There is no doubt that the profile of the project manager has been raised up in the career market. Take a look at local project management job listings and you’ll see that many companies are looking for Project Managers across many verticals. If you read those descriptions, you’ll find that in most cases, the PM sits in the middle of projects and organisational operations, and is responsible for, well, just about everything. This is not news to project managers, but it is news to folks who either don’t employ the role, or those who don’t have the benefit of working with a PM.
The problem with companies not employing project managers is that someone has to fill the role. That’s right, there are tons of “accidental” project managers out there. Maybe they’re not officially trained and maybe they could be better. That’s fine. Let’s be fair and at least say that the role is far more important than the title when it comes to completing any project successfully.
So, whether you’re a titled project manager or just an organisational super hero, there are some things you should know or do to gain project management success! Here are a few tips I can impart as one of the (ahem) good project managers on this earth:
[ribbon-light]Solid communications are key to project success[/ribbon-light]
If you’re not communicating effectively with your team or your clients, you are sure to fail. Every team operates differently, but you should have a toolbox of communication tools to make a plan that will work for everyone. Sometimes it helps to ask your team what works for them, but many times it’s effective to just say “this is how we’re doing this, let me know if you have questions or suggestions.” At a minimum, I suggest the following communication tactics:
Be sure to communicate what’s happening with your team ad your clients. For me, a daily 15 minute check-in with my team works. We don’t call it a “scrum” but I guess we could. You may follow a strict process that calls for that. If you’re not, it’s fine! A morning check-in will give you a sense for who is busy, who can help, and at the same time get a sense for where you stand with your timeline and budget.
Client status reports and calls can also be invaluable, because you’re keeping track of next steps, action items and project risks. If you use a weekly status report to stay transparent about budget and process, you’ll never have to have that awkward conversation about needing more time or money to complete your project. There’s also value in having someone on the team to communicate the details with the client clearly and concisely, in a friendly way. Not everyone is suited to that, so having a person (likely the PM) on the team who can handle the details and not get things confused is key.
Keep information flowing
Are you using an instant messenger or chat service? If you are, it means that many conversations are happening in silos. If something important is said or a decision is made in chat, you need to know about it! It’s fine to have people communicating in email, IM or hallway conversations, but you need to be sure that the important details are not lost. As a rule, ask your team to communicate any and all details with the team. If you don’t have a central repository for those conversations, make sure it’s documented in a team email.
A good project manager is always taking notes and will document everything. I mean everything: internal and external meetings, status calls, and even sideline comments that may come up. Every detail is pertinent to the team – even that simple comment from the client about a colour that the CEO hates. There have been many times when a client will tell me something that seems trivial, and I will relay it to the team “just in case” and it’s turned out to be quite helpful.
[ribbon-light]Set and manage expectations[/ribbon-light]
Set a scope and requirements
If you’re not working from a project scope of work, you might want to think about alternatives. Every team should some form of a scope or requirements document to set the stage for what will be delivered on a project. At the outset of a project, it’s good practice to sit down with your client and team to review the scope in conjunction with the project timeline. This will mean that you have to explain why it may take two weeks for the team to come up with homepage concepts if you’re designing a website. Having this type of conversation early on in a project will keep your clients informed of the level of effort and engaged in the process.
Explain the steps of a project
Between deadlines, check in on the upcoming document or delivery and chat with your team and your client about what each will entail. Are your wire frames a PDF or a clickable HTML prototype? Explain the benefits of the document and how their constructive, helpful feedback will make the deliverable stronger. There is absolutely nothing wrong with repeating yourself, as long as you don’t keep doing it over and over! Educating your clients on the process of making a website is critical to building a product that will reflect your intent and makes users smile. At the same time, checking in with the team about what the client expects never hurts. There’s nothing worse than seeing your team fall a little short of expectations because a detail was not communicated.
[ribbon-light]Remember: You’re a Project Manager, not Superman[/ribbon-light]
When a client really engages in a project, he or she will come up with one hundred ideas and questions. Inevitably, those items will come up when the whole team is not present. In that case, know when to involve the team to help the conversation. Is the client asking something that is design or development-specific? If yes, pull in the appropriate people. Is it a process or budget related question? Then it’s all on you!
A project manager should never really answer to design- or development-specific items unless they were previously documented. After all, you should have a designer or developer who is responsible for those items. Ideally, if you don’t know the answer and you can’t pull someone in the room at that moment, take good notes and follow-up. There’s nothing wrong with following-up on a conversation when the time is right.
[ribbon-light]Know that stakeholders bring risks[/ribbon-light]
Be a politician
You never know what you’re going to get when it comes to project stakeholders–the people who are going to make all the decisions. So take your time to get to know them as much as possible! A good project manager will find an ally on the client team and do his or her best to build a solid relationship with that person. Through a solid relationship, the PM can learn the client-side politics and how it’ll affect the process. A short conversation where you ask, “Who will need to approve X?” with a follow-up question like, “Did you think about Y-person too?” will go a long way when setting up a project plan. The biggest reason to do all of that? Your team! Jumping in to a project with a team who is “in the know” about the stakeholder team can bring a great advantage to the team and the project.
A huge part of the the project manager’s role is to always look ahead for potential risks that could make the project go over budget or deadline. Being transparent with the client about the process and how their stakeholders can affect its success is critical. Knowing these issues and looking ahead for them makes it easier for the project manager to have frank conversations about when and why a project might go off track.
Ultimately, no one wants to play the “bad cop”, but it’s a big part of the project manager’s role. So, setting everything up in your favour and staying clear about risks will make it so you can be the good cop … most of the time.
[ribbon-light]Lead and engage[/ribbon-light]
Every project needs a captain–the leader who owns and supports the process and will enforce it to keep everyone on the team in sync. Don;t just be the PM who sits at his or her desk and controls the paperwork. Be the one who boosts the team up! Compliment good work, but don’t be afraid to be the one to say, “Did you think about X?” to look out for the best of the project. If you’re really a good PM and are engaged in your project, you will be able to anticipate questions or concerns the client might have. Never be afraid to share them with your team.
These simple tips, along with the core foundational aspects of the project management role (like project planning), will help any professional succeed in the role–titled or not. If you’re not staffed with an official project manager, think about the tips above and sort out who will handle each one. If the role must be split up, do it in a way that will make sense to your team and your clients. Just do everything you can to avoid confusion about who is handling project issues, because you don’t, you’re find yourself with more issues!
Brett Harned is the VP of Project Management at Happy Cog in Philadelphia, PA. He has more than 15 years of experience in communications and creative team management serving in roles from copywriter to account director. Since joining the Happy Cog, Brett has managed projects for Zappos, MTV, and Monotype Imaging, and has seen the project management team grow two-fold.
He began blogging about his adventures in project management when he realized that the perceptions of the positions were just a little off. Since, he has spoken at events like SXSW, written for .net magazine and pmhut.com, taught a web project workshop at The University of the Arts in Philadelphia, and has led the biggest, most satisfying project of his career: the Digital PM Summit.
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