From education to employment

Managing FE Projects & Herding Cats

In many senses managing a college is the same as managing any other business. And to be successful you need to be able to manage projects.

The following is taken from a book being published as this article goes live. It is the second in a series of books called Creating Business Growth.  The first in the series was launched on January 1st 2015 and became an Amazon best seller in hours on most of Amazon’s websites worldwide. It even became a best seller on, the Japanese version of Amazon.  

Although not specifically written for FE many of the contributors are trainers and the story they have to tell is very relevant to FE. In some cases it may appear alien to our culture and the FE ethos.  But many of the lessons are transferable.

The second in the series has been written in memory of a contributor from the first book; sadly Mike Seddon is no longer with us but he contributed to so much during his life that before he left us we planned the new book to help others and to generate income for his chosen charity.

This is the first chapter of the book, written for businesses including FE.

Herding Cats  

If you have ever designed a product or service; commissioned a website or app; outsourced work; recruited staff or any of the other dozens of things you need to do to run a business, then you’ve managed some form of business project.

If it went well that’s great.  But if it failed, if you had problems, or if you’d like to improve your project management skills then this chapter is for you.

In the next few pages I want to help you to avoid “herding cats”.  I want to help you manage your projects so that they achieve success with minimal hassle and cost.  I’m not going to go into the technicalities of project management in great depth or use technical terms more than I need to. But I am going to give you the essentials of project management that lie at the core of all successful projects.  So treat this as a primer that is designed to both help you avoid some of the pitfalls you might otherwise encounter and to point out some of the more in-depth sources of project management.

What is Project Management?

So what is project management? And more importantly why do you need to bother with it when you are busy running a business?

I promised I wouldn’t use technical language but bear with me over this definition.  Some of the words might appear off-putting, but I promise you it isn’t as bad as it sounds and it is important that we understand what we are talking about. .


“Project management is the discipline of instigating, planning, executing, controlling, and completing the work of an individual (or team) to achieve specific goals and meet specific success criteria”.

OK, so if like me you aren’t naturally the most organised or disciplined person in the world then some of these words are frightening and you might want to run a mile.  But before you do, think about this.  If you want your project to work out OK, then you need to have a vision of what it will look like at the end.  For example, if you want a website built you will know if you want it to sell products, provide information or whatever.  If you are going to sell products, then having some sort of shopping cart on it would be a good idea wouldn’t it?  And if you are going to sell products you had better have some pages with the products displayed and some great images, copy etc.  You’ll also need to tell people how much the product is and how they can buy it! 

So, having decided this sort of thing I have to tell you that you’ve started to run a project.  In fact, you’ve reached stage two in the process.  If you look at the definition above you’ll see that stage one is instigating the project, and that was when you decided to build a website, and stage two is planning.  And by deciding what you need to include on your website you have started the planning process. It wasn’t so painful was it?

Now let’s look at the alternative.  You decide on a website .. great part one is done .. but then you fail to plan it in any detail.  In fact, the planning is so bad that when you think you have completed it customers find lots of great products but no shopping cart and can’t buy your product.  Not a great website is it?  I think we can safely say that, in this case, the project was a failure due to lack of planning.

Clearly planning and control are essential parts of the process.  And even if, like me, you are not a naturally organised person, it is easy to see why you need to sit down and plan and control carefully.  Once you get your head around it you’ll find it isn’t so hard as you might fear.

As I wrote this chapter, Mitch Russo who has also contributed a chapter, commented favourably on a photograph of a leopard I’d taken and put on Facebook. The leopard is seen, apparently creeping through undergrowth, from just a few feet away.  Mitch is a very good photographer and praise from him is appreciated. This leopard image is a photograph I’m proud of; not often do you get the chance to photograph leopards in such close proximity.

But of course it wasn’t chance.  The photographing of this ferocious feline was a project.  To be honest almost anyone with a good camera could have taken this shot. The real skill was in finding the leopard and getting it to stop in the right place so that I could photograph it from a distance of about eight feet.  That was project management. Have a look at the leopard and a few other wild animals I’ve photographed and see if you can work out how I project managed these photographs.  

What about Herding Cats?

Herding Cats: An idiom that refers to a frustrating attempt to control or organise a class of entities which are uncontrollable or chaotic,

Wikipedia 2015

The above definition just about sums up the production of the first volume of Creating Business Growth.  It was a project I conceived late one summer and mentioned to a good friend, Mike Seddon.  As soon as I described the idea he was very enthusiastic, but immediately said it would be like herding cats.

He encapsulated my idea something like this. You want to get a load of very motivated, very busy, entrepreneurial marketing people to each contribute a chapter to a book. People that will want to contribute; but whose natural tendency will be to intervene or even try to manage this project themselves. These people are successful because they are go-getters and take no prisoners.  They don’t talk for years about ideas, they “just do it”.  It’ll be like herding cats.

Put like that Mike was right.  Project managing a joint book was going to be like herding cats.  And Mike should know; he was a damn good project manager himself.

But in a sense that made me more determined.  Being one of the oldest in the group I’d had years of experience managing projects of all sizes.  From running £multi-million marketing campaigns to managing the launch of new products with no budget at all … from setting up new businesses to advising on the mergers and de-mergers of huge businesses.

With this background surely a book wasn’t going to be a major problem.

According to my definition above, there are just five steps:


Planning and design

Execution and construction

Monitoring and controlling systems

Completion and finish point.

Easy I thought.

How wrong I was.

In some senses it was much more difficult than I imagined.  But that meant that success was much sweeter when it arrived.  The day the book became a best seller, on both and, it became worth every bit of the blood, sweat and tears that went into it.

Over the next few days the book became a bestseller on more Amazon sites.  In total it was a number one on no fewer than eight Amazon sites, from to

Let Me Tell You a Story

I love explaining things via stories. Stories hit a button that was first pressed in most of us at a very early stage.  Do you remember those magic words, “Once upon a time …. ”?

You’ll find a chapter on story telling by Lisa Bloom later in this book.  Stories bring to life what could be boring or dry subjects.  And let’s face it, project management doesn’t excite everyone.

But success does.  So let me use the story behind project managing the first volume of Creating Business Growth.  Of course back then I didn’t know there would be a second volume.  That second volume is this book and it is now part of the story.

Instigation ….. the start!

It all started with an idea that came out of nowhere really.  One minute I was minding my own business and the next I was going to write a bestseller.  It happened between the time I got into the shower and when I got out.  Where the idea had been before that I can’t say.  But as I got out of the shower there it was, and it was all mine.

Now this might seem a trivial way to explain it.  But in reality many people get great ideas when they are relaxed.  I advocate going for walk every day. Look at the scenery, admire the flowers and if you meet any sheep or cows have a chat with them! In other words, turn your mind off from work and think about other things.  Do this and often stray ideas creep into your head and pressing problems are solved.  OK, sometimes you only have the glimmer of an idea and then have to develop it further, but phase one of project management has commenced.  You have an idea and are starting to make decisions about your project.

Before we move on I want to stress that the idea that you can turn off and make decisions isn’t as mad as it sounds. In fact, “unconscious thought” about a problem often gives better results than deep thought into the same problem. I’m not saying you shouldn’t think problems through, but a period spent relaxing seems to be beneficial. It is why people often “sleep on it”.  The process of sleeping allows the unconscious mind to process ideas, put preconceptions and biases to one side and come to better decisions.

Don’t just take my word for it; Google the topic and look at the work done at Radboud University, Nijmegan, by Marteen Bos and Amy Cuddy from the Harvard Business School amongst others. 

So sleep, walking and bathing are good for solving problems.  I’m not sure which problem I had in the back of my mind when I went into the shower, but writing a book seems to be the answer I came out with. 

Clearly the practise of planning carefully, thoroughly thinking things through and then sleeping on it has a place in the early stages of project management.

Another problem solving technique I often use here is to look at the project from a different perspective.  I imagine it is not my project but one I’m advising a client on.  So, in my head I work out what I would objectively and dispassionately advise the client. This strips out my own preferences and biases and provides an answer that is much purer and elegant than what I might otherwise decide.

Consultation….. sharing ideas.

You often have to be careful not to let everyone know what you are planning.  This is particularly true where patents are involved or where a competitor could steal your idea or get to market first.

But talking through your idea with a mentor, coach or close colleague is useful.  They can help you in the thinking process and save you a lot of problems.

In my case I spoke to Mike and his first question was, “What is your overall objective”.

Well this one was easy.  I knew exactly what my objectives were.  I wanted to write a book that would help my clients and prospects and become a best seller.  There is a certain kudos in being a best seller (see Ian Brodie’s chapter on Authority) and although I had one best selling book under my belt I wanted another.  Implicit in my objectives was the fact I didn’t want to write a whole book on Creating Business Growth, which I saw mainly as a marketing book).  I wanted to share the hard work and glory with some pretty special people I knew.


OK, so that sounds lazy.  But actually it is a key project management technique.  You can’t do everything yourself; often you don’t have the time, skills or inclination.  So you delegate, outsource, subcontract or whatever.  You probably do this certain parts of your business already; maybe with bookkeeping, hosting your website or servicing your vehicles.  It is common practice.

You see I’m a marketing man with a vast array of knowledge and expertise but I knew that the people in my mastermind group were extremely good at some very specific bits of marketing that I could only skim over.  It is a bit like going to a doctor or consultant.  The General Practitioner is just that; a generalist.  But the medical consultant has in depth knowledge in niche areas of medicine.  Both have their place in medicine; and in project management we need to know when and where to delegate specific pieces of the project.

In return for helping me write the book I had to give something in return. In this case it would be the fact contributors were listed as joint authors of a best seller.  Being a co-author shouldn’t be viewed as second best.  Many research papers are jointly written.  Many really important discoveries are jointly made and we think no less of these people. Think of Crick and Watson, Marie and Pierre Curie or Sergey Brin and Larry Page.

Getting Team Buy-In

Buy-in was an important element of the project. With it I had buy-in from a team of experts.  Without buy-in from your team it is going to be really difficult to deliver your project.  Team members need to understand your project and their part in it.  Without this you have a group of people working on a piece of work but don’t have the necessary elements for a successful project.  They may pull in different directions and not give you their full attention or effort.

With buy-in I also had something else. I had a team that wanted the project to be a success.  At this stage they were also able to contribute to the planning of the project.  In fact the most important part they played in the project was to help determine the chapter titles.  It worked like this. I asked them all to suggest a chapter title and a synopsis of the chapter they wished to contribute. I then read their suggestions through and either agreed them or suggested amendments to make them fit with the overall theme of the book. We also worked together on the editing and proofreading of the book.  All the chapters were loaded to a shared drive and each contributor then proofread a fellow contributors chapter.

This meant the workload and planning of the project was shared between us and the whole project became much easier because of this. In reality writing the first volume of Creating Business Growth was a relatively simple process. The plan was written on one side of A4 and took very little time to devise. However putting the plan on paper, for many projects, is a much more complex task. In many cases it is preferable to use dedicated software such as Microsoft Project manager. You might even employ a Prince 2 certified manager to lead the project.

Whatever project management planning devices or software you use, it is vital that you monitor progress against benchmarks that you establish from the outset. For me this was as simple as deciding when I wanted the chapter title and synopsis submitted or the deadline date for final submission of chapters.


To ensure that deadlines and benchmarks are achieved it is vital to communicate with the project team on a regular basis. For example in the weeks leading up to the final copy deadline I sent out a number of encouraging emails to check on progress and to remind the contributors of the approaching deadline.

Sequential Steps?

Many steps in any project will be sequential. For example, we couldn’t write the chapters of this book before deciding on the chapter title and whom was contributing.  In other words, there is a Critical Path that we must take.

In this case the writing of the chapter is dependent on the chapter title and content. But in many cases we can work on two of three parts of the project independently of other parts of the project; these parts of the project can run in parallel. For example once we have the names of the contributors and their photograph we could design the cover of the book. This was independent of the chapter being written and proofread.

One area of project management that many people struggle with is that of completion. Strange though it sounds they don’t actually know when they have completed the project. This often happens in projects such as website design. The reality is that websites are never really completed; we just keep adding more content all the time. So during the planning stage we need to determine when we need to be to launch the site. In this case there will be a minimum number of pages and amount of content added to the site within the context of the structure we have decided upon. I have seen some websites exist in the design stage for anything up to a year whilst the website owner was fine tuning the last details of the site. What these website designers had failed to understand is that a website that has not been launched is totally ineffective, whereas even an incomplete website, provided that it has reached a certain standard, is effective. Not launching your website, because a photograph need moving two pixels to the left, is not good project management, it is poor business management.

Writing Creating Business Growth: The Last Chapter

So I have managed large and complex projects for many years, and I’ve written all the words above. You might therefore be forgiven if you think that I find project management easy and that writing this book has been an example of project management good practice.

In many respects the writing of this book has been very simple. We started as a team with a shared objective; we wanted to write a book that will be useful to our customers and would raise money for Mike Seddon’s preferred charity. We all knew Mike well, we’d listened to The Last Webinar, and in his final weeks had watched Mike’s daily videos on Facebook. They were inspirational and we were inspired.

But project management is dynamic.  There are numerous variables and constant change. The “best laid plans of mice and men” do not guarantee success.  Our carefully laid plans for this book was severely tested when several contributors were taken sick or had close family members with illnesses. This meant they could not complete their chapter by the agreed deadline.

Projects need to have a certain amount of slippage time built in to the timetable. With this, in many cases, it is possible to get back on time. As part of project management it is wise to carry out a risk assessment on the project. For example what are the implications of missing a particular deadline.

Our plan with this book was to complete by Christmas for launch on January 1st. but this wasn’t to be.

Because several contributors understandably and unavoidably missed their copy deadline, by as little as a few days, meant I missed a planned window of activity with the result that the whole project was delayed by months.

This is not uncommon in project management. On this occasion I had planned to compile all the chapters into the finished Book in the few days leading up to my holiday. The plan was to then distribute the book to all the contributors for a final proofing. I knew that on my return I was about to undertake another major project and I didn’t want the two to clash.

At times like these it is necessary to make hard decisions. I had to decide which project was to take precedence. I knew that the second project was time sensitive whereas writing this book was not. Certainly we had all worked hard on the book project to date, but completion by this particular date was not an imperative in terms of our overall objectives. Provided we manage the marketing correctly, and made money for the charity, the actual publication date was not vital.

Project management is the art of the possible; we need to determine what is desirable and what is essential. What is desirable is not always essential. At times like this you need to go back to your objectives and determine what is most important. Although we had said we wished to complete by Christmas for a January publication date this was not one of our prime objectives. Our prime objective was to write a book that raised money for Mike’s preferred charity. Mike had made it clear to me that he expected us to go for bestseller status as it would bring credit jointly to the people that contributed chapters and to their businesses. But over and above that I knew the priority had to be to raise money for his charity and to bring his work, Five Questions and Seddon to a wider audience.  By doing this we would achieve our objectives; to write a book that helped other business people like us, and to make money for Mike’s charity. That wasn’t dependent on publishing on a certain date. So, despite certain misgivings I accepted the delay and rescheduled the plan.

Flexibility is a necessary project management skill. Clearly we want to hit all our objectives, but sometimes you have to prioritise.

Price, Quality, Time

An architect friend of mine always reminds me of the Price, Quality, Time equation.  When planning and constructing a building you can go for high quality and quick completion but that costs money.  If you want to save money then you have to take longer or drop the quality.  You can have any two of these factors but rarely all three.  Of course we can alter some parameters and change the dynamic.  For example, instead of building a house the conventional way we can use techniques like offsite fabrication. In other words the building is prefabricated in a factory and delivered to the site for completion.  You can produce very satisfactory buildings like this but you will lose the quality inherent in walls crafted by a master bricklayer on site.   You can call these factory produced structures “prefabs” or give them fancy names like “modular construction”, but changing the name doesn’t necessarily make them superior. These techniques can lead to rapid construction and one of my clients was able to install new buildings on their site over a weekend.  In the days leading up to delivery the site was prepared and was ready when I left on Friday.  On the following Monday morning the buildings were operational. The modules, complete with plumbing, electricity and fittings were delivered on Saturday, they were then slotted together and the power, water and waste systems were turned on. On Sunday the furniture was delivered and installed. Voila, they had a fully functional building in days without all the noise and mud problems often associated with building sites.

Another client designed a very high spec building in London, had it fabricated in China and subsequently built in Sydney, Australia. Building was quick but design, fabrication and delivery took a significant time.  The Price, Quality, Time equation has applied to every project I have ever worked on and we need to bear that in mind with all projects.

At the end of the day it is all about how you project manage.

In this chapter I set out to give you a flavour of the practicalities of project management.  However before embarking on your next project I suggest you investigate the topic in more depth than these few thousand words can delve. Try Googling project management and some of the words I’ve used and learn more.  Look particularly for blog posts or LinkedIn and Facebook groups where there is discussion and the sharing of ideas taking place. You can learn a lot from surfing the net.

Creating Business Growth: The Last Chapter is available on Kindle for a modest price.  All proceeds go to a hospice charity.

The paperback version of the book will be available shortly.  It is not priced modestly ….. but all proceeds will again go to charity.

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