On Monday evening I went to London and spent three hours with other people involved in the web and project management. Some were actual project managers, other designers or developers. Some attendees were freelance, others worked for small agencies like Toward and some for much larger organisations. Regardless of job titles and size of team we all found out we shared the same challenges and problems. Being a project manager means wearing many different hats to get everything done and one hat does not fit all.
Thanks goodness for this workshop then. Run by Sam Barnes and Brett Harned, it was a chance to share, learn and meet other likeminded folk. It was almost like rehab for project managers — "My name's Rob, I'm a project manager and scheduling is hard!"
After initial introductions we got stuck into a practical task. Half the table had scenario A and half scenario B. Individually we had to take the scenario and create a project plan. Then all the A's got together and all the B's and after sharing what they had come up with we created the ultimate project plan.
This was an eye opener (and reassuring) because despite working with two people from very different work environments to me (a freelancer and a team of 50) we all had very similar processes. There were some inevitable differences but on the whole we went through similar stages and also faced the same problems relating to client expectations and sign off.
It was interesting to hear from Sam and Brett too. Brett shared some info about how his team works and for a 3 month web redesign project they will conduct around 10 user interviews and 12 stakeholder interviews.
Common themes throughout all plans were the importance of research, the need for upfront payments and agreed scope and invoice points and also the difficulty in changing schedules and managing unforeseen obstacles. It also led to a discussion about process and getting us to think in terms of risk and trying to manage projects well enough so those risks don't become actual issues. This was discussed in relation to client sign off and keeping the project going such as, 'if I don't have sign off on item x what is the risk if we move onto the next step?'.
It was also stated by Brett and Sam that it is important to find out about the client's process too and also what they need to go through in order to get sign off so enough time can be scheduled to allow for this. Perhaps this might be the client contact having to get sign off from a director that they only see once a week. All food for thought.
Continuing with process, Brett shared his own way of working by judging each project's ideal process based on the team involved and their skill set, the budget, deadlines client process and client approval structure. Scheduling is difficult as there are so many factors that can influence things so getting an idea of how others work was worth the trip to London alone. One take out I had from the discussion is that processes can and should adapt to each project but certain elements will always exist and form the backbone of the process.
Brett also said it's important that you know your process inside and out and follow it. Don't just say you're agile if that's not what you practice. Wise words of course.
We also had time to talk about the tools we use. Some were more common than others such as Harvest and Basecamp but I now have a list of others to look into. I'm certainly open to finding news tools and ways of working that improve how we manage projects at Toward so this was more valuable info shared amongst the group. The guys did stress that we shouldn't get lost in tools though, they are there to help us make decisions but shouldn't take up all our time as we should be using that time to engage with the project team.
Before we had a Q&A with Sam and Brett there was a little time to talk about managing expectations. Sam mentioned that we should set the expectations of the internal team as well as the clients because they too are a stakeholder. His best advice to us though was to be honest. If we see any hurdles or if we have strayed from the deadlines and budget then we need to be honest with the client. That really is the best policy and often earns respect from the client too.
Communication and transparency is key and something I think we are good at here at Toward, but Sam shared the content/structure of the weekly update emails he sends to clients and that is something I intend on bringing to the Toward process too.
The final point that made me chuckle was that people don't really choose to be project managers. They fall into it and there was much nodding in agreement from the group when this was said aloud. That's certainly true for me and much of my learning has been on the job. This workshop has helped me enormously to make changes, reinforce things we already do and start to take project management more seriously.
I have been in touch with Sam since the workshop with a question and his reply was detailed and helpful. I would encourage anyone involved in managing projects to follow these guys and keep an eye out for any future workshops they run as it was most definitely time well spent.