I was recently thinking of my youth league baseball coach Wayne Hobson. Coach Hobson was my coach when I was a 13-year-old playing ball in Southern Mississippi. He was the epitome of a southern baseball coach: he drove a 1950’s Chevy pick-up that he could crank with a screwdriver and he always had a baseball-sized chew of Red-Man in his mouth. I mean always. He always had these funny sayings, half of the time you couldn’t make out what they were. One of his favorites was “practice don’t make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect.” He was a stickler for detail and he demanded that we always practiced as if it was a game. He said he wanted us to have fun, and to him nothing was more fun than winning. We won a lot those two years.
That saying came to mind recently when I was thinking about the optimal way to manage projects for our digital agency. So often we hear that communication is the key to successful project management, though I would take it a step further and argue that just as it takes perfect practice to make perfect, it takes effective communications to effectively manage projects. I have had the fortune of working with some really good Project Managers in a wide array of industries, and I believe they all share the same effective communications strategies that I’ve listed below. Enjoy!
To me, the most important thing a Project Manager can do is properly set expectations. This applies to both the client and the internal team working on the project. Setting expectations with the client should start at the first meeting. It is important to sell yourself and your team, but to never overpromise, especially on things your team cannot guarantee (Specific SEO Rankings, “your new website will lead to a 250% increase in online orders”, etc.). Having a strong business development team in place that can sell the project without having to make outlandish guarantees is paramount. And as the projects moves along, continuing to update the project timeline and benchmarks is also key. Things shift on every project, and it’s on the Project Manager to constantly update expectations to both sides to ensure a successful outcome.
Assumptions are another potential trap. Besides the obvious joke, it really is important to make sure you have explicit approval on all actions you do or do not take. So many points of contention or disagreement start with the sentence: “I thought that you wanted (fill in the blank)”
I find myself constantly saying “I think I know the answer to this, but to be sure…” I would rather be persistent in my assurance than lazy in my assumption. And deep down, the client would prefer it too.
Get it in writing:
“You approve the home page? Great, send me an email stating that.”
“You want us to spend an additional 10 hours on discovery? Great, send me an email stating that.”
“You want us to buy this plug in for your site? Great, send me an email stating that.”
Those are three real-life examples of things I did NOT get in writing. Learn from my mistake. Most decisions that affect the project after kickoff are made either over the phone or in person. Make sure you are thorough and either send an email or revised proposal or have the client send an email stating approval on all decisions.
I believe there are two benefits for checking in regularly with your client.
- You are showing your client that their project is getting the attention it deserves. Hopefully all your project run along at a smooth clip and benchmarks are hit regularly. We know this isn’t always the case, and unfortunately, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. It’s important to check in regularly with your clients whose projects require little attention. This means a lot to people.
- You are protecting yourself in case something goes sideways. Think about it like this: if the project goes over budget, or hits a major roadblock, who is the client going to be happier with and more inclined to trust, the Project Manager who has reported everything, good, bad or the same along the way in regular intervals, or the Project Manager who goes radio silent for a month and then suddenly sends an email with the subject line: “Bad news: Must talk ASAP!!!”? Even if all you have to report is that things are status quo, it’s good practice to stay in touch.
Tell Good News Fast, Bad News Faster
Another hallmark of a great project manager is to tell bad news quickly. I find that this is a rare trait in our world. Most of us have a natural inclination to pivot, scramble, to try something else so we never worry the client. I have found that I need to tell bad news faster than good news.
My rule: I never bring a just problem to the table; I also bring a solution. As soon as we discover an issue, I will work with my team to get at least 1 solution and then immediately get in contact with my client. I have found by following this rule I am able to keep us both focused on solving the problem. An added benefit is the client is less inclined to sit and stew on the problem; their mind is focused on the solution.
I always liked the SMART acronym for projects. Make sure your deliverables are:
Specific –What is the specific goal of the project? In as much detail as possible, state what you are going to achieve. The more detailed the better.
Measurable – How will you know you did your job? You need measurables to prove this. Be specific here as well
Attainable – Are the project results attainable with the resources and skill set you have?
Realistic – Do you have a realistic possibility to hit the project milestones with your resources and time constraints?
Time-bound – Are both parties agreed to time-bound benchmarks? When are the milestones expected to be completed?
“Launch email marketing campaign on June 30th, 2015 for company XYZ by creating a landing page with a lead generation form with a goal of gaining 500 email addresses within 6 months.”
Tools of the Trade
It’s no secret: humans are a visual bunch. I have found the most effective way for me to manage projects is to visualize every phase. There are several tools available to help in this.
Recently, I have been using LeanKit to manage my projects. LeanKit is based here in Nashville, TN, and their primary product is a SaaS tool for visual project management, or “Kanban”. I find that this software allows me to stay on top of my projects in a very convenient and intuitive way. I can get a great visualization of all my projects, and can see when deadlines are approaching on each specific benchmark.
While this is by no means an exhaustive Project Management guideline, hopefully it will serve as a handy reference for the overall principles that have led to successful project launches for Astute Communications. Special thanks to all the great Project Managers I have worked with that have shaped my views and educated me along the way.