Getting SMART About Project Management

Government projects are like ships – each one needs a captain who will safely steer it towards its destination.

Thankfully, a simple acronym can help you avoid the rocks of failure if you’re managing a federal, state or local project.

According to one project management expert, SMART is a five-step philosophy that can improve how you handle any assignment no matter the size.

“Articulate the end goal,” Melissa Kepler said Friday during GovLoop’s 2019 NextGen Government Training Summit. “Do not do anything until you’ve confirmed that it’s the right goal. You want to make sure that all the effort you put towards this is actually useful to you later.”

Kepler is a training consultant at the Logistics Management Institute (LMI), a not-for-profit consulting firm dedicated to improving the business of government.

Besides working at LMI, Kepler is also a Gallup-certified strengths coach who has extensive project management experience.

According to Kepler, the “s” in SMART stands for “specifics,” or spelling out exactly what you want to accomplish using a verb.

“You want to specifically know your end state,” she said. “Remember, it’s better to overdeliver than to overpromise.”

“M,” meanwhile, stands for “measurable,” or knowing when something has been achieved by using a metric – particularly numbers if possible.

“A,” for its part, means “attainable,” or keeping something within the realm of possibility by aiming for something realistic.

“Set your goal to be something that’s actually achievable by a human,” Kepler said. “Reasons are for reasonable people.”

Kepler said that “r” represents “relevant,” or avoiding mission creep by excluding tasks that aren’t involved with a specific project.

“T,” finally, deals with being “time-bound,” or setting an actual date when the project will be finished no matter how it ends.

“Don’t worry about dates at first – just what needs to happen,” Kepler said. “Look at each task you identify and see if it can be broken down into something smaller. Put your tasks in order according to which task needs to be accomplished first.”

Public servants who follow SMART principles, Kepler argued, will dramatically improve their ability to manage projects.

Kepler also noted, however, that there are other tactics which can make SMART even stronger for project management.

“Keep records and write things down,” she said as one example. “A piece of paper on your desk is better than nothing. Those records are going to save your life. Write it all down so if things do go down south later you have a record of it.”

Establishing a chain of command, Kepler added, is another valuable tool for project managers. She said that knowing the personnel above and below your level can help improve a project’s management.

“Identify a doer for every task,” she advised. “Don’t put down a task if you don’t have someone’s name next to it. Don’t accept a to-do unless you know who’s doing it.”

Perhaps most important, Kepler suggested, is always employing a human touch with other people involved in a project.

“Introduce yourself and make a connection before you start asking for things,” she said as an example of how to approach other stakeholders. “Whenever possible, have conversations in advance of requests. Try to work with their preferences as much as you can.”