Managing a project isn’t easy, but it also doesn’t need to be incredibly hard. In theory, we are facilitators that should simply allow the team to do what they do best. Yet the world of digital is not always as straightforward as we would like, and at seemingly the toss of a coin a project can go from wonderous to disastrous in a matter of days, hours or even minutes.
Whilst navigating the ever-changing waters of a digital build can sometimes be a headache, we have some top tips to help that navigation feel less like an uphill struggle.Fear not, this is (hopefully) not a selection of incredibly dry insights on how to run “Agile” or “Scrum” effectively, but a handful of go-to tips that can help the proverbial project ship to sail a little bit more smoothly...
1) Immerse yourself in what your team are doing.
We, as project managers, are not developers nor designers and we are certainly not rocket scientists (sadly). It is entirely plausible that you might find yourself managing a project where you are working with a deliverable that you don’t fully understand. This doesn’t need to stop you doing a sterling job of managing that project, but you can make your life (and decision-making process) much easier if you take the time to fully immerse yourself in the field your team work in.
This isn’t to say that if you are working with developers you need to suddenly start coding, but you should listen - and I mean really listen - when your team are giving you an explanation on how or why something is or isn’t going to happen.
We’ve all been there when someone at the top of their field launches into a technical explanation around “why” something is the way it is, and every word seems to become an ancient unlearnable language. But that is likely because you have secretly (or perhaps not so secretly) switched off and stopped listening. You might not know exactly what every word means, as each will likely be extremely specific to that field, but by focusing on the context around the words, everything else will start falling into place.
Also, if you don’t know what a particular word means that keeps cropping up… Google it! If it turns out to be a particularly complex subject matter, watch a Youtube video, read a blog, fill your mind with as much information on the subject as possible.
This will mean that when everyone in the room looks to you to pick between: incredibly complicated option A) and incredibly complicated option B), the knowledge you have picked up will help demystify the reasons behind each and will help you pick the most appropriate route for the project. Who knows, you might even end up shocking yourself by presenting your own incredibly complicated option C)!
2) Don’t trap yourself with Gantt chart bait
Gantt charts can sometimes be both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, they are an excellent tool for helping all members of the project to visualise timelines but on the other hand, at their worst, they can be a picture of false promises that may unknowingly paint you (and your team) into a corner.
For some projects, where the stars align and the classic vanilla of a “waterfall” project can be achieved, the initial Gantt chart is a great tracker for time.
Realistically though, in the world of digital where the project can (and likely will!) evolve, completely shaking up important dates as it goes, there is a small chance that the Gantt chart can quickly become something to use against you as evidence in the Client Court of Failed Deliverables, and quite understandably so.
In essence a Gantt chart is your team’s way of suggesting (or as the client may come to see it, ‘promising’) a firm timeline of when you will deliver items. This can sometimes be troublesome especially given that even one meeting being rescheduled can become the first beat of the butterfly’s wing that ultimately brings the whole timeline down.
The best way of handling a Gantt chart is to therefore ensure the client understands that this is an ever-evolving visual representation of the project which will ebb and flow constantly, in line with the project’s progress.
Call it out for what it is: simply a way of depicting what is likely to happen on the project, rather than an exact trajectory. It might be that in the end you have to create several Gantt charts over the course of the project to maintain Gantt honesty. Some Project Managers prefer to maintain the Gantt chart as the single source of truth, but in our opinion, there are some better platforms available for displaying true project velocity, like Pivotal Tracker and other such tools.
Use the Gantt chart sparingly, and at times only when the build is most complicated to show your team how you would like the next few weeks to unfold, or to let a client know how you are going to deal with the fact that a third party has delayed delivery. Above all else, remember to use it as a guide, not an omniscient prophecy to which you must all now live to serve.
3) Trust Your Team and Manage Client Expectations
Ultimately the role of a PM or AM (Account Manager) is to facilitate the doing rather than to do the doing. We will always try our best to cover off as much of the project as is within the realms of our possibility, but often as a manager on a project we may have less knowledge about what needs doing than the production team themselves. Of course, there will be exceptions to this rule, but there are times when, even if you specialise in the same field as a junior member of a team that you are managing, their closeness to the project may provide them with greater knowledge on how best to proceed than you have to hand.
If you trust your team they will trust you...
It is therefore crucial to fully trust your team. When they say this will take more time than initially anticipated, you can (and should) question this delayed timeframe, but your role should be to now manage these new timings with the updated information provided by your team and, most importantly, manage the expectations of your client.
You’ll likely recognise this stereotypical exchange:
Team: “This is an impossible task!”
PM: “Just get it done!”
PM to Client: “Everything is on track.”
‘It’ inevitably was not done, and the client is now angry/disappointed/[insert negative emotion here].
We know that the goal at all times is to provide excellent customer service to happy clients, so having to deliver news you know they don’t want to hear is not what you want to do. However, if you do not let your client know ahead of time that there may be delays, or that something cannot be achieved within the desired timeframe/budget, you’re likely setting yourself up for trouble.
Delivering any unfavourable news to clients at the earliest opportunity will help to prevent you and your team from driving off the proverbial cliff, and it will more often than not gain you their trust, as the client will appreciate your honesty.
Through that honesty, the client will hopefully come to appreciate that you, as an agency (or business), do indeed know what you are doing and are above all else not just trying to pull the wool over their eyes to in order to gain time or extra business.
4) Don’t wait for a miracle to happen...
Our final piece of advice would be to remember that no matter how many curveballs you are unexpectedly thrown or how much you may think that whatever unsolvable issue has just arisen will ruin your chances of running this project smoothly, you are only human.
Project Managers can handle anything you throw at them, even cold weather...
This project is (hopefully!) not a question of life or death and your best approach is to manage expectations promptly and honestly. There is only so much a PM can do with the cards that have been dealt and in these situations, honesty is always the best policy. A good PM will make sure that both the client and internal team ultimately trust their decisions and, come hell or high water, get the job done - as, that is, after all, what you came to do!
There you have it, our list of hopefully helpful tips on how to make your PM life a little bit easier. If you do want more info on Agile or Scrum there are many blogs and videos out there that will give you a strong overview of each, but we thought we’d focus on tips that can help you regardless of the technical style of project you are managing.
For more of our insights check out our blog on how we adopted Node JS or how to make the most out of working remote ! Or if you can’t decide what to read next, simply keep scrolling and let the website do the picking for you…