Design-Driven Project Management for Event Planners

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Do you want to run your event, team, and suppliers more effectively? It’s time to embrace design-driven project management. Here’s how:

Event planners juggle a lot of roles and responsibilities. But no matter how good you are at your job, you will at some point be relying on someone else to do something. Sometimes those people are your staff, other times suppliers. Some you will have “jurisdiction” over, while some will be completely independent of you. Still, from a client perspective as the event planner or manager, you will be expected to make sure that everyone is working well together and exceeding expectations. After all, it’s your name and reputation at stake. That’s why it’s beneficial for all event planners to have a basic knowledge of project management and best practices. You’ll save yourself a lot of headache and operate more efficiently if you master the basics.


5 Basics of Effective Design-Driven Project Management for Event Planners

  1. Develop a complete understanding of the event and all of its components.
  2. Set milestones along the way towards your end goal.
  3. Communicate expectations clearly and often.
  4. Track and analyze your progress.
  5. Debrief with all involved.

These project management tips will help you get everyone on board early but understand that you’ll need to do some course correction along the way. That’s where the fallout between project managers and event planners occurs. PMs using traditional planning spend a long time understanding the mission and designing a course to get there. Their planning doesn’t veer from that course without a major roadblock forcing that to happen.

Design-driven planning, on the other hand, better fits areas like events. The concept of design-driven planning works best in areas of great uncertainty. In events, it’s possible that information brought to light may alter the way things get done. For instance, if you project you’ll be sold out four weeks before the event, and you’re not, your course of action in order to sell those seats will change. In traditional planning, the failure would merely be noted at the debrief. At the end of the event, a calculation would be performed to measure how close the outcome came to the original projection.

Because of all the moving pieces, event planning lends itself to a design-driven planning approach. Here’s how to do it:

Step 1. Develop a Complete Understanding of the Event and All of Its Components

This is a standard part of all event planning but if you’re going to follow a formal project management planning scope, you need to ensure it’s all listed in writing and each person’s responsibilities are enumerated in the document. Make sure everyone participating is aware of their roles. This document should include things like:

  • Event goals
  • Schedule
  • Budget
  • People involved and roles they’re performing as well as a chain of command as to who is responsible for whom and who is the point person for which piece
  • Details on how the project will be measured in an on-going capacity
  • Proactive plan to address perceived challenges
  • How success will be measured

While traditional project management requires these things be enumerated early on, in design-driven planning you’ll want to ensure everyone knows this document is a fluid one that will need to be updated as the event planning process progresses.

Step 2. Set Milestones Along the Way Towards Your End Goal.

If you’ve ever been in a cockpit with a pilot or on a ship with a captain, you’ll notice there’s more to just plotting your beginning and end point. You must continue navigating throughout the trip, and depending on the weather conditions, you may have to perform a bit of a course correction.

You can’t simply set a course and forget about it. You need to measure where you are several times during your trip and adjust accordingly if you’re off the path to your destination. You never just plug on for the original estimated amount of time it will take and then look around to see if you’re there.

The same is true of events. For a successful event, you will need to create mini-milestones to chart your path towards your ultimate event and business goals. In this way, you can measure your success or challenge on a more regular basis when you have time to still turn things around, if necessary.

Design-driven planners rely on these mini-milestones to place into action, or have time to create, their contingency plans. If the only planning you do from a goals’ perspective is fleshing out your final goal, you’ll either get there or you won’t. You won’t know which until the day of the event or the debrief later. It’s too late to make changes at that point.

With this course of mini-goals, you’re able to see when things are not proceeding as expected early enough to turn them around with a contingency plan or escalated procedures.

Step 3. Communicate Expectations Clearly and Often.

In an event, you have those who are involved before, after, and during. It’s important that everyone on the team, whether they ultimately answer to you or not, is held accountable for their role in meeting expectations and deliverables.

You may not be their supervisor but if they’re contributing to the success or failure of the event, you need to make sure they know what part of the schedule is theirs. This likely involves several meetings and ongoing project performance audits. But how do you get people who are not your direct reports to listen to you and follow your lead?

7 Habits of Highly Effective Project Managers

Emad Aziz, President of the PMI Egypt Chapter and CEO of BRISK Business, Inc., created 7 habits of effective project managers based on Stephen Covey’s book, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. They are:

  1. Be Proactive. It is difficult to get in front of a problem when you have to approach it from the rear. Design-driven planning is adaptive and fluid so that you can be more prepared for, and adapt to, things that happen during events. Part of your planning should address the common what-ifs so that everyone on the team knows the protocol to enact should they need to.
  2. Communicate the What’s in It for Me factor. Face it. Managing a team that doesn’t directly report to you is hard. That’s why when explaining expectations you need to spend some time translating it into their vernacular, which means talking about what’s in it for them. Establishing wins for everyone is critical to motivating the team.
  3. Prioritize Effectively. In the event, there are actions that are contingent on previous actions. Prioritizing the schedule so that everyone has the information they need to complete their piece of it is key to your success. Procrastinating or not adhering to the schedule in one area can have a ripple effect on several.
  4. Seek to Understand. When people feel listened to, they’re more apt to perform well because they feel like an important part of the project. When they don’t, they feel like a cog in the wheel taking orders. This is not good for morale or efficiency. You cannot merely tell people you understand them. You need to show them you do. People will generally not make the effort to understand you as the leader until they feel understood. Aziz suggests, “listening with the intent to be influenced.”
  5. Begin With The End. Always keep in mind the end goal and how every decision and action brings you closer or pulls you further from it. This is where your mini-milestones come in handy so you can continue to chart your course and recognize when you’ve strayed from it.
  6. Assume There Is No External Team. Treat your suppliers the way you do your staff. They should be privy to critical information to perform their piece and you should aim to obtain buy-in from them whenever possible. Get to know them and the members of their extended teams. Dictatorships are not welcome in today’s corporate world and events are no different. When people feel a part of something, they will support it. However, it is important to have balance. Suppliers should be included, but not placed above, your employee team. That erodes morale just as quickly as suppliers not feeling a part of things.
  7. Sharpen the Saw. Stay at the top of your game through professional development, formal and informal. While this is not hard for professional event planners, it does take time. But keeping the “saw sharp” will ultimately make every event easier. In work, if you take time out to sharpen the saw, the cutting goes quicker. If you don’t you’ll struggle. This is an important part of Covey’s and Aziz’ prescription for effective leadership.

Step 4. Track and Analyze Your Progress.

It is absolutely essential to track and analyze your progress throughout the event. If you wait until the end to see how things are going, you lose the ability to make corrections early enough for them to affect your success.

A successful project management approach keeps goals and budget in mind at all times, tracking how every decision you make affects those two items. Each action either places you closer to your goal or you begin to drift off the path. With a project management specialty, it’s important that the entire team also knows how you are doing towards these items.

Step 5. Debrief with Everyone Involved.

The debrief is important to the project for two reasons:

  • It indicates success (or not) and
  • It begins the conversation about the next event.

A capable event planner with an eye for project management will always be thinking of the event as a way to learn and prepare for the next. This means communicating and debriefing with everyone involved: staff, suppliers, and clients; though this needn’t be done together in one meeting.

This time should be used to talk about what worked and what can be improved upon during the next event. In an ideal debrief people at all levels should be represented and feel empowered to share their experiences. Don’t debrief with everyone on the team but make sure all groups and levels are represented for best results.

Do’s and Dont’s of an Effective Debrief


  • Account for any changes that occurred during the time leading up to the event or afterward. It’s important to get a 360-degree view.
  • Talk through your debrief in reference to goals and budget. You need a frame to reference.
  • Plan your debrief ahead of time. You can schedule it before the event even happens so it’s on everyone’s calendar.
  • Encourage everyone to share. It’s important to cultivate an environment where people share their thoughts and opinions without concern of getting fired or not getting hired again. If people feel this way, they may answer differently. If they’re not giving their true opinion, your debrief is ineffective and not worth doing.


  • Forget to include someone from all areas and all levels. You need a complete picture of what went on.
  • Put it off. Debriefs are most effective when everything is easily remembered.
  • Let people get away without debriefing. If you’re looking at a large team from different places make sure you get their feelings and thoughts on the event before they leave if they’re unable to make the official debriefing.
  • Allow people to go off of the topic at hand. This should not be a conversation about “what always happens” or a commentary on trivial things. Keep the goals and budget, a major point of the discussion.

In Conclusion

As a newbie event planner, you might have dreams of the glamorous side of the business. But once you’ve hosted a few events you know that in addition to being creative, there’s a lot of project management to be done. You need to work with the team to get things accomplished, which can be difficult when they don’t report to you. Employing good project management skills is an efficient way to coordinate and ensure the whole group sees the end goal and keeps it in mind.

Additional Reading on Project Management for Events Topics

Project Management for Event Planners
Project Management Tools for Event Profs
Events and Project Management Podcasts
Project Management Free Software
How to Construct an Effective Event Debrief
10 Critical Questions for an Effective Event Debrief
11 Meetings You Need for an Awesome Event