Brett Harned, director of project management at Happy Cog, on the key elements of successful project management.
There's been quite a bit of conversation over the value of project managers. Not necessarily good project managers; just project managers in general. The thing about the argument is that the role depends on the organisation (if you have one, it makes a big difference too) and the clients you hire. Yes, some companies, large or small, need project managers. If you're a small shop or a one-man-show, you may not need a project manager, but you sure better have the skills to keep your work organised and your clients informed and happy.
Here are a few tips I can impart as one of the (ahem) good project managers on this earth:
01. Keep communications flowing
Any project will fail without a good communications plan. Think about the way you work best with a team and clients, and figure out a plan that will work for everyone. Status reports and calls can 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 on the team who can handle the details and not get things confused (hey, it happens), is key.
"The biggest advantage (in hiring a project manager) for me has been having support on communication. Any given day means shifting gears a lot mentally, but there's nothing more disruptive to me than client communication. If you want your clients to be treated with the care and respect they deserve it demands a lot of attention. The one-sentence email that works for your co-workers won't do. Being able to walk out of a meeting and go do the things I need to do, knowing that communication with the client is being handled with a level of attention I can't otherwise give it, is a huge weight lifted off, and raises the quality of every aspect of the service we're delivering." - Reed Lauber, web developer
At the same time, a good project manager will document everything. And 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.
02. Set and manage expectations
Ultimately, your project's expectations should be set by a well-written, descriptive scope of work. Every team should use this 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 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. You know all the answers because you have the benefit of seeing the hours scoped for the work and maybe even the history of how long it has taken to conduct similar work on other projects. Either way, 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.
Between deadlines, check in on the upcoming document or delivery and chat with the client about what each will entail. Are your wireframes 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.
03. Know when to involve the team
"Sometimes a client just needs to be heard but it can be really stressful when a designer has to wade through every single thing that comes to their mind over the entirety of a project. A great PM knows when to bring the design team in and when to give them the space to do what they are best at: designing."
- Samantha Warren, designer at Twitter
Making a website is a fun, creative process, but there's also a managerial side to every project. You've got to check in on progress and next steps so phone calls or meetings will happen where maybe the whole team isn't present. After all, some folks just need time at their desks to work. But when a client really engages, he or she will come up with one hundred ideas for the team, and they will inevitably come up when the whole team is not present.
In that case, it's best to make sure the ideas are grounded in your project requirements. That isn't always the bottom line, but don't deny an idea or a conversation. 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.
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.
04. Know and manage stakeholders
"One of the greatest challenges of working on large-scale websites is stakeholder requirements. Having 20+ stakeholders, each with their own idea of how a redesign will “succeed”, can be an exercise in lion-taming. Carefully listening to every thought in every meeting, and constantly empathising with stakeholders isn’t always possible for designers and developers, who are juggling enough already. That’s where your project manager comes in. That’s where the magic starts to happen."
- Dan Grebb, manager of web communications, Delaware Valley College
A good project manager can know what to expect from a stakeholder based on conversations that are had in the sales process. Jumping in to a kickoff with a team who is "in the know" about the stakeholder team can bring a great advantage to the team and the project. 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.
It's the project manager's job to look ahead at potential risks that will make the project go over budget or deadline, so 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.
Every project needs a leader who owns and supports the process. A good project manager will enforce process and keep everyone on the team in-sync. Juggling timelines, deadlines, and deliverables is key, but a project manager who also supports the process, the team, and the client, brings true value to a project. Be the one who says, "Wow, this is really nice. Good work". Don't be afraid to be the one to say, "Did you think about X?" to look out for the best of the project. And, if the project manager is really doing a good job, he or she will know and understand every aspect of the project. Sometimes, he or she will be able to anticipate questions or concerns the client might have.
At the end of the day, everyone on the team can help manage a project if need be depending on your (or your company's) preference. Whether or not you're staffed with a project manager, think about divvying up the responsibilities of managing internal and external project aspects. It'll help with the fundamentals of a successful project: communication, organisation and hard work.
Image used courtesy of xavi talleda under Creative Commons Licensing
Brett is the Director of Project Management for Happy Cog in Philadelphia. His fascination with the creative process and his passion for concise communication, strategy, and attention to detail means that his clients get a project manager who immerses himself in the work product, not just timelines and milestones. Brett’s deep understanding of web process and his ability to apply methodologies to any project makes clients happy. He is also adept at translating the language of web design to clients, which can sometimes get confusing and conceptual. Brett manages a team of crack PMs and projects large and small, and all of them receive the same level of care and dedication.