From an attendee’s standpoint, the best events appear to have come together effortlessly. However, in the event industry, the “effortless” appearance takes a lot of work. It takes teamwork, a budget, a little bit of luck, and a whole lot of project management.

Oh, you didn’t realize that you’re a project manager? It’s true: if you’re an event organizer, you’re also a project manager.

Don’t let this new title scare you as you’ve really been managing projects all along; if you think about it, your event is one BIG project. Projects have a starting date, an ending date, and are completed by a team of people who each hold a unique role in the project’s success. Sounds just like an event to us!

If you’re ever feeling overwhelmed by a monstrous event looming on your calendar, approaching the event how a project manager would a project, should help ease the stress.

When classic project managers approach a project, they take very clear steps that can be borrowed and used by event professionals. Understanding the principles of project management might give you a whole new outlook on event planning, or just help you fine-tune some details of your planning process.

Let’s take a look at these steps and see how they apply to planning your event:

Step 1: Identify the Project

If identifying your event sounds pretty broad, don’t worry — it is. However, leave it to project managers and event planners to make the complex simple.

Identifying your project falls into four subsets:

1.     Identify the project goals – Before you do anything, you’ll need to identify your event’s goals. There are both tangible and intangible goals. Tangible goals are measurable, and intangible goals are immeasurable, but just as important. Common intangible goals for events might include raising awareness about a product or cause, recruiting employees/volunteers, or holding a discussion. Meanwhile, common tangible goals might be to attract 400 attendees, sell 100 products at the event, or raise $1 million for charity. In many cases, the intangible goals you set will drive the tangible goals.

2.     Identify the project constraints – Constraints are boundaries that you and your team must operate within. In event planning, your constraints might include a small budget, a small venue, or a short planning phase. As you may know, there’s not much you can do about certain constraints. This is why it’s important to formally identify them and keep them in mind as the planning progresses. Resourceful project managers even view constraints as excuses to exercise creativity.

3.     Identify the team members and stakeholders – While your team and the event stakeholders may consist of different groups of people, more than likely, they will overlap a bit. Your team members are the individuals who are helping you put on a great event (lighting, stage direction, marketing, etc.), and the stakeholders are the decision-makers. You’ll likely have both internal and external stakeholders. For example, internal stakeholders might include yourself, the marketing director, the stage manager, etc.

On the other hand, external stakeholders will likely be sponsors, exhibitors, attendees, speakers, venue coordinators, and any organizations involved. The purpose of identifying your team members is so that you understand your resources; the purpose of identifying your stakeholders is so that you know the decision-makers involved. Successful events assign a decision-maker or facilitator (AKA stakeholder) to each team who filters communication between other teams.

4.    Identify all tasks – This step will not only help you keep your sanity when faced with large tasks, but will also help you figure out exactly what help you’ll need. Big, scary undertakings, like securing the venue, can be broken down into bite size tasks that seem much more manageable. When reviewing all that needs to be done, list out all your big tasks first, assign them their due dates (see Step Two, below), and then break those big tasks out into the individual steps it takes to accomplish them. For example, when it comes to securing a venue, your individual steps might include research, in-person visits to a certain amount of venues, signing the contract on your chosen venue, and submitting the down payment.


Step 2: Set Deadlines and Milestones

Deadlines and milestones are the same thing, right? Nope! Deadlines are the ultimate date that a task should be done by and are set in stone (there is a caveat to this; keep reading) and milestones are guidelines that you set along the way to measure success. For example, needing to pay the venue is a deadline, while setting a goal of having 200 tickets sold by a certain date is a milestone.

Before embarking on a new project, set the deadlines that the team will need to hit along the way. Start by identifying the deadlines that are beyond your control such as:

  • Your event date (THE ultimate deadline!)
  • Venue booked and down payment submitted by x date

Once you’ve gotten these nailed down, immediately begin filling in your self-imposed deadlines. These deadlines are what you and the internal stakeholders control, such as:

  • Receive signed contracts from all speakers by x date
  • Sign catering company by x date
  • Announce event publicly by x date

When setting the self-imposed deadlines and milestones, expert project managers and event organizers don’t start with the first deadlines they need to hit; they start at the event date and work backwards. Here’s an example of how working backwards will look:

  • Your event is October 3rd
  • For this event, you need to be done selling tickets one week before the event – September 26th
  • You’ll need to have announced all speakers three months before the final ticket is sold – June 25th
  • You’ll need to have all speakers signed six months before announcing them – December 20th
  • You’ll need to start contacting and booking potential speakers two months before signing them – October 20th
  • Working backwards can be a lifesaver—and event saver—due to many sequential tasks.

Once you’ve mapped these tasks out, you and other stakeholders can work together to create milestones that help measure your success along the way. These milestones might include:

  • Sell 200 tickets by x date
  • Secure five sponsors by x date

Since the effect of every great event should be felt beyond just one day or weekend, you may want to set deadlines for after the event, such as:

  • Follow up with attendees via email by x date
  • Upload photos from photographer to social media by x date

To take it even further, you can set milestones that you hope to reach after the event (these will likely tie into your goals):

  • Sell 200 products by x date
  • Raise $1 million for charity by x date

With all this talk about deadlines, it’s worth mentioning that many project managers have soft deadlines and hard deadlines. Some call these nice to have by and must have by deadlines. Soft deadlines and nice to have by deadlines create a nice, gentle landing for a task. No sweating required as there is a nice bouncy cushion of time if it’s missed. Hard deadlines bring on sweating (and perhaps more unpleasant reactions) if they’re missed. Here’s an expert tip: if possible, set your hard deadlines with a bit of time padding to avoid sweating and other unpleasant reactions in case it is missed – just don’t communicate the fact that there is a time buffer!

Step 3: Communicate

As George Bernard Shaw famously said, “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” Oh, this is so true! When you think you’ve communicated enough, communicate and clarify some more.

Proper communication is key to a successful project, and it’s key to a successful event.

Initial Communication

Communication is important throughout the project, however, its especially important at the beginning of the project. Here’s what you can do to ensure that everyone is on the same page:

  • Clarify roles: Work with the other internal stakeholders to ensure that every role has been filled, and that everyone knows what’s expected of them
  • Communicate the deadlines: Now that you’ve gotten this great team assembled, and these strong deadlines assigned, stakeholders should communicate these deadlines to the rest of their team members, with an ear to the ground for feedback, and flexibility on the mind. You’d be surprised to learn what team members are aware of that stakeholders are not: strong potential speakers, great deals on vendors, or more frighteningly, perhaps a competing event on the same night, in the same town. Communication goes both ways.

On-Going Communication

Communication doesn’t stop after the first week. Keep the lines of communication open until your event, and beyond.

Creating a communication plan will help you do so. Planned communication at regular intervals is a great way to keep everyone up to date. This can go top down, but also from the front-line up. Perhaps every Monday you send out an email with plans for the week, and every Friday you provide a report on where the team landed with those goals. Without a plan, communication can easily become sparse or even conjure up rapid fire email trains, which have the ability to create a toxic and stressful experience for all involved.

While in-person meetings and communication may be preferable to digital communication, realize that not everyone needs to meet each week. Since your team members are divided into teams, empower the internal stakeholders to schedule their own team meetings, and then schedule regular meetings between the internal stakeholders to review decisions made, progress, and communicate.

When you do communicate digitally, we suggest considering these communication tools that are commonly used by project managers:

  • Google Drive – A great way to collaborate on documents and share files.
  • Google Hangout – This tool comes in handy when you need to have a meeting, but not everyone can physically make it. Google Hangout enables video conferencing as well as the live sharing of documents and notes.
  • Quip – An alternative to Google Drive that involves not only multiple users editing documents simultaneously, but also includes to-do lists and spreadsheets.

Step 4: Involve your Team

Despite sounding like a nature book, The Starfish and the Spider is a powerful book with a unique take on organizational and team structures.

The opening text of the book reads, “If you cut off a spider’s leg, it’s crippled; if you cut off its head, it dies. But if you cut off a starfish’s leg, it grows a new one and the old leg can grow into an entirely new starfish.”

Many great project managers strive for a starfish-like team: a decentralized communication structure. At the center of this is delegation and empowerment: if you want to lead a starfish-like event team, take those two words to heart. This removes all the power (and stress) from one or a few individuals’ shoulders and distributes it throughout the team. Therefore, if you or one of your stakeholders have to switch priorities, progress halting is the last thing you’ll have to worry about.

Step 5: Track your Progress

Just like project managers do, the best event planners regularly track progress towards the event goals, and against the milestones and deadlines.

In Step Number Two we reviewed deadlines and milestones. There are as many ways of tracking goals, deadlines, and milestones as there are event organizers. While it’s important for you to find out what works best for you and your team, it’s also important to stay aware of technology that can help make your life easier in this arena.

Some of the more popular digital project management tools include:

  • Trello – A newer project management tool which has been spoken highly of
  • Basecamp – One of the more well-known and popular project management tools
  • Asana – Created by Facebook executives and originally only used to manage projects at Facebook

Some popular non high-tech project management methods that can be carried out using post-its, markers and pens, or excel include:

  • Gantt charts – Originating from the 1800’s, Gantt charts are a visual display of all your tasks, in the sequence they need to be completed
  • RACI Matrix – A great method to use to keep track of task responsibility for each individual
  • Activity Network Diagram – A project management method that places focus on sequential task accomplishment

Step 6: Exhibit Leadership and Confidence

The most successful project managers are confident and are great leaders; the same can be said about event organizers. We’ve combined leadership and confidence into one section because they’re so interconnected that it can actually be hard to tell the difference. It may be tough to hear this but, not all event organizers are leaders. The one thing that separates these individuals from the rest is confidence. Without confidence in yourself, in your event’s mission, and in your team, you won’t be able to lead others towards the shared vision of your event.

To spot leadership in yourself and others, here are some of the common characteristics found in great leaders:

  • Confident
  • Optimistic
  • Decisive
  • Empowering
  • Grateful
  • Skilled in conflict management

Step 7: Be Flexible

While flexibility might seem to contrast with confidence, they truly do go hand-in-hand. While having confidence helps you to keep to your vision and goals, it also gives you the strength to listen and be flexible. Being flexible is king in event planning as things come up last minute on a regular basis when organizing an event. However, being flexible also means that you’re a team player who has the confidence to listen to others and be flexible in your stance when you’re presented with alternative opinions. Just like in project management, things change last minute with events, and everyone must adapt. But we don’t have to tell you that twice!

Step 8: Deliver a Great Finished Product

Project managers know that the process is important, but what really matters is the quality of the finished product. In your case, that’s your event! No matter how great (or not so great) things are behind the scenes, the final outcome is what people will remember and talk about. As you spend several months focused on your event, keep in mind the impact that it will have on your attendees. You want them to be reminiscing and talking about it for years.

Step 9: Debrief

In the project management world, debriefing is an important final step in the timeline. Yes, the event is done, the speakers are back in their hometowns, and the photos are online, but the learning is never-ending. Once your event has passed, schedule a meeting with key individuals to celebrate successes and review lessons learned for next time. This is a great time to refine your project management process since you aren’t under the same time crunch you were a few weeks before.

Take it from project managers on how to plan an “effortless” event that attendees will be talking about for years to come.

As you begin your planning process, keep this quote from Stephen Covey, leadership expert, in your mind: “All things are created twice; first mentally; then physically. The key to creativity is to begin with the end in mind, with a vision and a blue print of the desired result.”

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