Unpacking an Association’s Project Management Bag

Gretchen Steenstra | 11.01.18
Topics: Project Management

Imagine hiking into the woods for an overnight backpacking trip. The 40-pound pack on your back is heavy, but it has everything you need for a few days away from the luxuries of civilization.

When you started backpack camping, those first few miles were anxious ones. What did I forget? What if I’m not prepared for the unexpected? But now, heading down the trail, you’re confident, excited, and prepared to face whatever the wilderness brings your way.

trekking-245311_640Project managers head into a new project with that same sense of excitement and caution. And, like backpackers, they only achieve success if everything they need is in their metaphorical association project management backpack.

Let’s see what association project managers carry in their backpacks.


A backcountry camping trip is a project. Responsibilities are divvied up. Someone carries the tent, someone else carries the stove and food. One person filters water while another gets the food ready. The person with the most knowledge and experience usually takes the lead. They know how to manage time and can show others how to do their tasks efficiently. They understand how to handle risks and follow park regulations.

During a technology project, the leader must also have the right skills—in this case, project management knowledge and experience. You need a professional project manager, either someone on staff who’s properly trained and whose job is to manage projects, or an outsourced project manager with the right mix of credentials and experience.

But sometimes, a colleague without any project management experience is put in charge of the project. They’re already carrying a heavy pack (workload) and now they’re somehow expected to carry this additional load. 🤬 Don’t rely on your technology vendor’s project manager to manage your project. Their focus is managing their team’s work, not the tasks assigned to your association.

The most important component of your project management bag is people. Unfortunately, many associations set themselves up for a hard trail ahead when the person in charge has neither the skills nor the time to effectively lead the project.

You must define project roles and responsibilities in detail for each person. Make sure the right people are included in each phase of the project. For example, don’t exclude important users from requirements discussions, or assign too few people to convert data or test the system.

A large project team for a technology project (for example, an LMS, CMS, or AMS implementation) must include:

  • Professional project manager: Staff or consultant
  • Executive sponsor: Someone in senior management with the authority to deliver the necessary resources (including budget and staff time), remove internal obstacles, and hold team members accountable for their responsibilities. The sponsor keeps the leadership team updated on the project. Without the support of an executive sponsor, projects are more likely to fail.
  • Business analyst: Helps the organization analyze needs, gather requirements, and develop solutions.
  • Business experts: People within the business unit, such as staff who use the system or use data from the system. They don’t have to be managers or directors.
  • Technologists: Someone from the IT department who can help with technical aspects of the project. For example, they help define the data exchange and business rules for integration.
  • Vendor/consultant partners: The technology provider’s team and any consultants helping with selection and implementation.

During the project, revisit the people element on a regular basis. You may have to adjust roles and responsibilities during different project phases. Keep the right people engaged at the right time.


An experienced backpacker doesn’t head out into the woods without a plan. They have a proven method for tackling different tasks, like stowing food away from hungry bears. They have ground rules for sanitation. They are prepared for the unexpected, like a turn in the weather.

pexels-photo-1308751A project manager doesn’t handle a project willy-nilly. They are similarly guided by the items tucked in their project manager’s bag, such as:

Project charter. An official one-pager signed off by the executive sponsor and key stakeholders authorizing the project to begin and granting the project manager authority to manage the project. It demonstrates management’s commitment to the project and allocates the resources required to successfully complete it. In the project charter are a description and scope of the project—what the project includes and what it doesn’t.

Project management plan. This document includes the following:

  • Stakeholder registry
  • Project timeline and budget
  • Communication plan
  • Risk management plan
  • Change control plan
  • Quality control plan
  • System acceptance and testing policy
  • Documentation policy
  • Integration management plan
  • Project close plan
  • Association standards, guidelines, and policies

Let’s dig into a few of those plans and policies.

Communication plan. This plan defines the frequency and format for communication about the project with different groups, such as the core project team, leadership, and staff. The project team must always be kept in the loop. After the kick-off meeting, people tend to run to their corner, start working, and never talk to anyone else until something’s due. Dont! Without regular communication, they could miss critical information that affects their work.

Ground rules. The project plan establishes guidelines for discussions about requirements and retrospective meetings. Ground rules encourage frank, objective, and constructive conversation.

Risk management plan. Unforeseen risks can negatively impact your project’s timeline and budget. The worst-case project scenario may not be as scary as a bear sniffing around your tent, but the unexpected can (and will) crop up, so packing your project “first-aid kit” is a must.

Training plan. Schedule training throughout the project to allow the core team members to learn the new process or system. Build new staff training and refresher training into future budgets.

Project close documentation. Make time for internal and partner/vendor project close meetings. This documentation—an archive or library of lessons learned—is an organizational asset. Project close lessons serve as the starting point for the next project.

For large projects, consider reviewing organizational strategies and standards that may impact the project, such as:

  • Data privacy policy
  • Data integration strategy and policies
  • Preference management
  • Security


Don’t wait until you’re out of cell phone range and miles away from the nearest computer to find out that no one knows how to set up the tent, light the camp stove, or hang your food. Everyone’s a backpacker. They should all have basic backpacking skills.

Every staff member in your association is a project manager. CEOs manage major initiatives. Membership staff manage recruitment campaigns. Meeting planners manage events. Everyone should have basic project management skills.

However, large projects require a great deal of time and advanced project management skills—and, therefore, a dedicated project manager. Consider hiring an external expert to fill this critical role, if you don’t have an internal project management office.

Ideally, your project manager holds the Project Management Professional (PMP) credential. A Project Management Institute (PMI) study found that when more than 1/3 of an organization’s project managers are PMP-certified, more projects are completed on time, on budget, and meeting original goals.

Another valuable project management credential is the Agile Certified Practitioner (PMI-ACP). The agile project management approach breaks up a project into short iterative segments called sprints. According to PMI, “organizations that are highly agile and responsive to market dynamics complete more of their projects successfully than their slower-moving counterparts.”

We also highly regard the Certified ScrumMaster (CSM) credential. In the simplest terms, a ScrumMaster is a project manager who “breaks large projects into smaller stages, reviewing and adapting along the way.”

All project managers should be trained in:

  • Planning, prioritization, and scheduling
  • Leadership and team management
  • Adult learning styles
  • Task management
  • Communication
  • Negotiating
  • Risk management
  • Cost containment
  • Quality assurance
  • Facilitation
  • Change management


Backpackers carry only what they know they need or should have handy for the trip ahead. Space is limited. The more you pack, the heavier the load.

Project managers have more tools at hand—both tangible and digital. Assembling the right set of tools is critical. Having too many tools can lead to a loss of time and information, or duplication of work caused by unintegrated systems.

Pick the right tool for the job. Take into consideration what your vendor’s team is using. Keep in mind, sometimes the tools included in a software package are just okay, not great. Don’t settle for okay if something better is available.

Document storage. If you plan to store project documents in the project management (PM) tool, develop a plan to archive key documents. Another option is SharePoint Online.

Virtual meeting platform. Zoom is a popular choice.

Project team communication tool. Find a lightweight chat tool with a good mobile option. We’ve seen clients have success with Slack, Microsoft Teams, Skype for Business, and the chat function within their PM tool. Pick and allow only one or two chat tools. If you have too many places for chat, information will get lost.

Project management tools. Many factors come into play when selecting PM tools.

  • Task management: Options include Wrike, LiquidPlanner, Asana, and Microsoft Planner (part of Office 365). Does your team like the kanban scheduling system? If so, consider Trello or the card view of Asana.
  • Tasks with many dependencies: Options include Microsoft Project, Clarizen, and Teamwork.
  • Calendars: Use your PM tool and/or Outlook.
  • Workflow, mock up, and wireframe tools: Options include Microsoft Visio and Balsamiq.

PM_Stress_Box_3Facilitation toolbox for in-person meetings. Brainstorming and planning sessions are typically more effective in person. However, meetings focused on a specific activity, such as requirements or testing, can be managed using virtual meeting tools. Here’s what I suggest you have in your project management facilitation toolbox.

Capturing information:

  • Dry erase markers and white board
  • Flip charts, permanent markers, and tape
  • Large and small index cards
  • Painter’s tape for creating grids and boxes
  • Lots of Sharpies and markers
  • Phone camera to capture a work session’s output

Prioritizing information:

  • Sticky notes in several colors
  • Labels and dots to help identify decisions or critical information

Preserving sanity:

Prepare your association project management backpack

As you can see, the project manager’s bag is full—and heavy. You can’t expect someone on staff to carry a project manager’s backpack while already wearing another (for example, membership department responsibilities). Imagine a hiker trying to weigh themselves down with two heavy backpacks—it won’t work for long.

Instead, distribute the weight evenly. Consider having a professional project manager assist your team so you have adequate people on hand to carry all the bags you need to make your IT project a success.

What's in your organization's IT Bag?   Make sure you have the people, processes, tools, and talents to advance your  association or nonprofit. Get Our Free Checklist

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