails if you’re not careful,” says David Sanchez, a senior strategy realization consultant with Integrated Project Management Co. Sanchez has more than 30 years of professional project management experience, including working as a consultant for Ace Hardware. “Managing the scope of your project means putting a box around what you want to do and then making sure those things get done. Maintain your priorities and keep tight controls on what you should be doing. Communicate that to your team and monitor performance regularly to minimize the risk of drifting off track.”

For example, in order to keep all of their store locations consistent in appearance and operation, leadership at Wilco developed a set of operational standards each store manager must maintain. Naillon, in turn, has a set of standards for key members of her staff. She conducts regular audits of the salesfloor and uses the iAuditor app on her tablet as a way of tracking progress.

“We’ve created templates for different areas of the store that clearly communicate what tasks need to be completed,” she says. “We walk through the store, taking notes on areas that need attention. Having a checklist using iAuditor makes sure we don’t miss anything and that we are clearly communicating what needs to be done.”

Naillon also says while the scope of the project may seem clear at the beginning, it can be easy to lose focus when you’re in the middle of the process. When that happens, she calls up other retailers who might understand what she is trying to accomplish and asks for advice.

Defining the scope will help you stay organized and consistent when tackling operational tasks. Make sure you are prioritizing projects that will be the most beneficial for your business. Be realistic about what you can accomplish given your resources, which include time, people and money.

Ask questions such as: Is this the most important project I should be tackling at this time? Do I have the right people to get it done? Does this project help us meet our company’s overall goals? Will this hinder progress in other areas of the business?

3. Create a schedule and stick to it.
An effective plan should include a timeline, the steps you’ll take along the way, resources you’ll need and milestones to mark progress. While there may be pressure to get the work started right away, you may end up spending more time and money if you fail to take the time up front to plan.

“One of the biggest mistakes people make when managing a project is that they don’t make a schedule,” says Flynn-Brake. “Everyone wants to jump in and start working, but if you don’t first stop to put together a plan, you’ll never know when the project is going to be done and you’ll never know when the project goes off track.”

Creating milestones is one of the most important parts of creating a plan. Milestones indicate whether you are staying on track or whether you are falling behind. They should be objective and measurable.

Sanchez recommends creating a document to outline your schedule. The level of detail will vary with the complexity of the project, but having your plans spelled out will help you be disciplined in your approach.

“I would also recommend regular status reports or some type of communication that conveys your progress and keeps everyone involved on the same page,” he says. “You also want some way of cataloging important decisions you make along the way so you can refer back to them for direction if issues related to them come up again later in the project.”

Managing a schedule also means knowing when to hire outside help to get the job done. When Kokesh and Schaefer at Gopher Ace put together a timetable for getting the store ready, they decided to spend the extra money to hire a merchandising team.

“We could have hung the merchandise ourselves, but the team of experts we hired moved much faster, and it was worth every penny,” Kokesh says. “You have to look  at the big picture when managing that kind of a project. Study your timelines and your goal and decide how best to invest your time and money.”

4. Carefully manage potential risks.
Regardless of your plans, you will likely deal with the unexpected. A good project manager is always scanning the horizon for potential risks or anything that could derail the work. The sooner you identify a threat, the sooner you can create a plan for handling it. If you get in the habit of frequently scanning for risks, you can decide which ones to prioritize. Minimize the risks that will have the most impact on your business and find an effective way to deal with the rest.

“This process of risk assessment is something you need to do continually throughout the duration of the project,” says Flynn-Brake. “The simplest way to approach it is to write down the risk, and then ask questions like: ‘What is the likelihood this risk will happen? What will be the impact on my business? Will it have a significant impact? How do I avoid that risk?’ If you are asking these types of questions as risks come up, you can deal with them and minimize the effect they will have on your project.”

Proactively seek help from others who will be affected by your decision. Utilize the advice of all stakeholders, including members of your team, other leaders and even fellow retailers.

“Share information with other stakeholders so you’re not making decisions in a vacuum,” says Sanchez. “An effective project manager is always out in front of the team and is a proactive, effective communicator at all levels of interested parties.”

Minimize the effect of unforeseen risks by remaining flexible. While they were in the process of opening their new location, Kokesh and Schaefer faced multiple obstacles that could have easily sent their plans sideways, including a statewide shutdown because of the pandemic, employees staying home because of health concerns, road construction and even a ruptured water line that resulted in lost inventory.

What got them to opening day—and beyond—was a willingness to be flexible. For example, they weren’t able to have an in-person grand opening as they’d hoped. Instead, they utilized all of their social media platforms, improved their website’s SEO and built up their email marketing to draw in shoppers.

“You have to go in to any large project understanding that problems will happen, prepare yourself for a possible failure of what you’re trying to do,” Kokesh says. “Then, you’ll be more willing to adapt to the solution.”

About Jesse Carleton

Jesse Carleton has visited independent hardware retailers, conducted original research on the industry and written extensively about the business of hardware retailing. Jesse has written for more than a dozen of NHPA’s contract publishing titles, all related to the hardware retailing industry. He also was instrumental in developing the Basic Training in Hardware Retailing courses now used by thousands of retailers across the country.

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