Ever wished you had a PM mentor watching over your shoulder as you work to get through the day with your projects in one piece?
We know how you feel. The stakes are high, there’s work to be done, and people are depending on you to lead them to on-budget-on-time victory.
Luckily, we ambushed 11 of the world’s leading digital project managers to get the scoop on their best project management tips to help you manage, lead, and successfully complete your projects.
Thankfully, they were more than happy to share with us their #1 project management tip that has made all the difference in their work and, essentially, their lives as well.
Take it away, guys!
1. Set expectations and never abandon them.
Setting and managing expectations is one of the most difficult things a project manager has to do as a part of the role. Many PMs start projects with several unknowns about goals, budgets, timelines, and most of all level of effort.
When you’re setting communications expectations with your team, it’s a good idea to also cover scope, timelines, and any other details that may play into how you will make a project successful. And, when you’re working with a client, it’s good to set the same expectations early on.
Between deadlines, check in on the upcoming document or delivery and chat with the team about what each will entail. Are your deliverables changing based on previous work? Will that impact the scope and the timeline? Explain the benefits of check-ins and how their constructive, helpful feedback will make the end deliverable stronger. Remember when it comes to setting expectations, there is nothing wrong with repeating yourself as long as your repetition is meaningful and timed just right!
2. When in doubt, pick up the phone.
Most agency digital project managers have a client-facing role, even if their team also has dedicated account managers.
While the discipline of project management can live in Gantt charts, budget spreadsheets, scope documentation, and bug tickets, the best digital PMs realize that great communication and properly setting client expectations early will result in far more success than building spreadsheets or negotiating around the details of a statement of work when concerns arise.
Too many project managers tend to hide behind email when client concerns arise, resulting in misconstrued intent and even bigger escalations. Instead, take a deep breath, pick up the phone or hop on a video chat, and have a more personal, honest conversation. Better yet, meet face to face, which allows for interpretation of non-verbal communication cues and underlying emotions!
3. Always be honest.
As Digital Project Managers (DPMs) we’re always positioned between absolutely everyone: clients, bosses, teams, other DPMs and just about anyone else you can think of. This means we have to master managing multiple relationships and always have to be aware of everyone’s feelings and expectations, plus be respected enough so that everyone listens to what we have to say. What a career we’ve chosen!
In all my time managing digital projects and the people involved, 'always be honest' has been my golden rule and it’s been the most effective technique when managing people of all rank and types.
Being honest when most others would not be always surprises people. It’s not easy and takes courage, but to this day I’ve not experienced a single negative effect from it in the long-run. People are at first shocked, some are then not happy because you’re usually being honest about bad news, but then it all changes. Once the bad new ‘sting’ effect has subsided, people accept the truth and then they appreciate the fact that you had the guts to tell them straight up when others would have either lied or sugar coated it.
Always being honest shows people that you have integrity and it also demonstrates that they can trust you, and that is one of the most important factors for developing a positive working relationship with people.
4. Put your team first.
As a PM, it's easy to get caught up in client demands, scheduled milestones, and product delivery. That is, at it's core, why our companies hired us: to deliver. However, the delivery of any project will be harder, more painful, and more exhausting if you don't think about the team that makes this delivery possible.
My Kickass PM co-founder, Dina Fitzpatrick, recently said "Saying yes to your clients is like saying no to your team." (copyright, trademark, patent pending.) The more you resist or negotiate outrageous demands, two things will happen. 1) Your clients will see that you (and your team) have your limits, and 2) The team will see that you have their back. Then the next time that you can't negotiate a client need, your team will remember that time that you went to bat for them and take pity on you.
5. Remember that everyone’s work style is different.
At work your co-workers are like family. Most of the time you don't get to choose who you work with and it's clear that you each have your own quirks. As Digital Project Managers we are going to encounter a melting pot of work styles they do not always play well together in the sandbox. This means we need to adapt how we communicate to eliminate miscommunication, friction and even conflict among the team and align everyone together as one united front.
Every person brings different assets to the table, and taking advantage of their complementary strengths is necessary for success.
6. Teach people how you want to be treated as a project manager.
Whether we are project managers or treat project management as “just another hat,” we teach others how to react. We set the pace of our projects, we determine whether or not our clients and teams will trust or lose faith in us, we teach them the dotted lines of expectations and the safety of roles.
Managing projects is just as much about being a scientist or improv artist as it is being a scheduler or bookie. It’s just as much about tending wounds as a doctor as it is managing resources and scope like a strategist. Like kids, we start our jobs by learning all the rules. As we become more experienced, we learn how to break them. We teach others that it is better to have tough conversations up front with a teammate or client than it is to send an email three weeks later. We teach that it’s more important to ask twice and get it right than it is to get it right the first time. Mistakes are okay. Not having all the answers is just part of the process.
When we teach others how to treat us, they realize that we’re more than what we seem; they can let go of the reigns and know we'll get them to the finish line.
7. Hug your client.
OK, maybe you don't actually need to physically embrace them, but at least pull them a little closer in terms of how you work on your projects. Truly make them a part of your team -- and not just in a "we-collaborate-with-clients"-lip-service sort of way. This isn't merely a philosophical exercise; it's a very practical thing that affects every interaction and each decision you make on your project.
Small example: I recently had a situation where a server upgrade meant an old script stopped working properly. Should we make that fix for free? Surely we can't be held responsible for things like this until the end of time. Should the client pay for it? It's not really their fault, and perhaps we should've written our code in a more future-proof way. In the end, we felt like the right thing to do was to split the costs with them, which they were also happy with. All partnery-like.
When you apply this kind of thinking across the board, it means more open communication, joint decision making, and mutual concern for each others' best interests. And this translates directly to good stuff such as elimination of "big reveals," way fewer difficult conversations, and better overall results.
Bottom line: when we all have the same goals, success for our clients means success for us and vice-versa.
— Carson Pierce, Project Management Consultant, PMP, CSM
8. Un-requirements Gathering
Early on in my career, I wanted to make the requirements gathering process as painless as possible for stakeholders.That being said, we all know that avoiding difficult questions early on doesn't make them go away; they always come back later and are much more painful to resolve at that point.
Assumptions are the silent killer to any project plan. Getting a stakeholder to say “No.” to a potential requirement is as important as a “Yes!” to a critical one. Pay attention to what your stakeholders say but also to what they are not saying. Explore all the options with your project team and then create a list as to what you are doing and what you are not doing. Include those lists in every important piece of documentation. This will help you define a complete structure to your project plan.
Once the entire team and stakeholders agree to the constraints of the project, it will be a smoother ride for everyone. Focus on being a project sherpa, not a task jockey.
9. You ARE an expert. Trust your gut!
Speak up. Whether it’s related to time estimates for your designers’ and developers’ tasks, a clients’ needs and perspectives, or requirements, there is a good chance that you as a project manager have a valuable perspective the experts on your team do not.
As project managers, we are required to have a broad range of knowledge across all disciplines in our field. Though our expertise in each discipline may not be as extensive as the practitioners, we need to trust our instincts on a project. We have the broad view. We are at the helm of both the client and team relationships, and it is our responsibility to stay ahead of anything that can negatively impact either.
On a recent project, for example, during our team’s internal design reviews I would think, “You know, I think the client might not like that aspect of this design...nah, it looks good to the design team, I think it will be fine.” Then, in our reviews with the client, our contact would point out the exact issue I’d internally identified as a potential point of contention. After a couple rounds of review, it struck me that I simply needed to trust my instincts and speak up in internal reviews. Even if we decided not to change the design, the team had at least had the opportunity to think through why it made that particular design decision and was prepared to engage in informative discussion with the client.
You are a project manager for a reason. You are good at reading situations, good at interpreting from one team to another, and good at deduction. Trust your gut!
— Abby Fretz, Project Manager at Happy Cog
10. Communicate more than you think you have to.
People need to hear an idea several times before they start to believe it. It helps to have the same message in a variety of formats and delivered by different people, and it’s a massive help to have people in senior positions like their boss and the project sponsor give the message as well as you.
With so much business communication these days, people do filter things out and skim read newsletters. Even though you think you’ve told your stakeholders about the project, they probably don’t know as much about it as you think they should – which is understandable as they don’t ‘live’ it in the same way that you, as the project manager, does. So make sure that your project communication plans include enough time to repeat your message without becoming annoying.
11. Work smarter and not harder.
When I led a global PMO for a major organisation with over 100 project managers I noticed a significant fact. About half of the project managers were reasonably successful in delivering their projects (we weren’t perfect but we did do a pretty good job) and they were working, on average, a normal working week – 40 hours or so. Now projects are not flat in their time demands and so there were periods of peak activity and there were quieter periods but on average a normal working pattern.
Now the other half of the project managers were working significantly longer hours and guess what, they were being no more effective or successful.
Looking in to this in more detail it became apparent that the cause of this was something that I recognised from my early days in project management, lack of focus in the right areas and becoming involved in too much of the detail. The risk to new project managers is that they lack the trust to delegate to the project team, that they involve themselves in too much communication, and that they make themselves a bottleneck for decision making.
Work smarter and not harder. It is what I refer to as “productive laziness” or the intelligent application of your time and effort to deliver the best results, of the right project management approach for the greater good of the project and the project manager.
— Peter Taylor, Project Management Speaker, Trainer, Consultant, Coach and Author at The Lazy Project Manager A huge thanks to our digital project managers for sharing their knowledge, stories, and experiences with us!
Many of these talented project managers can be found at this years Digital PM Summit in Austin, Texas. Find out more info here:http://dpm2014.com/