Inspiration

Project management and the design professional

Andy Rutledge, principal and chief design strategist for Unit Interactive, claims project managers often do more harm than good and looks at what they actually do and what they should be doing in order for a project to succeed

This article first appeared in issue 223 of .net magazine – the world's best-selling magazine for web designers and developers.

Project managers are common fixtures in media agencies and yet they’re often unnecessary, or at least ill-employed. Even where they are necessary, my experience, observation and research reveal that they tend to do more harm than good; for their clients and for the designers and developers they work with. Surely this harm would not be deemed deliberate, but of course that doesn’t matter. Results, not intentions, are what matter.

In order to realise the full potential for success a designer should manage his or her own projects. The unfortunate reality, however, is that many designers don’t. Some are simply not comfortable doing so and some, sadly, aren’t allowed to. And yet this reality conflicts with a designer’s professional responsibility. The fact that a designer works with a project manager does not mitigate responsibilities on this front, but perhaps requires that a designer hold even more tightly to them.

Dysfunctional convention and designer failings in this arena are mostly due to the fact that designer responsibilities too often are stolen and given over to the project manager as a matter of course. When this theft of responsibility happens, any success achieved is only ever a fraction of what was otherwise possible. Whether due to inadvisable agency process or designer ineptitude, it matters not. The inevitably diminished result is what matters. It especially matters to the client who is paying for a professionally run service, but is instead getting amateur hour.

The primary problem with circumvention of designer responsibility is that it creates a situation where the client doesn’t trust the designer. With the project manager getting in the way during the crucial early and mid phases of a project, the designer will have had no chance to develop rapport with the client. So far as the client can tell, the project manager is the one invested in their project and has been the one demonstrating competence and concern for the project responsibilities and success from its outset. During this time the designer is seemingly a passive participant or, in some cases, a “person to be named later”.

Let’s look at what the typical project manager does in the course of a project and then contrast that with what they should be doing in the course of the project in order to facilitate success.

The bad

Bad project managers, though often oblivious to the harm they’re doing, tend to get all up in the designer’s business. They commandeer a host of things crucial for allowing the designer to demonstrate investment, acumen, and competence to the client; thereby earning the client’s trust. The bad project manager will...

  • Run the kickoff/discovery meeting(s).
  • Create the strategy brief.
  • Set deadlines.
  • Act as go-between; filtering communications between members of the client team and the agency team.
  • Directly manage most or all of the project management tools.
  •  Present design deliverables to the client.
  • Engage in design revision conversations with the client and then filter and disseminate results to the designer(s).
  • Filter communications and planning between different agency disciplines (IA, design, development, server admin, and so on).

Some disruptive project managers even tread so far into design responsibility as to create sitemaps and wireframes. In doing so, they corrupt some of the more critical steps in the design process. No project manager should do any of these things listed here. Bad project manager!

The good

The good project manager is a facilitator and administrator. After the project begins, they do their best work from the sidelines. A good project manager never gets between a client stakeholder and the design or development professionals. In fact, every one of the items listed earlier is an important responsibility of the designer. Therefore, the good project manager (or someone else) should instead do some or all of the following, depending on how your agency works:

  • Craft proposals (with specific input from the productive staff) and conduct contract executions.
  • Handle the pre-kickoff project assembly (working with designers and developers as necessary for their expertise on specifics when planning).
  • Kick off projects by making introductions between the client stakeholder(s) and agency professionals, then get out of the way and let the pros do their jobs.
  • Work with the various agency departments to coordinate project queues and make workflow preparations.
  • Monitor and scrape the project management tool’s data to create internal reports (if necessary).
  • Handle approval documents and executions. 
  • Execute invoicing at proper milestones.
  • Conduct end-of-project conventions and sign-off procedures.

As you can see, at no time in this list of responsibilities is there an opportunity here for a project manager to muck up things by getting in where they don’t belong. They set things up in preparation for the professionals to do their jobs and then they get out of the way. During the project they monitor and facilitate and, finally, they tidy up the end-of-project administrative tasks.

That is how you help design professionals. With the project manager fulfilling his or her proper role, the designers can fulfil their proper professional role.

The design professional

In order to fulfil your design professional responsibilities to your clients, you’ve got to manage and conduct all other aspects of a project. In essence, the design professional must be the project manager, while the project manager is actually the administrative liaison. As the design professional you must...

  • Work directly with the project manager (or whomever) to ensure that the project proposal and initial planning are appropriate.
  • Take the reins at the project kickoff meeting and/or discovery meeting(s) and plan and run the discovery process, including conducting stakeholder interviews and so on, and let the developer run his/her part of discovery.
  • Craft the strategy/creative brief (if applicable).
  • Set expectations, define everyone’s responsibilities, set deadlines for your team and the client’s team (throughout the process), and describe fundamental milestones.
  • Handle all design-related tasks (including redesign site audits and sitemap exercises, wireframes, and so on).
  • Communicate directly with the client‘s team throughout the course of the project.
  • Communicate and work directly with others from your agency who are directly involved.
  • Directly solicit deliverables from the client.
  • Present your design in a compelling and expository manner.
  • Work with the client stakeholder(s) directly in any revision discussions (note that these are discussions; not merely an event where stakeholders deliver a list of changes).
  • And anything else that involves communication between the designer, the client, and others involved in the project.

After being introduced and then as you continually function as the interested, responsible, skilled professional assigned to the project, the client will invest in you because you have (hopefully) demonstrated your investment in their vision. This allows you to develop a rapport with the client and allows for the development of trust. Without this trust – earned only in the early course of a project – the result is doomed to mediocrity, or worse.

When the project manager intrudes upon the designer’s professional responsibilities, the only possible result is a scenario wherein the designer is robbed of the client’s trust. The tangible results of the project will embody this corruption, and that is a crime upon the client.

Analysis: The impact

So how does this affect everyone’s professionalism? Here’s a rundown of what it means for your role

Designers

The only way for you to be allowed to deliver your best work and achieve maximum success for your clients is for you to function as a consummate professional. If you’re not managing your projects from beginning to end, you’re shirking your responsibilities and allowing your profession to be stolen from you. If you let fear, ineptitude or bad process rob you of your rightful responsibilities you’re functioning as the architect of your own corruption. Stand for your own ... or go stand somewhere else so your incompetence doesn’t harm others. I’m not kidding.

Project managers

Don’t let your work or process become a destructive influence on your projects or your colleagues. Relieve your teammates of distraction, but not responsibility. Designer/client communication is not a distraction, but a vital exchange between those who require it and in the manner that’s most appropriate. If you interrupt or circumvent that direct exchange you’re working – knowingly or not – to destroy a vital mechanism for success. If you become an enabler of laziness or incompetence within your team, you’re not helping; you’re corrupting. Project management should contribute positively and should never enact corruption. If you think you’re better than that, be better than that.

Owners/principals

Let your people do their rightful jobs. If you don’t allow your designers to exercise professionalism holistically because you believe they’re not up to the task, it probably means you’ve hired the wrong designers. That, or you’re not capable of leading professionals properly (reflect on your practice!). Your mandate is clear: hire professionals and then let them do their jobs. In lieu of this, train your designers to work as professionals and set high expectations for their results. If, however, you enable the voids in their understanding or professionalism, you’re not only harming them, but everyone else invested in your enterprise.

Next week Andy Rutledge presents a Contracts 101: abuse of relationships.

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