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Managing Projects Effectively: A Guide for Department Heads, Part 2

Leadership and Management

Managing Projects Effectively: A Guide for Department Heads, Part 2

Part 1 of this series dealt with what you as a department head should consider before you embark on a new project. Why? It’s easy to have a great idea. You may be bursting with creative designs for your unit. But carrying out a project successfully requires time, money, and labor, so you want to have made a careful assessment of whether to proceed. If your answer is yes, here are some valuable next steps.

Define the vision and mission of the project. Work with the members of your unit to develop a clear description of what you are trying to create. The visioning process helps ensure that everyone on the team is working toward the same end. A clear vision is the basis for drafting a mission—namely, the what, why, and who of your project (Didcoe & Clarkson, 2008). Your mission should tell what you are building, why it exists, and who will benefit from it. Establishing a vision and mission will help keep you and your team on course as you develop the details of your plan. Doing so also serves as the basis for consistent messaging internally and externally.

Develop goals and the actions required to achieve them. Goals are best expressed in SMART terms: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time bound (University of California, n.d.). You will need to break some goals into tasks or sequenced steps that lead to completion of the goal. SMART goals provide a guide to knowing who will complete what tasks by when and, if phrased in quantifiable terms, help you and others know that you have completed them.

Goals couched in a time-bound manner help draw your attention to the importance of timing. In an academic context, this is a make-or-break variable. Meetings scheduled during semester breaks may be sparsely attended, and searches conducted off cycle will yield a smaller pool of qualified applicants. Others may not be aware of the timeline essential to your success, so pay close attention to set your project up for success. Consider your timeline to scaling up to 100 percent of target operations. How can you optimize the timing of communication and the allocation of resources so that nobody wastes time waiting? For instance, if creating a new program, can you begin with a part-timer who helps build enrollments while you work toward the full capacity you need to justify a full-time position? Or can the full-time person you have hired do outreach and marketing until you can attract a full load of classes for them?

Incorporate academic outcomes descriptors and assessment from the start. Academia wastes a lot of time responding to the call for outcomes data where none was collected, where the plan for collection was obsolete, or where communication had broken down. If you can communicate outcomes in clear and simple terms that make sense to all your constituents—to prospective and current students, their parents, administrators, donors, lawmakers, and new hires—you can save immense amounts of time while keeping your data tracking and messaging as consistent as possible. Reliable data on learning outcomes is essential for so many reasons. It helps inform efforts to achieve consistent retention and can contribute to your assessment of effectiveness in teaching.

Identify key performance indicators and plan for review. Many projects begin with an initial plan, but there may be inadequate attention to a timeline for the moving parts in relation to one another. If you are creating a new program, when will marketing material need to reach prospective students to achieve optimal enrollment once the university approves the program. If your plan involves investing in faculty development, when will you review how the investment of time and money has led to pedagogical innovation that supports program goals? This is more complex than conducting an annual performance review; it is more about linking investments to outcomes and to continuous improvement so you can continue to justify the resources you want. If you expected to retain X percent of students from the first semester to the second and exceed that mark, how can you do more of the same in that or in other programs like it? If you had planned to apply for grants or solicit from donors, are you gathering relevant information in a timely way so you can complete those applications and communications before you need the resources they will provide? Keeping a close eye on key performance indicators helps you notice when one moving part of your plan is falling short of the targets you established. If things are going well, you want to consider how you can expand to meet demand.

Develop your elevator speech. Having a clear sense of vision, mission, goals, and outcomes, you are ready to package consistent and convincing messaging. Sometimes when you get buried in the details of a complex project, an unexpected inquiry about the project can catch you in a reactive mode, your response colored by the most recent frustration. You want to be prepared to speak concisely and convincingly about your project at a moment’s notice. You never know who will inquire in passing.

Position yourself for an entrepreneurial approach. Take the initiative to use the productivity criteria or return-on-investment formulas common to your institution. Know your numbers before your dean or a program review committee brings them to you so you are prepared to remediate and innovate. If student credit hour production per full time position is a common measure, and yours falls short, dig into why and see whether you can make tweaks that improve your results. If your data is above average, bring it to the dean’s attention and ask for additional resources to benefit the program or create your next project. Don’t let your or your faculty’s high performance go unnoticed.

Creating and following a management plan can help you communicate better within your team, track your success, and improve your processes when you embark on the next project. Sharing the management plan with your team and your dean will help everyone know what you are accomplishing together.


Didcoe, R., & Clarkson, B. (2008, May). Management plan guide (2nd ed.).Department of Local Government, Sport and Cultural Industries, Government of Western Australia. https://www.dlgsc.wa.gov.au/docs/default-source/sport-and-recreation/management-plan-guide.pdf

University of California. (n.d.). SMART goals: A how to guide. University of California. https://www.ucop.edu/local-human-resources/_files/performance-appraisal/How%20to%20write%20SMART%20Goals%20v2.pdf

Laura G. McGee, PhD, served most recently as head of the Department of Modern Languages at Western Kentucky University. Under her leadership, the department nearly doubled the number of its languages, programs, and majors. She now conducts program reviews and consults for LifeStories Matter LLC Intercultural Training and Coaching. In February 2023, she was placed on the Fulbright Specialist Roster for a period of three years. As a Fulbright Specialist serving a university abroad on a short-term consulting assignment, she will share her expertise in the areas of world languages program development and higher education administration.


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