Project management is a challenging job that carries a number of responsibilities along.
When done wrong, both the business falls apart, and team members are leaving, which loses money, clients, and potentially leads to a storm of lawsuits due to missed deadlines.
Being a project manager in the online world in 2017 can be incredibly rewarding, but requires a certain attitude, a ton of practical experience, outstanding soft skills and industry expertise. Being a manager can make or break a business, and it’s up to managers to keep up with business expectations and ensure that a project is delivered in the best way possible.
There are several easy guidelines that team leaders and project managers can follow for best results.
Tip #1 – Understand the Core Business Problem
First and foremost, project managers have to understand the main problem that the business struggles with.
If you are assigned to build a new platform based on a pre-existing company branding that heavily impacts the online presence of the company, your assignment will not solve the problem in hand. Additional brainstorming and planning should be performed in order to improve the entire brand creative to an eye-catching and memorable set of logo and banners, and a well-selected color scheme with suitable typography.
Given the solid foundation, the new website project has a real chance to make an impact for the business.
Tip #2 – Clear Out Project Requirements Early
Dig deeper into the business problem and the proposed solution by your client. In addition to finding out more about their core business model and what are the challenges with taking it to the next level, it will also outline a better strategy for you and your team.
Outsourcing projects to a 3rd party service provider – or even a different department within the company – may often affect the context of the conversation and lead to defining misleaded initial requirements.
Make sure that the project is understand on three different levels:
- “The Bigger Picture” – understanding the main goals of the assignment, and the expected results. This includes a validation plan once the project is completed, since that’s your main target at the end of the day.
- High-end components overview – a review of all components included in the project, how they interact with each other, and what is the purpose of each of them. This may outline priority features and “filler” ones, and affect your management planning accordingly.
- Specific Issues that will need attention – each component may interfere with the others, or comes with tradeoffs. These should be predicted while discussing the requirements, and the best approach outlined as early as possible.
Tip #3 – Identify Project Risks and R&D Components
Each project comes with different variables that need additional context. Some are evaluated during the development or QA phases, but others can be identified earlier, and communicated between stakeholders.
Given the web industry as an example, a viable question is – where would the project be hosted?
Different services come with certain limitations that would impact the development planning, and the flexibility of the development team when selecting components. Additionally, selecting the wrong hosting plan may be overly expensive if the resources aren’t utilized properly, or lead to downtime if the projected traffic exceeds the hosting limitations.
Since every project is unique, it’s likely that there are certain features that your team hasn’t worked on yet, and need some research. This is crucial during the project development phase and has to be coordinated with both your team, and your customers.
More often than not you don’t need to worry too much about the majority of the features. However, some may be entirely impossible, or require dozens or hundreds of billable hours. Taking these as granted and working on a fixed budget will likely jeopardize the project launch and the profitability of your own company.
Tip #4 – Define Communication Protocols and Reporting Policy
Outline the best communication method for your team and find the best compromise between what would be easiest for you, and what your customers are willing to settle for.
If your team manages all of your customers in the same project management system (or any other tool) and your client insist on a different solution, this will incur additional overhead for your team – looking at a separate tool, onboarding non-technical customers, and getting used to its workflow.
Same goes for other internal communication guidelines that you’ve established in-house. If you conduct weekly meetings on Monday and coordinate work through emails, your client may ask for reports three times a week over the phone, from different team members responsible for design, development, or marketing.
Make sure that all of those are clarified during the initial meetings with your customers. You don’t want to drag your team members every time the phone rings, and interrupt the standard workflow of your team. This will inevitably impact the focused working hours for your staff, and delay the project unless agreed on prior to starting the work relationship.
Tip #5 – Your Project Management System is Your Friend
Simplify the work for your staff and keep all essential information in one place. Other than the project planning that you’ve established during the discovery phase, your project management system should include any communication that have happened in your office, during meetings, over the phone, and even while exchanging emails with your customer.
This will avoid the communication overhead of looking at several places in order to collect the essential details, and ensure that directions are kept in a single platform. Often clients come up with fresh ideas that weren’t discussed before, or expect a different outcome of events that differs from the initial planning.
Keeping everything in the same platform (where your client has the ability to chime in and observe the progress) will ensure the streamlined communication between both parties.
Tip #6 – Break Requirements into Actionable Items
Making sure that each team member can start working on an assignment without asking a dozen follow-up questions is crucial for the success of your project.
Avoid any ambiguous or incomplete tasks such as “Build a component for weather forecast” or “Integrate a shopping cart”. Both assignments may be clear to you after numerous meetings and calls with your client, but what about the other players in your team?
Each of those should be decomposed into small, actionable, inseparable tasks that give direction and require output without having to provide additional context. Nail down design requirements for each component, specify which pages should display the certain feature, what would be the workflow that your client expects when navigating through the admin area.
Identify the types of data to be stored and altered from the backend. Break them down into specific fields with type formats, and establish the design policy for all devices.
Those details should be discussed with your client upfront, and defined within your specification and design proposal. Additionally, you have to work closely with the team leaders in your project in order to create the actionable assignments. At the end of the day you want to have a long list with hundreds of small tasks that your team members can work in parallel, without any regressions, uncertainties, or incomplete features that don’t solve the business problem.
At DevriX, we do have a task template that includes several different things, such as:
- A description of the business problem
- A technical or creative definition of what is expected
- A list of pages where the feature should show up
- A list of relevant screenshots
- Steps to reproduce
- Expected outcome (in case of a bug request)
Among a few other project-specific details.
This allows us to define the business problem in details, narrow down the possibilities of errors, and ensure that team members can jump on and start working on a task without any hesitation.
Tip #7 – Find a Common Language With Your Customers
Different people come with different background and communication style. Don’t expect to collaborate in the same way with different decision makers on the other side of the table.
As a project manager, you need to identify what is the most natural way for your clients to communicate with you, and adjust accordingly. Some folks are friendlier, others are strict and more corporate. They have a different way of talking during business hours, and at cocktails.
Pay attention to your initial contact and be proactive while discussing the business needs and project requirements. It’s important that all of you are on the same page, but communication may be affected if you expect a different style than what your clients are used to.
This is extremely important since you will coordinate the process with them on a regular basis. More conservative personas are harder to read, but you still need to find common topics and ice breakers in order to get to the point.
Tip #8 – Risk Management
Part of running a management process is dealing with risk management and the potential bottlenecks that may be presented during the course of a project.
According to BusinessDictionary, risk management is:
The identification, analysis, assessment, control, and avoidance, minimization, or elimination of unacceptable risks. An organization may use risk assumption, risk avoidance, risk retention, risk transfer, or any other strategy (or combination of strategies) in proper management of future events.
The amount of brainstorming, planning and preliminary mitigation may vary for each project.
In a nutshell, risk management is to be performed for the likely scenarios that may cause an interruption of your service, delaying the project beyond the acceptable time frames, or any payment transfer surprises that violate the initial agreements.
Here’s a quick checklist for possible areas that you may review during an assessment process:
- Delaying deliverables and assets on the client’s side crucial to the implementation process
- Change of project managers midway through the project
- Postponing payments for certain milestones
- Requesting more revisions than anticipated and agreed on during the initial agreement
- Server downtime or service interruptions for 3rd party products used by your team
- Sick leaves or team members quitting
- Possibilities of delays caused by your team as per the agreed time frames
- Unexpected blockers during the implementation phase that would require more time and additional budget
- Legal constraints for storing personal data required for your product to operate properly
This is not a definitive list for possible risks, but your team should be prepared for any unexpected surprises along the way. Most of the likely scenarios should be outlined during the initial meetings and in the initial proposal, and planned accordingly.
Tip #9 – Honesty is the Best Policy
Regardless of your initial planning and the contingency plan, issues may occur every now and then.
Hiding them or attempting to pull stunts from the inside will result in terrible surprises, especially when it’s too late to coordinate these with your client.
Whenever a problem happens, own it and report all parties involved. Business people are reasonable, and they know how business works. What they don’t want is hidden surprises lurking beneath the surface, breaking the bond between the client, and the service provider.
If your team needs more time for a feature due to incomplete planning, pick up the phone.
If you’ve missed an essential component in your specification, reach out and schedule a meeting with your client.
If your lead designer is no longer available and you need a time to recoup, contact your client and let them know.
Often times issues can be tackled early on, and handled gracefully with the understanding of all stakeholders. If you hide the problem for as long as possible and you won’t make it on time with the expected quality, your client may be running other activities in parallel related to the promotion of their upcoming project – such as sponsoring and speaking at an event, purchasing advertising space, or meeting a potential investor. Those may be optional and postponed when planned early enough, but keeping a secret for yourself may ruin their reputation in case you don’t address it when the problem occurs.
As an added note, different problems can be solved in different ways. If one of your team members is no longer available, the client may have someone in-house who can jump in and help out until you onboard another team member. Or suggest a great freelancer who can assist in the meantime.
Your clients are your partners – respect them and share responsibility. Launching successfully is the goal that you’re both aiming for, so make sure that you’re acting with professionalism and transparency.
Tip #10 – Assign Responsibilities to Stakeholders
Larger organizations include several people involved with a project, responsible for different activities.
As a result, you may end up negotiating over various requirements and reprioritizing features that different stakeholders want earlier.
Great project managers can navigate through chaos and lead the process for the sake of completing a project. Discuss the problem with your client and appoint a lead decision maker who will coordinate on their end.
Since communication is required over the course of the project, find out who is responsible for what and request all details upfront. A number of projects are delayed due to the lack of coordination and additional side activities such as business trips or events. A required asset from a decision maker could put the work on hold, drag the project and your incoming payments, so planning those activities should be on the roadmap as well.
Tip #11 – Identify the Right Team Members
When coordinating requirements and work duties for the project, identify the right team members.
Your staff may be proficient in certain business areas due to their previous experience in other companies, their hobbies, or personal interest in a certain activities. They may speak the language of a foreign partner that you will collaborate with, or have a unique view on the project that could assist your managerial duties.
Tip #12 – Define Intermediate Milestones and Internal Review Cycles
Don’t rely on a large and tedious iteration before going live. Break the project down into milestones, and identify deliverables expected for each iteration.
Conduct an initial meeting with your team and set realistic expectations based on their feedback. Don’t forget to leave a buffer for revisions, changes, QA, and other activities that should be performed in-house.
Tip #13 – Your Expertise Matters
As an experienced project manager, you know the industry, your team, and what is the best and most optimal scenario for a project to be delivered successfully.
Your clients may require a specific workflow that you disagree with, or specific features that won’t be profitable for them in the long run.
Think of Myspace – the social networking website that was popular over ten years ago. If your client requires a complex integration with Myspace that would take several weeks of full-time work, would you comply without consulting them first?
As a service provider, you want your client to be successful. That means both impeccable implementation, and a reliable business model that follows the latest standards.
For instance, many old-school corporate managers still neglect the existence of smartphones or tablets, and don’t care about responsive websites or mobile-first design. As an industry expert, you have to share some statistics and assist them with making the right decision for their digital business.
Don’t be afraid to share your expertise whenever it’s crucial to the success of the project. Being entirely blunt may be a liability, but remember that a customer isn’t always right – and you need to point this out for their own good.
Tip #14 – Manage Scope Creep Like a Pro
A research by CHAOS group reported that 74% of the projects fail or are delivered much later and at a higher cost than initially quoted. That is about 3 out of every 4 project contracts out there. And it’s one of the major inner fears for many project managers working with high profile customers.
In fact, this is not always a problem – when planned the right way. A good number of those 74% are projects that haven’t been scoped properly, and don’t plan for ongoing changes and feature requests down the line.
A common managerial approach by the management community is adding a multiplier (usually between 1.5x to 3x) on top of the initial estimate provided by the team before sending a quote. That is usually the safety buffer for unexpected changes and surprises, communication overhead, and any misses coming from the initial requirements.
Despite of this common multiplier, 74% of the projects still fail to deliver on time and within budget.
Enter “Scope Creep” – the term used when customers ask for more than what they’ve paid for, or have assumed that certain features come out of the box.
Scope creep should be a mandatory section in your proposal and your contract, and outline that nothing stated explicitly in your document is to be assumed. This is an incredibly sensitive subject and writing down the feature list should be done extremely carefully. On top of that scope creep must be discussed openly from day one with your clients, and reminded regularly – because it will inevitably appear under one form or another.
Even if you are a nice guy or gal with an extremely professional team, doing features pro bono is not the way to go. It will add up to the initial set of requirements, affect the planned architecture, and require additional time, thus reducing the amount of QA performed and the guaranty for project quality.
Embrace scope creep by communicating it loud and clear upfront, and charge for any additional requirements on top of the initial scope. New features (when approved) will increase the profitability from your client, and extend the duration of your contract.
Tip #15 – Communicate Often to Identify Changes ASAP
Regular communication with your team and your client is essential. In the context of scope creep, tens of thousands of companies and contractors have met a client who has reviewed a 6-month project at the end, and decomposed everything to the latest detail, asking for another 6 months of unpaid work.
Prepare your milestones carefully and identify a process for signing off on component completion. For instance, web design and development projects may go through design, layouts, front-end development and back-end development iterations, each done separately and started after a written confirmation by a client.
If your design has been fully approved, additional design changes are not to be introduced “by default” from a client. If the static HTML version is signed off, sudden bugs with ancient browsers on old operating systems are to be revised as a part of the ongoing maintenance plan post-launch.
Clients often don’t spend enough time during the implementation phase as they see the project as “work in progress”. It’s your responsibility to outline the high end components and work until their full completion, hence getting approval, saving time from multitasking, and jumping on to the following areas from your process.
Tip #16 – Implement the “Done Done” Technique
The “Done Done” concept was coined by Chris Lema. In his own words:
it’s so done, that there are no other words to use after “done” except “done.” That’s what done done means. It means there are no other words.
One of the most tedious tasks of a project manager is going back and forth over and over again between iterations from the team and feedback from the client. Without the right planning and QA process in place, it’s likely that your components aren’t actually complete, but solving the problem “for the most part”.
Of course, when integrated into a production environment, they are heavily used under a large set of combinations. And your work quality simply has to be there.
Implementing “Done Done” is one of the best things you can do for your team. Avoid any instances when asking for a status report and receiving a response such as:
- It’s done, although there are a few cosmetic changes to look into next week
- I believe it’s done – well, at least on desktop, need to validate different devices and browsers
- The component was done, should be working I think
Teach your staff responsibility by expecting them to own what they’ve done. Whenever you hear “done”, it should be complete, and final. No edge cases, no additional activities, fully tested and validated several times.
Tip #17 – Document the Process and Your Roadmap
Documentation is a natural part of the process, but its completeness and detailness may be questionable.
Maintaining a set of documents for your process and the project roadmap can save you a lot of time and headaches. Long projects go through different iterations, and at a given point business or technical decisions are lost in the archives.
Scope changes or layout iterations may be missing as well, and digging through piles of emails, tasks and phone call logs isn’t something that you want to do when the time comes.
Documentation is also extremely valuable for your clients and your direct managers. It keeps a clean track record of your work to date, allows for justifying blocks of hours based on the complexity of the project, and helps with onboarding new team members joining the project.
Tip #18 – Open Door Policy
Be as accessible as possible. That comes with certain constraints needed for your work-life balance or the focused blocks of hours that you need for proposals and replies, but you don’t want to miss the opportunity to connect with your team, learn about potential problems, or simply ensure that everything is intact.
Remote teams may be unable to take advantage of the physical “open door” gesture, which is why you need to explicitly let the folks know that you’re approachable and available. Share the best channels for contact such as business or personal email and an IM account where they can reach. Connect with them yourself a few times in order to show them that you’re not a scary Cerberus that’s trying to jeopardize their success.
It may seem apparent, but often that’s not the case – especially with new team members or introverts that are not comfortable discussing problems openly in the presence of many colleagues.
Tip #19 – Be Friendly, But Not a Friend
Keeping in touch with your peers is a fine skill, and requires calibration from day one.
There is a common leadership principle that states “Be Friendly, Not Friends”. You want to avoid a huge gap between you and your subordinates who don’t see you as an equal member of their team. A team spirit is important, and everyone should be aware that you are in together – and you have to work closely in order to ensure successful results.
However, crossing the friendliness line and becoming friends with your team may become a problem. Your role requires sticking to the plan, keeping everyone happy, making compromises and pushing some buttons when needed. Authority should exist along with your friendly attitude, and that fine balance would both give you the openness that you need, and following your orders whenever necessary.
Tip #20 – Be Humble and Don’t Be Afraid to Ask
Authority doesn’t mean that you need to be better than everyone in everything. In a successful organization, every team member brings expertise in a different set of skills.
It’s normal if your team knows more than you when it comes to certain problems. Especially for niche cases related to their core profession.
Being a project manager means that you have to coordinate the work progress and requirements between your boss, your customers, and your team.
If you are unsure about your skills, progress, or the importance of your project, reach out to your direct manager or the company’s CEO. Ask them about feedback, advice, and best practices that you can implement. If you juggle between multiple projects, find out what are your company’s priorities and how are they aligned with the expectations of your clients.
If there are any niche-specific questions that are specific to your customer’s industry, reach out and ask. Maybe you have fresh ideas that may be of use? Suggest them and brainstorm together.
Are there any technical or creative gaps with your team? Ask them to explain so that the problems are clear, and you can communicate them better later on. You should be aware of what happens behind the scenes – at least on the high level – in order to negotiate and educate your clients as well.
Don’t become a manager that is clueless about their craft and their team.
Tip #21 – Talk Less, Listen More
The best way to understand the problems of everyone around you is letting them talk.
Your expertise is important, and as a leader, you should step in whenever needed. But just as a coach of a sports team, you should be on hold, observing, analyzing, taking notes, and improving the process.
Get used to asking questions.
Ask your client what’s the expected outcome of the project. Then ask them how they see success in a year or two from now. Listen, take notes, and follow-up on their answers.
Same goes for your team. Especially in the event of a confrontation or a work problem, set some time aside and talk personally with the person who’s having a problem. Ask them how they feel, and what bothers them. Check if everything is clear with the project requirements. If appropriate, ask if there are any side problems (at home, with significant other or family) that may be affecting the work quality or attitude.
Talking less and asking more questions can help you find the answers of your own questions and leading through understanding, not tyranny.
Tip #22 – Lead and Inspire
Great managers are great leaders, and they can navigate the project and bond the team on a regular basis.
There are moments when work is not streamlined, and problems happen. Internal confrontations may be happening due to stress, tight deadlines, or other external factors.
As a project manager, step up and inspire your team. Monitor their energy and satisfaction levels and ensure that your team is happy and there are no irreversible issues lurking in.
Remind them why you’re working together and what is at stake. Tell them how great of a team they are, and outline the expertise of each member separately. Reduce the tension of their shoulders by actively communicating with your client and earning extra time or understanding from them.
In a real world we don’t have infinite budgets, timelines, flexibly work hours and immensely fun projects all the time. When we face reality, we have to stick to certain limitations, and ensure that we can deliver successfully. Being ready for the tough times and keeping the inertia forward while calming your team and clients down is what differentiates the great manager from the regular one.
Tip #23 – Embrace Change
One of the hardest things professionally, and personally, is getting outside of your comfort zone.
Whenever you start your first job, you are a freshman who doesn’t understand how business works, nor any of the different professions in your organization. You are consuming tons of information and concluding depending on your environment – including work habits, company culture, processes, and everything else along the way.
In management, things change rapidly. Even if certain management models stay the same over time, that doesn’t mean that various tricks, tools, best practices, and life hacks won’t be of use in different situations. It is comparable to working with customers in different industries – even if your mindset and understanding of implementation and monetization are comparable, certain industry-specific details would reflect on your business model accordingly.
As a project manager, you have to be open to changes, new approaches, and possible alternative paths toward your goal.
Work closely with your team and listen your customers carefully. What works in most cases may not be the best approach in this scenario.
Tip #24 – Leave Plenty of QA Time
Quality assurance is the process of validating the quality of your product. Unless you are selling premade products that stay the same, your implementation would require a good amount of QA.
The waterfall model is designed in a way that puts testing as the last, pre-delivery phase, of shipping a product:
However, verification of product quality should happen in parallel with the implementation model.
If you are building a website, QA should occur during and after the delivery of each phase, such as:
- Design comps
- Front-end implementation
- Each back-end component
- Combining different pieces together
The consistency and accuracy of your product is reliant on each specific element. Each component should work flawlessly. Then, when combined together, they need to be assessed with their links and proxies in mind.
You don’t want to deliver a broken, incomplete, or unstable product to your client. Mind QA and leave enough buffer in each iteration, along with a beta testing iteration before going live.
It’s likely that the QA process will reveal some issues that would require additional work. As a project manager, you need to be aware, and act upfront by letting your team work together on improving the stability of your application.
Tip #25 – Exit Reviews
After a successful project delivery, your management work requires one extra step.
Conduct an extensive review of your project, what went well and what went wrong. Analyse the successful models, document them, and include them as a part of your management quality checklist.
Go in depth in the problems that occurred during negotiations, implementations, and delivery. If the QA time wasn’t sufficient, talk with your technical team and figure out how to prevent that for your next project. Allocate more time for QA if needed, or look for specific training courses in order to improve the competency of your subordinates.
If negotiations weren’t in line with the final requirements, refine your specifications template and include the additional clauses that would ensure a successful launch next time.
If the server requirements weren’t in line with the customer expectations, prepare a pricing table with different criteria in order to provide ballparks for your clients during the next run.
The same goes for 3rd party tools and services that you have used along the way. Find out if they are reliable and scalable, and note that for your next pitch.
Project management is a fine art that relies on a multitude of soft skills and professional industry expertise. The future of a project and its successful delivery is dependent on the management workflow and prompt communication with all parties involved.
Plan carefully, talk openly with your customers, and manage the energy level of your team. As long as you’re on top of the management process, identify challenges early enough, and allocate resources in a smart and productive way, you’ll get closer to deliver outstanding results and landing additional work from your clients.