Project Management

Be a Hero, Save a Project by Matthew Cook

Update: .Net ended up posting my comments. Here’s the link if you’re interested; I’m one of many responses.

I figured I’d head this post with a photo of my most recent home office inspiration. Master Chief rocks. I need to write about Halo sometime. Nerdcore.

Anyways, I recently put together a little opinion about the place of project management in the web world and sent it in to a magazine. I don’t know if it will get published, but I’ll post it here as well. Hope it’s at least entertaining. I wrote it while sitting in Dulles trying to recover from a crazy day.

Project managers often cause more harm than good. I work independently as a freelance project manager for exactly that reason.

I think project managers tend to take roles that they shouldn’t for multiple reasons, the project is dragging, team leads are unavailable, budget is running out, you name it. The pressure to control variables that destroy projects can turn them into power-sucking monsters. I’m hearing Harvey Dent right now, “You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain”. A wise friend once summed up an experience by saying that as a PM if a project fails, it’s his fault; if it succeeds it’s the team’s success. Sometimes that means as project managers we have to be “the hero that [the team] deserves, but not the one [they] need right now”. I hope you’re catching all of the super hero references. PM’s should be exactly that, super heroes. 

At SuperFriendly we’ve structured project management to defeat apathy and the forces of evil. Conventional project management puts up barriers, resists non-conformity, and strains the creative process. I think almost every designer can relate to the swoop and poop. A PM swoops in, tosses out several minutes of earth shattering changes or constraints, then flies off to some meeting. The project team has clean up the mess and carry on. This tends to happen when dollars are king and PMs are inept at controlling and foreseeing problems. There is an ever present pressure to supply a service or product for the most amount of money in the least amount of time. The result is usually mediocrity. What a team really needs is the project’s ultimate advocate. 

I put the project first and I don’t BS anyone.

I make it very clear to all stakeholders that I advocate each project I put my name to. I have what feels like a million little things I do to keep that a reality, but it can be boiled down to several simple principles. Fight for quality, stand up for the team, tell the truth, and put on my cape–being willing to pay the ultimate price to save the project. Living by this code keeps me from manipulating, shifting blame, caving for extra margin, failing to plan, or being a miserable person to work with. I facilitate, I don’t mandate. I converse, I don’t coerce. I hope for the best and plan for the worst. 

Take one of my recent projects for example. The client needed a ton of work but we knew they wouldn’t be keen on how much it would cost. I spent two weeks building their trust in my team, drawing up schedules and deliverables, and figuring pricing to make sure I’d hit a margin. I made it clear to the client that I wouldn’t bid to their budget and told them the exact truth about what we could do and why they needed us. We won the job.  Since then we’ve kicked off, pivoted for their needs, planned to our strengths, told them the difficult truths about their current performance, and made extra trips to visit; all while we’ve maintained their trust and our ability to meet deadlines while augmenting the project to fit their exact needs. We’re not sticking them on details and we’re not cheapening our work. We’ve worked to facilitate their needs within the constraints that we set together. It doesn’t always happen this way, but when things do get ugly, clients know exactly where I stand: right beside the project, fighting to maintain success.

Project management is rife with problems because the opportunity to be a bad human for the sake of earning some extra dollars is ever present. Ultimately, a PM needs to be a solid person. It’s not impossible, but it’s sometimes hard. My advice is to work hard, stand up for the project, and wear a cape (sometimes).

Sharing a Project in Process by Matthew Cook

Really cool stuff is going down.

I’m on a project right now with SuperFriendly; we’re going to tear the entire thing open and put it up on the internet as it happens. This includes meeting details, conversations, builds in process, notes, and even some files. It will all happen via posts like this online across multiple sites. I couldn’t be more excited. Let’s dig in. 

A number of weeks ago SuperFriendly and Dan Mall received an email from Reading is Fundamental (RIF), they were interested in updating their website. I’ll admit, I didn’t know much of RIF before the email conversations started flowing, so I dug into the internet to learn more. I found this, this, and this. I was sold.

We took RIF through our normal process for new clients. After introductions we asked a good bit of questions via email (some hard and some easy), which set the tone for our first call really well and got the broad strokes of what our relationship could look like down in writing. Our first call was surprisingly awesome. Those guys just make you wish you could high five people through the phone. Stepping back from that call, and one follow-up, we had most of the information we needed to start crafting a project and process. I ran through multiple sets of numbers and several months worth of calendar while Dan started talking to some SuperFriends (enter Noah Stokes and Kevin Hoffman). Dan also threw Josh Luciano in at this point. He’d been crushing his work recently and needed something more worthy of his time and talent. 

We came back to RIF with three different ballpark prices and structures, hammered through some more details on what the project needed to cover and wrapped up our preliminary conversations with a fully drafted statement of work and schedule. 

Since signing stuff and passing some money, we’ve had multiple group calls, a full day kickoff in Washington DC, and a good bit of brainstorming. I can’t take you back in time and put you in a chair during those events, but I can share some of my favorite notes coming out of those meetings.

Quotes direct from RIF about what success looks like for them personally:

  • “Really good communication”.
  • “Don’t forget we’re a non-profit”.
  • Hitting the mark on “time and budget”.
  • “My fear is [website] support”, speaking of what SuperFriendly builds and how we follow through.
  • “Everybody gets to go home at 5:30”, speaking about how effective SuperFriendly is at making this project work and not creating problems.

I think the best warning RIF issued to us was when they said they would love to see the website “drive the organization” in donations and brand presence. Shows the mentality they’re entering this project with.

I also think the best compliment they paid us was when they said “you guys, even in thinking, are going above and beyond”. Wow, big statement to live up to!

I love writing down quotes. It shows the honest opinion of our client at any given point, and gives us a great way to measure our success. If they’re still worried about a certain point, or we start slipping on one of their personal success factors, we’re doing something wrong. It’s black and white.

A few more notes I came away with that I want to share, not in order of importance:

  • We need to limit recommendations we make to RIF about social usage, and make sure those recommendations, if implemented, would be effective.
  • We should explore capitalizing on nostalgia (Owl Moon for me).
  • Site analytics and donation analytics are really important, and a good measure of whether we’re doing our job right.
  • We need to find ways to get rid of book data entry for RIF.
  • How can we know what people want to donate? That’s really powerful.

We built our SOW and kickoff meeting around the broad strokes and following details in the early calls, but a lot of our strategies and tactics also grow from situational details with the team, secondary objectives, and goals that we discover and set during kickoffs and brainstorming. 

I hope this is a healthy window into the beginning of our project. What I’m really trying to hit on is the assembly of cohesive plans and documentation based on information that comes from every direction in multiple places at multiple times. It’s really exciting to me to help engineer the compilation of everything needed to create success.

Looking forward to sharing more really soon! In the mean time, check out other perspectives on the beginning of this project from other team members who wrote some stuff:

Dan Mall - Head Honcho

Josh Luciano - Design Dude

Pick Projects Based on Trust Instead of Dollars by Matthew Cook

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I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the role of a design partner as a strategic management consultant.

Many of the projects that I talk through with potential clients are presented as cut and dry. The conversation centers around needs and deliverables. They rarely pitch a project that includes thinking through uses of their design personnel, effective production processes, or how well their current operations as embodied in their web presence fits with higher company goals and values. Instead, you find these incongruous circumstances when you’re in photoshop during design round 3, completing stakeholder interviews during an IA exercise, or at a kickoff meeting having just received downpayment on your signed scope 2 days ago. When this happens you can do one of several things:

  1. Cry.
  2. Ignore it.
  3. Have a serious conversation with the client that usually involves asking for more money and time to do something that they feel very protective about.

Yay!

This is nothing new. One of the reasons many studios and freelancers bill for “discovery” is exactly this. The standard fix to keep this from happening is anything but standard. Some studios fix this problem in their sales tactics. Others fix it by posting case studies that highlight the benefits outside of production or simple execution that they have provided to clients. Those ideas work, but they’re flawed. One is a potential barrier to the client (convince them of your consulting prowess) and the other is a text-based one way conversation. 

I argue that to get in position to provide strategic management consulting in addition to services as a designer, developer, etc. you have to be selective of your clients and tactically build trust in team leaders from the outset. Some potential clients should never make it past an email conversation with you; Old news. They may not fit your style or preferred process. Maybe they need a skill that you don’t enjoy providing. Maybe it’s as simple as not having the budget for what they’re asking for. These are all good reasons to decline work, but the most important reason to cut off a potential client is a lack of trust.

I think about this a lot. I’ve made it no secret that the reason I love my job is unequivocally the amazing people I work with. I have paramount respect for what the people in my industry are capable of doing. The most important thing I do is try to build client trust that mirrors my respect. Clients don’t have to feel the same way, but they need to understand the team they’re engaging is not simply a photoshop machine. It’s a widely experienced federation with an intimate understanding and intuition when it comes to implementation techniques to accomplish business goals.

I’ve found that this view of my team is best communicated by the way I treat them and talk about them in front of clients. I purposefully do little things that put us on the right path. I don’t respond to initial inquiries. The guy in the director role responds first and kindly hands their questions and goals over to me. After I take over I don’t stonewall, but I also don’t get everybody on phone calls at the drop of a hat. I dig in, ask the easy questions, and probe a little while helpfully teasing them with our past successes, excitement about certain types of work, and my personal opinion of how awesome my guys would be at doing their work. By the time everyone finally sees eachother on Skype the conversation isn’t about design rounds and content management systems as much as it is about whether the client thinks we’re the best fit. I set the client up to choose whether or not we’re worthy of their project, rather than how much money they’ll pay or what deliverables they want. 

If you can position your client to choose whether or not to trust you instead of whether or not to sign dollars, you’ll start each project in an awesome place. You’re set to ask the questions that your client is embarrassed to answer. He’ll feel ok telling you not only his business goals, but also his personal goals with the project. He’ll look to your team for validation of what he’s trying to do. He’ll want to know if you think he’s asking for the right thing and if they’re doing things the right way.

Bingo.

This is more than conversation tactics. It’s a way for managers and business minds to approach a business to business relationship as well as internal team dynamics. It means a lot of honesty and refusing to hard sell a client. Design teams need to understand that executing a project isn’t about who’s in charge, but about how to find and put out the best results. There are a lot of implications here on team dynamics and skill sets. Maybe I’ll hit that sometime soon.