Organising and Managing Projects

Undertaking a self-managed project successfully can be difficult. Being aware of some of the pitfalls and following a few basic principles can make a real difference to the success of a project. ‘Organising / Managing Projects’ is intended as a basic guide which you can use as a touchstone at any stage in the evolution of your project.

A little like planning a journey, you need to decide where are you going, how you are going to get there and what you will need along the way to make your journey a comfortable, satisfying, successful and safe one. So using this analogy let’s consider…

Vision – Where are you going?
Having a strong sense of where you want your project to take you is the best way to begin. This does not rule out the fact that changes will occur along the way, as this will undoubtedly happen, but what it does secure for you is a sense of a vision or driving force behind the project. A vision is necessary as a banner under which you, and in the future others, will operate as your idea moves forward. A vision provides a sense of cohesion and a united purpose. It should be aspirational, ambitious and motivating. It should make venues want to be involved, draw sponsors in, excite stakeholders, unite partners and motivate a team towards achieving a common goal. Your vision should be specific, motivational and achievable.

Key words in your vision statement might be – exciting, promoting, extensive, progressive, showcasing….

From your vision statement you can formulate goals or objectives, which will focus you towards achieving your vision. These become targets to aim for and should spring directly out of your vision statement. If your vision is “to be the most exciting xxxx, showcasing Ireland’s premiere xxxx”, then how are you going to do that? Your goals or objectives will tell you how and will put you on the path to achieving your vision. For example, “targeting xxxx segment of the population, sourcing xxxx artist or drawing together xxxx community to engage in the experience”. Goals and objectives begin with active verbs and demonstrate an intention to do something. You can have as many goals or objectives as you wish but approximately five would be a sufficient number to work towards.

Task: Can you write down one/two sentence(s) describing your aspiration for your project? This will become your vision. Can you then draw from this, how will you achieve this vision? Write 3-5 achievable statements, all beginning with an active verb about how you will achieve it. These are your goals and objectives and you should refer constantly throughout the planning process to both your vision and your goals/ objectives to see if you are staying on the path you had initially envisaged for yourself.

Managing Change
Your project will change during its realisation and that is to be expected so don’t be alarmed if what you imagined, works out slightly different to what you had envisaged. Elements necessary for the general infrastructure of your project might actually lead to changes or alterations within the project. These ‘elements’ could include your sponsors, venues, commissioning bodies, resources etc. Once external factors become enlisted, they influence the outcome of events and should be expected and assimilated into the main body of the project.

No two projects are ever the same and that is because the situations and factors surrounding each creative endeavour can never be repeated in exactly the same way again. However, anything or anyone who fundamentally shakes the nature of your project and alters it beyond your initial ambition should not be allowed to do so – unless you feel it is for the better and they have your complicit agreement to do so. Managing this uniting of forces and securing of resources can be a very difficult period and will be fundamental in forming the basis of your project. You should tread carefully, research, consult as widely as possible, and feel the fear of this new endeavour. Tolstoy once said “the greater the risk, the greater the reward” so be prepared to take risks but make sure they are calculated, researched and supported (financially or otherwise).

So while it is important to be aspirational, it is also important to be realistic – aim high but ensure to match your ambitions with what is realistically achievable. Your goals will keep you on course.

Planning – How Are You Going to Get There?
This brings us to consider what is realistically possible. How do you determine this? Consider what is really achievable and what you can access and legislate for. In other words, how much financial, physical or human help (resources) do you need to make your idea happen? How easy are they to access? How do you get to them? Within what timescale do they need to be drawn down? Each of these things will substantially affect how your project pans out and this is where you need to keep asking yourself, what am I doing, why am I doing it? If you can answer these questions readily, it will be easier for you to communicate your concept and easier for people to understand your concept and get behind your idea. For example, if one of your goals is to engage the local community in an artistic experience, what do you need to do this? What money do you require? What suppliers or team do you need around you? What administration, marketing? This is the beginning of considering your resources, your budget, your stakeholders, your marketing, and your operational plan. Some of the aspects of planning are:

People – People make ideas happen. They are creators, developers and implementers of projects as well as the engagers with a project. A project or event without people would be a solitary activity and a personal endeavour.  Therefore you need to consider who you will need to make your project happen as well as consider who your project is for, i.e. your audience.

Communication this is the beginning of your marketing campaign. At least in the sense that you are starting to inform those around you of your idea and what you need to make it happen. You will need to be able to communicate in a written, verbal and electronic way and so if you have managed to distil your concept into a maximum of two sentences, you can get to the heart of the matter swiftly and then build on this as and when you need to.

  • You need to consider who are the people you need to communicate with (known as your stakeholders)
  • How you are going to communicate with them-, do you need a mobile?
  • Have you got a land-line with an answering machine, do you need an email address or a website?
  • Do you need someone else to take on this role?

Stakeholders – are anyone who has a claim or ‘interest’ (not in the passing sense, more in the ‘involvement’ sense) in your project. They will be your audience but they will also be your funders, your ‘backers’  – as in supportive creative team or individuals – , your venue or site manager, your technical crew or suppliers, potential press etc. Consider what you need to tell them and if you need a system to be established in order to communicate with them – this could be as simple as twice monthly meetings, a phone call each Monday morning or setting yourself up with headed paper and an email address. If you are drawing down money from a funder or sponsor you should also consider the following:

  • Do you need to keep them informed of your activities and to what extent?
  • What are their expectations?
  • Consider what they are hoping to get out of the involvement with your project. What does their money ‘get’ them? They are not doing you a favour but engaging in a contract for exchange of goods. Write to them and tell them what you are prepared to offer them for their money. See if this is acceptable or does it need to be negotiated.
  • What form will this communication take – should it be formal or casual? Should there be an established timescale of meetings? Or friendly chat over cups of coffee?
  • Start keeping a paper trail (don’t forget to print out emails) so you can easily look back and see what exactly was agreed and when.

This project (and your next one – keep an eye to the future) can live or die on stakeholder relations and you need to become adept at people and information management. You may also need to communicate with your stakeholders before and after your project. The relationship doesn’t occur simply ‘on the night’ but right through the planning, operations and post project experience.

Task: Who are your stakeholders? Draw up a list of each individual involved in the project and try and establish what they will ‘get out’ of the project but also what they are prepared to ‘put in’. Is there anyone in particular who carries a great degree of authority over your project? How will you communicate with them? What information do you need to feed them? How much control to they want/are you prepared to give?

Resources are often referred to as ‘physical’, ‘financial’ and ‘human’. You will need to scope and secure the resources required in the realisation of your project in order to activate and implement your concept or idea. In other words, if you think of human resources as the people you will need, physical resources as the equipment you will need and financial resources as the money you will need. How much will you need of each of these things?

Human Resources – try to imagine all the people you will need in order to make this project happen. There may be a cost involved, begin to research this. There might also be a requirement for you to have your idea or budgets or sponsors approved by a particular committee or individual. Try to find out whom the decision maker is and how they intend to make their decisions. If you have deadlines to meet and their approval is required for these deadlines, make sure you communicate your needs to them. Effective project management is very often about the sharing and management of information in the most effective way. Beware of lack of information and misunderstandings as these can drastically undermine the project and alter the outcome in a way that you will not be happy with.

Physical – physical resources can be the technical equipment needed to make the work or they can be the venue and all things contained therein – seating, reception area for tickets, catalogues or press releases, or simply bare walls and a roof with heating. Think about the kind of location that would work best for you. Draw up a list of possible requirements you might have, physical as well as your estimated financial bottom line and source a venue that meets these needs best. To say you need a ‘venue’ is to imply a number of things are required within that venue like lighting or heating or phone lines and insurance. This is known as a resource hierarchy and be careful that when you say you need a space for X or a place to site Y, that what you have in your head as implied within that space, is guaranteed as part of that space. Do not take anything for granted! Otherwise, you could end up with many extra costs for hire equipment or insurance or transportation, etc. Have a face-to-face meeting with the site or venue owner/manager and consider all the possibilities and requirements from both sides. If you want to hang material from the rafters, does it need to be fire retardant? If you want to have 100 people at the opening, how are you going to accommodate them? If you want to project on to a particular wall, how much light pollution do you need to legislate for? Brainstorm for questions and consider all possibilities. This is the beginning of your risk management plan and the operational process to implement your vision.

Financial – financial resources are usually the resources that people worry about and focus on the most. This is because of the scarcity of this resource for creative projects in this country. This is where you may need to be at your most creative and think laterally about where you can access finance. Financial support comes in many shapes and forms. It can be by way of grants from organisations or corporate subvention, private patronage, support in kind or some related commercial activity which will bring in cash flow. Be careful not to alter the shape of your idea to fit into funding criteria. There is always a way to get money or support if the idea is good enough and in the right place at the right time.

Task: How much financial, physical or human resources do you need to make your idea happen? How easy are they to access? Within what timescale? Estimate what they will cost. Can you separate each of these out and form a written plan for your project? Be realistic. Make sure that the resources you can access, achieve the goals you have outlined.

Creating a budget
Write everything down that you imagine you will need – people, objects, materials, equipment, website development, invitations, press, couriers, trains, accommodation, your time, other people’s time, postage – and try to estimate the cost as best you can. It doesn’t matter if the figures are not exact at this stage. Then write down all the possibilities for income generation. These can be very basic such as sponsorship from local business to larger public subsidy grants such as the Arts Council or local arts office. Consider if you can include some revenue aspect to your project – catalogues or handouts, parking or limited edition pieces. Somehow, you need the two figures (income and expenditure) to balance.

Scoping a budget (and this is what you are now doing) begins with forming a basic idea of what is needed. From here, you can make phone calls, ask questions and begin to develop your budgets in an informed way. You will develop a trail of budgets so number or date them, in order to keep track of your most recent one. It doesn’t matter that your figures keep changing, this is normal and this will continue to happen until the end of the project. Create an archive of all budgets.

Some things to remember:

  • Consider cash flow -will you have received money in time to spend it and when you need to?
  • Keep a profit and loss sheet – a record of money going in and out according to dates.
  • Separate your own money from that of the project, either by way of a separate bank account or simply on paper
  • Keep receipts for everything
  • Remember to ask if VAT is included (and at what %)
  • Beware if the project takes longer to realise than expected as there may be possible price increases
  • Make sure you include contingency – your financial cushion in case something goes wrong or was not considered as initially required. Contingencies can be anything from 5-15% and should be calculated on your subtotal figure.
  • Cost your own time; include this in the expenditure part of your budget. You can simply detail it as ‘artist fee’ or as a ‘production expense’. Then, if you decide not to be paid for the project, you can enter this personal support in the income part of your budget. So along with arts council grant, sponsorship or patronage you can write ‘artist fee’ or ‘production support’. Make sure to write exactly the same figure, demonstrating that there was a cost to the project that became support-in-kind, personally donated by you.

NB. Always include support-in-kind in your budget. Do not ignore it. Even though money is not changing hands, it still counts as a form of sponsorship.

So now you have given your project some definition. You have a sense of what it feels like, might taste like and what it hopefully will look like. You still have some way to go to actually doing it but you are well informed, well prepared and ready to execute the task in hand. There are a couple of other things you still might need to consider…

So far, you have initiated your concept, developed your idea and scoped your budget and now you are about to begin realising it. Consider; do you have all the systems and resources in place, in a way that you are happy with? In the journey of your project so far, are you satisfied that you have the right mix to make your project happen? All successful projects have something unique about them. In marketing terms, this is considered your USP – your unique selling point. What element of your project is the USP?

A focus on marketing does not imply a shift away from artistic integrity; it is simply a way of communicating to those whom your project is aimed at. The marketing and publicity of an arts project often requires maximum affect on a minimum of budget. Therefore, much creative thinking needs to be utilised. To market a project effectively with little to no budget for promotion, you need to use your self-belief to sell your product and therefore, think laterally about all marketing possibilities.

You need to be passionate about what your concept is in order to market it. You need your audience to believe that you believe and you need to preserve that initial spark and ‘sell’ or ‘promote’ your project at every opportunity. You will have to be innovative and focused and understand why you are doing it and whom you are trying to reach. You do not want to try to set about attracting everyone but should focus on whom you need to reach – focus on a particular group or age range or type of person – try to define who this person is. Also:

  • Will you target the press so that they reach your audience?
  • Will you go straight to your audience, or are you marketing to the critics and not the public?
  • Is critical acclaim and coverage more important than bums on seats?
  • Where will you focus your energies with a small budget to achieve maximum effect?

Marketing a cultural product (experience) is about your reasons for existing as an artist and the values you place on your creative endeavour. Ultimately you need to consider the mediation of this and any tangible experience (catalogue, flyer, leaflet, ticket stub, CD) you can give the ‘engager’ or ‘individuals in the audience’ to take away.

Development of a marketing strategyA project’s ‘concept definition/vision’ is often the essence of what is being marketed and in this sense marketing an arts project, becomes the mediation of what it is you do, why you do it and whom you do it for.So, take your vision and supplement this with a list of potential benefits, which this project can bring to your potential audience. Would it include social activities, promotion of individual artists, promotion of a chosen medium, raising awareness of societal issues or sharing of an individual’s valuable experience or ideas. Formulate these benefits into sentence format and incorporate the following information. You should now be able to say:

Who you are
What you are doing
When you are doing it
Where you are doing it
Why you are doing it

This will form the basis of your press release and is known as the five W’s. All press releases should contain this information early in the body of the document. Always avoid jargon and superlatives in your press release and try to make it sound as interesting as you can. No one wants to read a list of facts and the press will thank you for making their job easier. Don’t forget to include all your major sponsors and a contact name or address for further information.

Information Dissemination – How you are going to disseminate this information? Will it be via email, as leaflets, handouts, press releases or will it take another form? It is hugely important that whatever your chosen medium for information dissemination, that you establish clear and consistent messages. In this way, awareness will be created and a profile established. For one off projects, it can be particularly difficult to gain a ‘market presence’ or create audience awareness and so the answer might be to link yourself to a more established event, activity, organisation or individual on which you can ‘hang’ your own clear and consistent message.

Be clear and concise – perhaps rehearse a verbal description of your project with a colleague and ask them in turn to relay back to you their interpretation of your project, as they understand it. Do you need to develop the messages you are sending out?

Above all, be creative and engaging in all your dealings with all those interested in your project. Think about what it is they want and how it is you are going to deliver it to them –  particularly with regard to the press – and follow up on anyone who has expressed an interest and wants more information.

Task: Consider who it is you are trying to reach and what it is you are trying to say. Can you expand on the concept vision that you outlined early on and expand on the information you have now gathered about where your project will be, when it is happening, where and why? How will you get this information out there and who needs to know about it? Draw up a checklist for whom your project exists, It might be artists, the interested public, arts managers, arts officers, students, children, local community and so on. These are the individuals you want to target. How will you reach them? What will this cost?

Risk – A safe journey?
Creating awareness around risk is key. Never underestimate what can go wrong. If you don’t plan for problems, when they arise, you will be unprepared. You have to be able to anticipate the problems in advance and take action to avoid the problem. This is known as risk management. Considering what might crop up is half the battle to solving it. If you have considered the problems before they arise, you will have an idea about how you can mitigate against them or legislate for them.

Risk management – There is uncertainty in all projects and risk management is the process by which this uncertainty is managed. If at the beginning of the project you carry out an initial risk assessment, you will be armed with foreknowledge of the potential risks. You should adopt the thinking that if anything can go wrong it will go wrong. Think as laterally as possible.

Evaluate potential risks – make a list of all possible risks and balance them with possible actions. You have to consider just how serious a threat they may be to the project and what can be done in order to minimise their impact on the success of your project. Derive an action plan (or contingency plan) to contain the risks. Promptly resolve any issues arising from risks that happen. Carrying out a comprehensive risk assessment would mean thinking of anything that could go wrong to hinder the project’s progress. Include all perspectives – the sponsors, the stakeholders, the audience, the artists, the creation of the artwork itself. Test the validity of any risk by asking: what is the impact on cost; does it have an impact on the schedule; does it have an impact on the project’s quality and objectives?

If an identified risk carries a real and serious threat to your project, take steps in the early stages of your project lifecycle to offset this risk. For example, if the foundry want a 30% deposit on work to be carried out (and you weren’t expecting this), consider your cash flow and when and how you will access any monies. Identify which of these can be drawn down or accessed for the date you need them (applying financial resources to the problem). Or, could you negotiate with the foundry for a lesser deposit or a ‘slipped’ deadline (moving the date by when they need the money). A second example might be that the public art committee keep asking for changes to your agreed proposal. This is taking a lot of time, energy and commitment on your part to keep up with their comments. What do you do?

  • Establish one point of contact on the committee who will feed you the real information as to what the committee are trying to get at.
  • Use clear and precise language in all your conversations (verbal and written).
  • Keep a paper trail of all conversations so there is no confusion – date all conversations. This is a valuable and simple method of information retrieval and will place you in a more confident position if a problem arises.
  • Establish who the decision maker is on the committee.
  • Establish a deadline beyond which you can make no more changes.
  • Establish a percentage or level of change that you are prepared to go to and not beyond, as compromise of your idea is beginning to occur.

The list of risks from any project is a source of valuable learning data for future projects – this is known as ‘knowledge transfer’. Current projects can inform future projects and form the basis of this project’s risk management information. Therefore, even if the risks don’t occur you have created awareness within your self and others involved in the project as to what may go wrong and you can bring this knowledge forward into the next project.

Task: Try and identify five possible real risks to your project idea, anything that could seriously undermine your concept. What do you think you need to do, or whom do you need to talk to, to lessen the threat of these risks. Do you need to create a greater financial contingency (more money), slip your deadlines,do you need to access more support in kind (e.g. standby equipment on loan) or do you need to confirm the venue’s marketing strategy to guarantee an audience take up of tickets.

Health and Safety Statements – are borne from risk assessment. They increasingly form part of any activities (cultural or otherwise) that involve engaging with the public in any shape or form. You need to be able to write one, or at the very least feed into one, so if you have considered your risk management strategy, you are well on the way to being able to create a Health and Safety statement. See text on Health and Safety for more information on risk management.

Operations – The Final Realisation of Your Project
The actual doing, the arrival at your destination. Finally, you have got here. The ‘doing’ will end up as a ‘blip’ in the lifecycle of the project, if you have planned correctly, as much of your energy and time has been spent in the detailed preparation of your project. This is not to underestimate the energy that will be needed to actually ‘do’ your installation or event but to say that it should run effortlessly and without incident as you have prepared for all eventualities- everyone knows what is happening, what their role is and what to expect. Your ‘doing’, in other words, should be a ‘real live’ version of your vision combined with your objectives.

A useful tool for operations management is a ‘call sheet’. Used comprehensively in the film and TV industry, it is a list of what is happening, when, where, who is expected to be there, what their movements are and what their contact details are. It has a certain application within the creative and cultural industries and could be especially useful for ‘live’ performances but it depends on the nature of the event or project and it is for you to decide what information you (and those involved) need to have to hand on the day.

In the moments before your project becomes a reality, you should engage in a checking exercise – do you have all you need, does your project team, does everyone know what is taking place and do you and those involved have all the equipment required? It can be useful to hold a pre-project meeting and circulate this information in both a verbal and written format. In this way, everyone is ‘briefed’ and has a feel for what is happening. If you do not feel able to engage in this exercise, you could suggest it to an administrator involved in the project and see if they feel it would be useful. In addition, make sure you have organised some formal and/or informal documentation of your project- this is valuable future reference information.

Task: Check and recheck all aspects of your plan. Do you have all you need and do all the bits fit to make your initial vision a reality? If anything is missing, you will need to act fast.

Evaluation – A Satisfying and Successful Journey?
You can finally breathe easy again, the project has completed its lifecycle and the journey is over, but and it’s a big but, there is still a little more to do…

In the post project administration and evaluation stage, you need to tie all your loose ends up and complete the finishing touches. These can include balancing the books, drawing down final stage payments, lodging money to the bank, finalising any outstanding bills, sending thank you letters to each person involved in the project who brought about its realisation. Sponsors and funders will expect a report (sometimes this can be formal, sometimes informal-check in advance which is expected of you) on the outcome of the project and this report might need to include all press garnered and monies acquired. Do you need to update your website with a post project rundown, images, thank you’s? Consider what you will do with your documentation – archive, post marketing campaign, sponsors reports, website?

Legacy Management and Knowledge Transfer – All projects are unique, no two are the same and this means that the experience learnt on this project can feed forward into the next one. Therefore, management of stakeholder relations as well as keeping track of all correspondence, audience profile, budgets, press relations, developing a risk management plan, press coverage and documentation, will help you go forward into the next project with a well informed document for you to look back on, when you start your next idea…

By Kerry McCall

Kerry MCCall has been lecturing on Cultural Event and Project Management in the Business and Humanities Department of the Institute of Art, Design and Technology, Dun Laoghaire for the last 5 years. She also manages public art projects having most recently advised Dundrum Town Centre on the development of its public art strategy. Prior to 2001, she was Director of the Sculptors’ Society of Ireland (now known as Visual Artists Ireland) and still sits on the Editorial Panel for Printed Project.