I read a good book on project management recently – this was before Love Island shamelessly took over my life – and the first line in it was: “Congratulations, you’re a project manager! Go try to predict the future, and when that doesn’t work, bang your head against the wall.” This was a quote from an anonymous but hilarious PM. All joking aside, the main element of my job is to make sure that large-scale projects run to time, to budget and to a high standard, as it is with any project manager.
Being able to achieve those main three elements involves living as much as months or indeed years ahead while simultaneously monitoring the various day-to-day aspects of a project. Without doing this and keeping yourself and your team organised, you can’t hope to make a project a success. You have to anticipate what will happen and what people – both internally and externally – will need, based on the information you already have. It sounds hard but it’s actually fairly simple when you break it down.
Over the past few months, all of us at Axonn have put together a concerted effort to improve the way we run our large projects. This has been particularly important because, as a full-service content marketing agency, we offer an end-to-end service, which encompasses strategy, social media, editorial, graphics, web development, outreach and more. When we build a bespoke campaign for a client, not only are there lots of different elements to consider, but our teams are spread across three offices in Leeds, London and Manchester.
This is where project management becomes so important, essentially someone needs to have a structure, workflow and processes in place to apply to each project in order to prepare the team and the materials they need to start and run the project smoothly. In general, PMs are also a main point of contact for a key client stakeholder, because the PM spends most time talking to the different team members to make sure things aren’t running behind. PMs also need to quality-check work to make sure it aligns with the original goals and objectives the client has outlined.
I should say here that although things filter through the PM from in-house to the client and vice versa, project managers aren’t in charge. By this I mean that an account manager (AM) is the head of the day-to-day running of any client account. As a PM, you are responsible for the running and successful completion of a project only, so you shouldn’t be tempted to pull rank above your AM. Great account managers – like the ones at Axonn – have close and well-formed relationships with clients and it’s the PM’s job to assist the AM in helping to provide a high service to maintain that relationship.
If something goes wrong in a project, PMs should be prepared to take the brunt of the blame for this and come up with a solution to fix the problem. Being wired into the system requires being organised; if you aren’t and something goes wrong it was up to you to spot it and take your lumps.
But when do you need to bring a PM on board? In most instances, project managers are required for one-off and long-running projects. There are exceptions, but in Axonn this is usually when I’m needed.
Generally, a project manager will come into a project around the pre-kickoff (pre-KO) meeting stage. This phase encompasses a series of meetings that are conducted before the actual kickoff (KO) call itself. A KO call is vitally important too, as it is both a way for us to show our enthusiasm for a client’s project and also the time when we agree what a project will entail before the work starts. They are done after the skilled sales director and account manager/director have brought a new client on board.
Due to the importance of KO meetings, we organise pre-KO calls which involve the company PM and relevant AM who meet with the client stakeholders to agree client goals and objectives. We also use this time to set out what our deliverables will be to achieve these client goals and objectives, how we will determine success criteria and we also use this time to gather all the relevant information our production team members need to carry out project elements. It’s after this that we are in a really organised position to confirm everything we’ve spoken about in the kickoff meeting itself.
It’s really important for PMs to assist AMs in this pre-KO stage because, as this article in computerweekly.com says, a huge amount of project failure can be linked to internal factors, in particular problems with resourcing and skills. Every person at Axonn has their specialism and when it comes to heads of departments, they know the skillset and resourcing of their team members like the back of their hands.
When the PM and AM are having these pre-KO meetings with key stakeholders it’s necessary to create a strong chain of communication early. By making sure all team members know exactly what a client wants to achieve, costs and resourcing can be accurately determined. Without doing this, disaster is only too sure to follow!
Although that makes it sound like you’re going to be hedging your bets to make sure you cover all the information you need, there are lots of processes and tools you can build/use to make things easier to track and make everyone’s job a little less stressful.
Project management tools and certifications are one of the most obvious ways to help you keep on top of things, but there’s a lot to be said for integration software, such as Zapier, and using things such as meeting agenda templates. As I mentioned above, one of the most important things to get sussed before you have a KO meeting is to have pre-meetings that collate information in a scope document, which states in black and white exactly what the project does and doesn’t cover.
Scope documents are probably my biggest and favourite discovery during my journey as a PM so far. This is because everything is organised in one central place, which just makes my brain happy.
This wonderful document can be used to do everything from sum up a project in one sentence, to highlighting the constraints – time or otherwise – that will affect the speed of a project. What’s even better is that you can use them to create meeting agendas, contact sheets, project timelines and critical path diagrams. All hail the scope document.
Of course, you could argue that communication is the key to successful project management because without it, we wouldn’t have the information we need to create everything else from assisting documents to projects themselves.
The reality is, as with everything else concerning project management, communication, processes and supporting documents need to link with each other to run projects successfully.
For example, without initial communication from an account manager, a production team member doesn’t know a project has come in and without creating a scope document or KO agenda, we don’t know what information we already have or need to gather.
As mentioned, tools, supporting documents and processes help us to communicate better, which has been particularly useful to us at Axonn as we have recently combined our graphics, web development and outreach teams to form one creative department.
This move aims to further the reach and potential of what each department has to offer. The transition highlighted the need for project management to stratify the way the teams record, assign and carry out their tasks, and how they communicate with each other. Again, this new department is split across three offices and in order to be successful we – like any other business – can’t afford to work on assumptions or woolly processes.
What you’re reading just now is actually the first in a series of three blogs that I’ll be writing over the coming weeks. This has been a bit of an introduction to project managers, which I hope will instigate conversation, debate and advice on our social channels. It will be followed up by a closer look at the tools we use to organise our work and communicate with each other to make projects run simply and smoothly, and finally I’ll be going into more detail about how to keep projects in scope, using my own experience as an example.
If you learn nothing else about the basics of project managers and who they are, then all you need to remember are these four things:
- Being organised and prepared is critical.
- Communication is the key to being organised – i.e. don’t separate yourself from the people and clients with whom you’re working, talk to them for goodness’ sake!
- Keep things as simple as possible.
- Being a PM doesn’t mean you’re in charge, it means you’re responsible.
I’d like to use a metaphor to illustrate these points: good project management is very much like running a great dinner service at a restaurant. In this instance, the PM is the food and beverage manager but not necessarily the restaurant owner.
Before the doors open for the evening, you all start early, do your prep – of course if you’re really organised you’ll have done most of it the night before – and you’ll have a meeting at the start of the night to hear the specials/what is off-menu. There will be a system to allow the front of house to communicate with the back of house and at the end of the evening you reset for the next day.
Project management and being a project manager is exactly like this dinner service; once you have your processes and communication sorted, everything can run smoothly and, in the end, your customers will be satisfied and ready for more.