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Project Management: Focusing on What You Can Control.

Dennis Kardys Director of Design & Production
#Industry Insights, #Digital Strategy
Published on October 18, 2017

Project Management is a whirlwind of deadlines and communication. Focus on what you can control as PM to reduce stress, improve team and client happiness.

I often see PM's stressing over the things they can't control on a project. But upon reflection, it's usually the controllable aspects that end up being most influential toward the overall degree of success. For both you and your team's sanity, focus on the things you can control.

Keep everyone on the same page. 

This sounds like a no-brainer, but when you're operating at a frantic pace keeping everyone on the same page is easier said than done. Don't let impromptu one-on-one conversations or rambling Slack discussions take the place of structured team communication. 

Schedule regular requirement review meetings.

If you, your team, or your client or stakeholders don't share an understanding of design intent and functional requirements, you'll pay the price—usually in the form of timeline delays or budget overages caused by confusion and excessive QC (quality control) or UAT (user-acceptance testing) rework. As the digital project manager, you can mitigate this risk by continually keeping the requirements in the spotlight. For us, this means:

  • Discussing requirements with the project team, before anything is shared with our clients
  • Reviewing the full scope of work and all defined requirements with both the project team and the client, prior to onset of work beginning
  • Going back and reviewing the specific requirements for individual project milestones or sprints, at least a week before work is scheduled to begin
  • Going over the requirements again, prior to handing work over to clients for UAT 

Rule of thumb, the further from the onset of the project you are, the more critical regularly scheduled requirement "reminders" become.

The trick is figuring out the timing that works best for you. You want to get everyone on the same page, but you also need to leave enough time to resolve any requirement disputes without jeopardizing your timeline.

Scope is Living, Continually Document It.

The harsh reality is that there are things that your team won't know about, or be able to predict until they are in the midst of doing the work. There are also times when, for legitimate business reasons, requirements that have been agreed upon must change. Scope is not a static, it's ever-evolving. You need a plan for how you will track it—not just when change-orders are necessary, but anytime decisions are made, or new information is revealed that affects plans.

Here are some #pro-tips that have helped us stay on top of evolving project scopes: 

  • Avoid using Slack as a home for decisions; any decisions made in Slack should be added to more formalized, centralized project documentation.
  • Ensure that all project documentation—design notes, requirement documents and technical specs—have assigned owners. This may be you, or it may be someone else on your team. 
  • Make sure that all documentation is published in a location visible and accessible to the entire team, including the clients.
  • Create your documents in a format that encourages collaboration—ideally supporting multiple contributors.

Send Project Postcards.

What's worse than missing a deadline or going over budget? Surprising bosses and stakeholders with that news. You may not be able to control whether it takes a developer more or less time than was estimated to troubleshoot a code issue, but you can control how and when project statuses are communicated.

Here are steps we've adopted to help ensure nobody is surprised

  • At the end of each project milestone, do a full review of the project budget and timeline, paying specific attention to projections moving forward.
  • Notify key team members and stakeholders of the project status at each milestone, and include:
    • Your degree of confidence or the perceived risk of the project hitting its deadline (red, yellow, green)
    • The confidence or risk level of the project being completed within budget
    • Any other roadblocks that exist or are anticipated
  • If you identify that the project is approaching high risk, report on:
    • The amount of predicted overage (in time or dollars)
    • Internal or external factors that will sway the level of risk in either direction
    • A timeline for what needs to be resolved, and by when, to get things back on track

Develop a Reflex for Reflecting.

In order to avoid making recurring mistakes that affect client satisfaction or project profitability, it's important to reflect back, as a group, on what when wrong where, and identify what steps should be taken to help it from happening again. You also need to identify what went right. What did you do that's worth repeating? Regardless of whether you refer to them as post-mortems, project retrospectives, or lessons learned—make a habit of conducting them with your team regularly. 

Build a Reputation of Delivering on Promises.

Requirements are defined, people are in charge of their code, their designs, the QC. You are in charge of delivering what the client expects. As a colleague of mine often quotes, "Trust, but verify".

Check the team's work.

  1. Never let the team start working until you are crystal clear about what they are doing, and more importantly that everyone is clear about what the client is expecting to get.
  2. Never do a client hand-off or deliver work without verifying that all the pieces are there, and you personally have confirmed they are working.

Manage Expectations.

As PM you are the point person on the front lines of all the action. For all the elements you can't control, "expectations" is never one. Surprise is everyone's enemy, including your own. You are accountable for managing expectation. 

  • Keep the team informed. Keep your client informed. Blackouts in communication are another worst enemy. Nothing that is old news to you should come as a surprise to the client; continually provide updates.
  • Manage the pace of communication: too frequent and people will feel rushed and will become anxious. Too much space between communication and people will get paranoid or lose confidence. Your communications should occur at a steady, predictable pace.
  • Time your responses:
    • Check-ins and status updates should be routine, the frequency dependent on the project pace.
    • Meetings recaps: Send these out ASAP after the meeting. Sending out a recap days after a meeting sets a poor impression.
    • When you have a live-site issue or angry client you have an urgent situation, pick up the phone.

Gauge Reactions.

When a million things are going on at once, it can begin to feel like the sky is falling. A client calls in angry. An immediate support request is submitted. QC took longer than expected, and now a timeline is jeopardized. The worst thing you can do is to transfer whatever frenetic energy you are feeling onto your team. Stressed teams don't put out great work. Get used to taking the pulse of a situation and being attentive to the overall tone of the call or the room. Build a reputation for reacting appropriately and staying cool-headed and solution-focused—even when shit is hitting the fan.

Don't create alarm.

  1. Be aware of, and control the tone of conversations. Practice diffusing tense situations by shifting conversations from the situation to the solution.
  2. Assess the urgency of the situation; respond appropriately, escalating or level-setting as needed. If a client is over-reacting, calm them down and put things into perspective. If there is an emergency, react swiftly and demonstrate that you understand the gravity of the situation.
  3. Get the full picture. When you see red flags, don't assume the worst and panic the team. Gather whatever information you can, and do your own investigation before looping others in.

Communicate like a human being.

Clarity is your best friend. Communicating in terms everyone understands is the best way to keep people aligned and informed.

Check your spelling and cut the jargon.

  1. Don't use slang that veils the meaning of things.
  2. Be concise; cut to the chase.
  3. Don't dwell on "how we got here", discuss how to proceed.
  4. Don't abuse acronyms.
  5. Install Grammarly (https://app.grammarly.com/) or some other similar tool. Spelling mistakes and poor grammar can undermine your message and affect people's perception of you. The fact that tools are available to assist with this only makes it look worse when an error-ridden correspondence is sent out.
  6. Re-read your client communications before sending. If you're not comfortable with your writing ability, try reading your email out loud. Does it sound conversational? Does it sound like "you"? For practice, you can also work backward and record yourself speaking aloud. Then translate it into text and use that as a starting point.
  7. Make sure you have a comfortable understanding of the content you are communicating. If you are just copying and pasting what the developer told you, or using terms you don't quite grok it will be apparent. 
  8. Adjust your tone to reflect your understanding of the situation at hand.

You got this!

The great thing is that all of the suggestions above are things you can take control of (if you haven't already). As a PM, you are the linchpin of the team. It may always seem like there are a billion things going on, but don't stress or psyche yourself out. Shift your focus onto what you can control, and start there!