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Top Success Secrets in Project Management for Freelancers

Jan 24, 2021
(updated: Feb 14, 2023)
Max 5 min read

This might be surprising but in the world of freelancing, clients don’t just hire someone based on their skills as a designer, developer, writer, and so on. Freelance project management skills play a part too, especially because many clients have been burned before.

To build a truly successful freelance business, you need a fantastic, in-demand skill as well as an ability to keep any job running smoothly, hitting deadlines while producing showstopping results. Let’s start with some of the important terms that every project manager (and de facto project manager, AKA any freelancer) needs to know.

Understanding critical success factors in project management

Successful project management requires a combination of tools, techniques, knowledge, and skills. Most projects have lots of moving parts and many different tasks to oversee and coordinate; as a freelancer, it can be easily overwhelming.

If you’re going to stay on track, there’s one aspect that you need to master: understanding critical success factors in project management.

What are critical success factors?

Critical success factors, or CSFs (also referred to as Key Results Areas, KRAs), are different activities that you have completed as part of any given project. As the name suggests, they are critical for success in your project and have a major impact on its overall viability.

Clearly defining CSFs will allow you to prioritize your project’s components, determine where you need to focus your attention, identify potential risks, and organize your time. This is especially valuable if you’re managing multiple projects at once.

Being S.M.A.R.T. when defining your CSFs

As you set out identifying CSFs for your project, a good rule of thumb is using the S.M.A.R.T. methodology. This is a useful acronym that will help you set and accomplish goals for nearly any challenge.

Under this methodology, “S” stands for “specific.” You’ll want to be as specific as possible or you won’t be able to truly focus on your ultimate goal. Here, you’ll want to keep in mind the five “W” questions, which are who, what, why, where, and which. This will help you be as clear as possible.

“M” means “measurable.” Since you’ll need goal tracking so you can stay motivated, your goals must be measurable, which means your CSF will answer questions like “how many” and “how much.”

“A” is “achievable.” Ideally, you will feel challenged toward reaching your goal, but you want to make sure that your goal is ultimately attainable. In fact, when you’re specific about defining your achievable goal, you may be able to identify resources that will help you along the way.    

“R” is “relevant,” where this particular goal aligns with your other goals and objectives. Make sure you can answer “yes” to the following questions: Is it the right time for pursuing this goal? Is it worth it pursuing this goal? Am I the right person for pursuing this particular goal?

“T” stands for “time-bound.” Your goal must have a deadline so you have something to work toward. Questions I recommend answering include, “what can I do today?” and “what can I do six weeks or six months from now to get me closer towards achieving my goal?”

Examples of project management critical success factors

Let’s say your project is a marketing campaign. If you use the S.M.A.R.T. methodology for defining your CSFs, they could look something like this: 

  1. Specific: Your critical success factor might be sending out an email campaign to at least 200 qualified leads as part of a project. Note how this is much more specific than simply saying you want to do outreach.
  2. Measurable: Your CSF could be outsourcing designing aspects of the project to a graphic designer with corresponding certifications and proven experience. This is better than simply aiming for collaboration with a “good” designer.
  3. Achievable: A strong CSF that is attainable could be creating a piece of content that ranks on the first page of Google. This is more realistic than aiming for the number one spot.
  4. Relevant: With regard to this criteria, your CSF might be contacting five sources in the industry and providing quotes for an article, which is relevant towards your overall goal of writing an article with superior and unique insight for your audience. 
  5. Time-bound: Perhaps you want to complete your project before a specific season or event to make it more successful.

Critical success factors vs. key performance indicators

It’s not uncommon for CSFs to be confused with key performance indicators or KPIs, but they are very different. 

The former could actually be described as “input,” or those components that you need to “win” for your project or be successful. In contrast, the latter would be the “output” and a way of determining how the project performed and if you really did “win.”

In short, you need CSFs for achieving your goal, and KPIs will tell you whether they’re working or not.

Tips for project management success

Now that you have an understanding of CSFs and KPIs, how do you put that knowledge into practice? Regardless of the type and format of project you’re working on, try these important project management tips.

Choose your tools

Someone could be the best roofer in existence but if they show up with nothing but hot glue, they won’t get the job done well. Project management is similar: the right tools make a powerful difference.

The top project management tool you need is an amazing task manager. This type of project management software lets you establish individual tasks and action items throughout each venture. From there, just follow the plan, checking off every item for each day and you’ll be on track to hit your final deadline.

Not all task lists are created equal, though, so explore them to find one with each necessary feature. Make sure it can assign specific dates for each task and attach specification notes to each task, for instance.

Consider your methodology

There are many project management methodologies you can use, from the Critical Path Method and Waterfall to Agile Project Management. Get familiar with your options and use one that best applies to the tasks you’ll need to complete. Additionally, there are plenty of Excel templates, including Gantt charts, available to make your planning process as smooth as possible.

Define your success factors

Defining, and then accomplishing, critical success factors is vital for achieving success. Use your brand new insights into CSFs to lay out your goals and objectives with your client and your collaborators to make sure everyone is on the same page.

Establish a plan from day one

With a full toolbox, your next step is planning each project on day one. As soon as the project is yours, break it down into smaller action items. Then assign a due date to each, allowing yourself room to breathe while keeping an eye on the final deadline. Defining success is a critical factor that will ultimately affect the final outcome.

It’s also worth noting that this type of breakdown might reveal activities that you hadn’t thought of before but which need to be completed as part of the overall project and factors affecting different elements that you hadn’t considered.

In fact, it can help to do this before agreeing on deadlines for clients’ projects. Clients often don’t know how much work a job takes, so they don’t realize if their timeline is impractical. You might not realize it either before sitting down and doing the math. After you’ve laid out each action item, it’s easier to return to the client with a new proposed timeline if necessary.

Focus on the hard steps first (if possible)

When you’ve got a large project at hand, tackle any challenging and important aspects first. By focusing initially on any uncertain aspects, those that are high risk and those that are most essential, you can get those out of the way and then move on to easier, more predictable tasks. 

Of course, there will be times when the most difficult steps can’t be done until certain other steps are completed, so this isn’t always an option. In any case, though, keep in mind the project’s schedule so as not to deviate from your established timeline.

Be realistic about what can be accomplished

It’s important to set goals from the beginning, but instead of establishing tight deadlines, be as realistic as you can and give yourself some breathing space. You’ll be able to work more comfortably and you might even be able to over-deliver on some of your deadlines and engage in less strict monitoring. 

This is especially true if you need to outsource certain parts of a project. When it comes to your subcontractors or members of your virtual team, consider padding the deadline, i.e., give them a deadline well before your final deadline with the client to ensure that their work arrives on time.

Consider project risk

Risk needs to be considered always. Once you identify any potential risks, they must be analyzed to determine any impact on the project, both quantitative and qualitative. If risks are identified, you’ll need to determine any steps to be taken to mitigate them. Many projects fail because risk factors were not adequately analyzed.

Have a secure file sharing system

Some jobs will be solo endeavors for clients while others will require that you manage other freelancers and subcontractors in a collaborative project. Either way, confidentiality and data security are critical as you exchange files with clients or colleagues.

Try using a secure storage drive. This will let you send files back and forth directly from the drive rather than risking email-related data breaches.

As an added bonus, those storage drives are accessible online from anywhere. No one wants to risk their computer dying in mid-project, taking hours of work to the grave with it. Digital storage drives remove that risk altogether.

Set communication goals

Maintaining control over projects is one thing; making sure clients know you have control is another. If clients don’t hear from you for weeks on end, they get worried you’ve forgotten them or are procrastinating and won’t finish their deliverables on time.

Give yourself communication goals, like communicating with every client at least twice per week. That could include sending sets of deliverables, asking questions, or just checking in. The key is staying in continuous contact because every successful freelancer needs their clients to have confidence in their progress.

The same goes for any collaborators, subcontractors, or other freelancers involved in the project. Get in touch every so often so they know you’re still focused on your project and so you can gauge their progress too.

It also helps to schedule specific meetings for checking in and catching up. Meetings with your client and your collaborative team (separately) bring everyone onto the same about the project’s progress and any directional shifts. It gives everyone a chance to bring up any concerns, feedback, or questions they have too.

Keep notes and perfect the process

No one hits it out of the park with their project management strategy on day one. It takes planning, analysis, and modification on an ongoing basis.

Throughout all projects, takes notes about any challenges, struggles, and successes you had with project management. After each project, schedule time to go through all your notes, evaluate your project management strategy, and make improvements. Over time, this results in a well-configured strategy for predictable results and long term success.

Get closure

Proper closure is just as important as initiation. You want to conclude successfully without letting any details fall through the cracks and disappointing your clients. Proper closure will allow you to deliver your project risk-free to a satisfied client.

Learning to master project management for freelancers

Like communication skills, technical skills, and so on, project management is a skill that develops over time with practice. Still, these steps above will get you onto the right track to finding your perfect system and rocking every task that comes your way.

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