A colleague from another department has been filling in as a project manager (PM) for a few months now. She went through a broad palette of experiences, checking pretty much all the checkboxes you have as an aspiring PM. At some point, she wanted to discuss some of the obstacles and asked the five questions below. A few of us gathered and we discussed them together.
What are, at all, positive aspects of working as a PM?
If I were to explain shortly what a PM does, it is to shape collaboration together with experts from many departments and companies. This, to me, is grand! We design how we work together. If you like people, then you will love it, because you’re right in the middle of it all. You’ll know folk from every department, from many other agencies, from many companies that we work with. In fact, you’re so pivotal, that, if you were narcissistic, you should think of yourself as the CEO of the project. You want to bring the project to a successful end, and work with a bunch of folk to get there.
Being a PM though is also very much about learning. I personally learned so many things as a PM at Cocomore that it wouldn’t even make sense to start counting. And it’s not only the usual suspects, like SEO, or UX, how deployments are made, or how accounting is working, but also a bunch of other, more exotic stuff, like how marketing automation is being done, or how a design system is being created, how huge companies tend to move from centralized IT to localized IT solutions and how this is cyclical, how a stress sensor works, and many, many other things.
While at it, you start becoming better and better at connecting the dots and this shifts your perspective. You start seeing opportunities to improve beyond projects, you look more and more at the whole company and can contribute to make it better as a whole.
How sincere should I be with my clients?
Short answer: as sincere as it gets. All the time.
You co-shape how people work, you measure it and improve it, you know better than everyone else, for the whole project, where it is at. Sharing this knowledge with everyone according to their needs empowers them to make the best of their own roles and knowledge.
We have a framework for project management at Cocomore, which comes with 3 core values. The first one is transparency – to know at any time what is still to be done and communicate it to everyone. The second one is to break down the work into pieces that fit the ways of working of the operating departments. We do this as a collaborative act. And the third one is to deliver quality: by adding QA to the team from the beginning of the project, but also by doing all the necessary to empower everyone to deliver quality. We do this by making sure our team members get enough working hours to implement something, and all the information they need.
In addition to these core values, we are right now adding two aspects. With the first one, we aim that everyone has a solid understanding of the goals of the project so that they can best use their knowledge towards these goals. The second one is to strive that, at all time, everyone makes progress towards the project goals.
All these items empower you to be honest and cultivate a sound and trustful relationship. Sometimes though, you will have the impression that being honest might hurt the company. Whenever that happens, it is most of the times because the client relationship was not good anyways, or because you are not using the above tools. So you have to find out what the reasons are and go after them together with your team.
Should I do project plans for small projects?
Our framework gives a great and very simple recipe: identify the steps needed to deliver something, specify, and estimate them, and only afterwards start the implementation. Very often in the everyday, you might not respect that: Someone might have time right now and start already, and you can create the tickets in the next days, or some requirements are not clear, but you start going with some assumptions and develop anyways. Or you, the PM, might be a bottleneck and, not wanting to slow the others down, you ask them to start already and you’ll setup the project next week… there are tons of reasons against this one simple rule. The outcome is mostly also just as simple: you add a series of issues in the project by not respecting it, and, the longer you don’t fix the situation, the more complex the issues will become.
Projects vary a lot in size and need the right tooling. Large ones will need more complex tools, and the smaller they get, the simpler your work should be. Focus on the principles above and choose the easiest path to fulfill them. We have a light version of our framework for smaller projects, but some of the things going through our desks don’t even need the light version at all. In some cases, a simple list of tasks, describing expectations and timings is enough.
How can I be part of the team and not be the bad cop?
Simply put, by being one of them. Pedaling back to our principles, I can only encourage you to break down the work together with your team members and celebrate the small wins on the way. Give them time, share information, and they will be much happier. Stop overpromising to the client if you do so, because it only discredits you in front of everyone. Make them understand the business side of what we do and understand their issues in return. And finally make sure they keep progressing.
I have to dedicate a special place to retrospectives here, because, to me, they are probably the most important event in projects. They are a place where everyone comes to talk openly, to celebrate and criticize, a place to think together about solving problems – to me they are the perfect place to bring a team together.
Finally make use of the many tools at your disposal to make the everyday creative by spicing up interactions (play games, use icebreakers) or by solving issues (Team Canvas). Use the many guidelines we have out there to make sure that everyone can run the activities required of a PM.
Keep in mind that it’s not about making everyone happy, but about moving the project on, and let this mission empower you to have more courage in the way you communicate.
When things become stressful, group work that is otherwise spread all over your week, take time to prioritize your activities and liberate yourself from the perceived need to solve 10 issues at the same time. And if nothing else helps, take a few moments, do some breathing exercises, meditate or go for a walk.
How do I deal with client feedback?
90% of what we do as PMs is communicate. We do it in different forms, but all we do is trade information, all day long. So focus on communication. Align in the beginning of a project how you want to communicate. There you can set the stage for everything: channels, formats and purposes, frequency and participants. Feedback is only a small part of this.
When feedback gets shared, know that everyone wants to bring things forward. You’re not in a competition of being the best note taker on the phone, best mind reader of a client, but you need to make sure that the message comes across right. Ask enough questions to understand everything, ask the others to slow down so you can write down everything if needed.
Share the screen when taking notes so that everyone has the chance to correct you. Use the available materials: draw, show websites, designs, etc., and leverage the feedback tools we have.
Make sure that all information goes where it needs to go, and that, if you take shortcuts, you only take the ones that don’t dilute the message or make it still show up in the right place.
If you have too many feedback rounds, don’t forget that you all want the best for the project, so go after the causes with the core team and all relevant stakeholders. Talk about it in retros, align expectations, and fix the issues, together.
Bottom line, I am very much about collaboration and having everyone in the same boat as often as possible. Whenever that goes well and we are focused on the scope of our project, everything tends to go well, and the team plows together through anything that a project my throw at them.