Leading the Project, the Process & the Team

Let’s talk about what it really means to be a creative project manager. 

Look through any job board and the job description for creative project managers, producers, program managers, product managers and the like may seem very different. You may work in small or large teams, manage the client, or just production or projects end-to-end. To be a project manager in the big sense of the word- — and not just a traffic manager, your duties will most likely range a lot more than just the creation and management of scopes, budgets, time-lines, resources (people and objects) and project goals. 

However, no matter where you stand, if you have the title of project manager or not, if you have project management responsibility, then you are a project manager.

For me, it is a given that a project manager needs to have the basics competencies of building a project, estimating, handling a schedule to name a few, mastered. 

A good project manager has the technical knowledge of the subject matter at hand, or the ability to navigate that gap. They have both the soft people skills and strong hands-on skills for managing projects.

Over the past several years there has been great debate over how technical a project manager needs to be in order to run projects that they may not have worked on before. Certainly you need enough knowledge to properly do the basics. You’ll never stop learning and picking up new know-how as long as you are a project manager.

The truth is technology changes. Your going to be out of your technical comfort zone all the time. But, would I ask a broadcast producer to run an application development project with scrum methodologies, if they’ve never done it before? 

Yes and no.

It depends on the individual, and how much time I (or you would) need to invest to train and support them through the project. Project managers pick up a lot of specific technology knowledge by doing, asking questions and quite frankly learning on the job. As a project manager, you only know what to do, by knowing what you shouldn’t do and applying it. This means that you or your team has to have patience to support them as they grow.

Almost nine years ago, I had a production manager who never spoke to a photographer or illustrator. In a safe environment, I supported that person in adding art buying skills and on-set producing to her arsenal of knowledge. Now she’s running production and art buying at one of the top creative places in the country. 

She had kick-ass soft skills and could learn the technical aspect. A large aspect of being a great project manager is having solid people skills. You can have the technical knowledge, but if you can’t work with or manage people, its going to be very difficult to get your project completed.

That’s what makes a great project manager. They learn as much as they can, they ask a lot of questions, and in the process learn a whole new set of processes and procedures that they can apply for the next project. Managing creative projects means you are never going to stop learning something new. 

Communicate with meaning.

One of the things I learned early on in my career, was that there are always going to be things you can’t control. I may raise an eyebrow, but I’m not going to go ballistic on anyone. 

As the receiver of some crazy things in my career, I’ve learned that internally I may get a little freaked out about something, but you shouldn’t let the “hiccup” distract you from focusing on the outcome.

Not everyone communicates the same, some people are brash, some people you need to pull every detail out of them, and others leave you guessing. The fact is, is that any project will fail without people communicating with each other. How people communicate is different. How you need to react to them so that both of you are being heard is going to be different as well. 

Think of project managers as your agency diplomats. One of the hardest things a project manager does is to help the team survive internal and external conflict. The project manager acts as a broker who makes sure each party’s interest is represented at the table. Think of your project manager as the agency advocate.

Communication means nothing without generating understanding. 

This goes not only for how you communicate interpersonally, but with the team itself. As a PM the first rule of the road is establishing how the team is going to communicate with each other. Are you going to use Basecamp, Google docs, Invision, or a Scrum board? 

However, don’t confuse the tool as a replacement for proper communication. We talk a lot about process on this site, but here’s something I can’t stress enough. When it comes to communicate with each other in teams, its not the tool or the process that fails. What fails is that the team doesn’t commit on agreeing on a communication structure that works for everyone.

As a project manager you can not always dictate best practices. Because your project may require critical thinking and decision making that wipe out that best practice from the face of the earth. Some projects and groups of people require different strategies for communicating so the project becomes successful. 

Now, from an operations guy standpoint that might seem extreme. And indeed, if your project goes off the rails, the first thing your boss is going to point to, is that you failed because you didn’t follow company-wide standards.

The thing is, process in an agency is a baseline. You still need to follow the basics. But making process your own and making it work for your team is really key. If you get to know your team, and put a plan in place that involves them means people buy in. That’s what its all about, getting your team to communicate on the same page, making them comfortable enough so that they communicate with each other and deliver on your project.

Setting Project Boundaries

Having ownership as a project manager of the project scope is one of the most important factors in successful completion of projects.

As a project manager, you need to have the ability to scope a project, which means you need the responsibility to determine costs, resources and timing. You also need to have your team members buy-in and agree to the scope as well.

It doesn’t matter if you are running a traditional project as waterfall or agile. A project scope puts the project in a container of understanding between you and the team and you and the client.

It also guides you when stuff goes wrong or if the project goes off track or out-of-scope. Your corrective steps should be in the signed off project scope. Your first line of defense should be spelled out in the scope of work, and as a project manager, you should own what to do at this stage. That’s not to say you don’t always raise your hand and ask for help with a challenging situation. 

It means that you and your team have and take ownership of both the success and failure of the project at multiple levels. 

You own it — and your team owns it.    

At the same time, what your agency can do for any specific project does have constraints. Project Managers are in the position to help frame constraints. Setting hours and budgets help create the initial boundaries for projects that could otherwise continue on. The Project Manager has to help balance the project’s scope while getting buy-in from team members. It takes time, practice and experience to learn how long certain processes take, as well as the nuances of how each project member works best. Being realistic, while developing the scope of a project will ultimately make managing the project easier. 

A project manager must continuously manage constraints by setting expectations. This can happen by ensuring both team and client meetings are defined before they start and by ensuring expectations for deliverables are established and agreed upon by the project team and communicated to the client. 

I think this can’t be repeated enough, the project manager also need to actively manage the project’s scope. With creative projects, there are lots of brainstorming and ideation sessions, lots of rounds of design and development sprints. There’s no debate that this is crucial to the creative process. However, as a project manager they are in a critical position, to kill stuff. However, they must be do so with their teams, to figure out what they can realistically accomplish given the time and scope of the project, and consequently, help them let go or abandon avenues at certain times.

Project Ownership & Delegation

Owning a project means taking responsibility for setting and managing expectations, both with your team and the client. The scope-of-work, is one of your main tools to set those expectationsand rules of the road for the project. I highly recommend that you do a scope-of-work and get client and team sign-off for every project you start. It doesn’t matter if your firm is project based or under a retainer.

A scope of work documents what’s going to happen, what will impact the scope, time-line and necessary resources. Even in an agile environment, where you are a product or program manager setting expectations and building backlogs, a scope is still important to build and create, even if your not using deadlines that are waterfall in nature. 

Having ownership of a project doesn’t mean you are the only owner. Project managers should never become project dictators. You need to know when to involve your team in the decision making process when it effects the team. Here’s the thing, as a project manager, you may have built the scope, budget and established guidelines, but project ownership is shared by the team. Bring your specialists in and let them answer the questions. Your job is to help the team accomplish the work, to act as a conduit for questions. 

When asked, if you don’t have answer for someone that you can easily answer based on the scope and budget, tell them you’ll get back to them after you talk to the team.

It also means that you shouldn’t always be the person leading the conversation, or leading the meeting. Everyone needs an opportunity to lead a meeting in a team environment. If the same person leads all the time, they will feel subservient, and less apt to contribute. It also creates collective accountability. Besides, the design process is meant to be dynamic, where people can share, and feel that they can contribute and lead.

Team Management = Team Support

Part of what makes a great project manager is the support they give to the team. More than likely you are the person who helps the team overcome obstacles and helps push the process along. More than likely, your team members are communicating and solving problems of the project within the team itself, without having the support of a larger functional department.

While you aren’t the team’s boss, you are the closest they have when it comes to support. You are the one that can move around and adjust the process so that your team can be successful. You are the person who sets the stage for how the team treats each other. How you behave and react should be in support of both the team and the project. What makes a great project manager is knowing the basics, but engaging the team and supporting them.

Measure progress, but measure project and team health.

As a project manager its not enough to worry about deadlines. Creative projects can easily get off the rails if there is a break in progress along the way. That goes for the project manager him/herself as well. If you are overloaded, you run the risk of falling back into being a task manager. 

It can be hard not to fall backwards, especially if you have one team member that is under-performing. The key is to not have too many projects, otherwise you run the risk of losing their connection to the work, and kill the momentum of their team.

Apply critical thinking to what you do.

Once you understand the basics, you can apply it to new types of projects. Being a project manager today means that what you are working on today is probably going to be different than what you are working on tomorrow. 

If you are going to stick it out in the creative field (or almost any career!), you need to embrace life long learning thinking.

Never stop ask questions. As a project manager, you have an enormous opportunity to observe and ask questions. It is this learning that will help you become better at managing something new. Don’t be a pain in the ass if you don’t know something, but look to build opportunities where you get to know a new role, or make connections with the team. The best project managers have the ability to see things from multiple perspectives. To think about how a team member might perceive information from their own view. 

The more knowledge you gain about other views, the easier its going to be to communicate and anticipate questions, anticipate resource needs or build a project scope.

One of the reasons I started this site long ago was to share my perspective on process and how people may approach project management. Because I learned early on that if I understood the process of how the place works, I can better strategize with my teams and clients to find alternate ways to make process work for them and their projects.

Process Development

Through the years, I’ve shared dozens of different ways to approach process and workflow. I share, because it provides me an outlet for feedback and for others to add something. This is something that every project manager can do on their own. As you gain experience in project management, you are going to build up a history of documents and methods that work best for you.

The first thing I ask for when I go into a new agency or creative firm is to ask for examples of their SOWs, estimates, schedules and any other project based material. Since where they are in the creation these types of materials, tells me where they are in their history of developing project management. 

As a project manager, build your own history that’s readily accessible that you can repurpose. As a project manager, building up a history of templates and examples of former projects will help you cut down the time to build out a new scope.

I think this is why we find software or cloud-based project management systems important to the way we work. If I can run through a project, its history and its metrics, than I can build a better informed estimate and SOW and project.

In other articles on this site, we will talk about stand-up meetings and their importance. In an environment where there is team effectiveness, and transparency, there should be very few highly confidential things. You don’t have to go into a room to talk. Move conversations out in the open, use your space to share information, not just someplace on line.

Having a conversation in the open, will allow people that are around to overhear, tune-in or tune-out what’s going on. But it may allow others not initially in the conversation to jump in.

When your agency is comfortable with anyone overhearing anything, it becomes a very collegiate environment. It also makes others watch what they say and how they say it. But also makes people feel that they can contribute to the conversation.