Just as each workday is a little different, the same can be said about digital projects. Some digital projects are big and require large teams, months of collaboration, and brand new everything to bring them from beginning to end. Some come and go in a matter of weeks and may require a single developer and little oversight. And then there’s everything else left in between. Not to mention clients, partner agencies, the other projects your team is working on, bugs that are about as easy to catch as an actual fly, timelines that won’t slow down for a single second, and a hundred other things that pop up—unexpectedly and not—from the first kickoff meeting. So what’s a project manager to do?
You’ve heard it before. There’s no such thing as overcommunication. But what does that mean? Does it mean relaying every moment in your team’s working day? Nope. Does it mean answering client questions with monosyllabic answers? Also, nope. Does it mean staying in touch with intention, asking the right questions and using your experience to anticipate problems that are lying in wait? Most definitely! That means discussing your team’s milestones and whether you’re on track to hit them, relaying those questions (there’s no such thing as a bad one, by the way), and figuring out your work plan. Video, chat, email, carrier pigeon, whatever your mode of communication is, keep it open and keep it clear.
If a tree falls in a forest, does it make a sound? Of course it does. Squirrels have ears, after all. If a project doesn’t have clearly defined goals, can it possibly succeed? Luckily for us project managers, we can get started on setting concrete goals once contracts are signed and approved. At this early stage, we can take advantage of the client’s excitement (our team is about to start making their business vision a reality) while setting manageable expectations that are easy (enough) to shift as the project takes off. To do this, set your dial to the “direct” setting. For example, I’d suggest asking ‘What’s your number one goal for this project’? The answers to these questions will help you create a to-do list while building the foundation for success for all your team members. And that includes you!
The more those goals are defined with specifics, the easier it is to have a vantage point for all decision-making as the project evolves.
Now that we have those oh-so-specific answers to our very direct questions, it’s time to prioritize them. Much like any thorough checklist, clients often come to the drawing board wanting EVERYTHING ALL AT ONCE. This is when the art of managing expectations comes into play. To help set expectations throughout any project, it’s helpful to reach early alignment on the absolute top priorities. Don’t be afraid to dig deep and have hard conversations. This is not a “this or that” conversation but is establishing a baseline that we can add to later. This is when we stop being polite (well, not really) and start getting real by figuring out what stays on the to-do list and what moves to the backlog.
Let us never give a woeful sigh that says “I didn’t write it down.” Write. It. Down. It’s more than helpful to take notes during conversations with your team–with any client, it is a necessity. There’s just so much to forget in a moment’s time, much less an intense, hour-long conversation with anyone. As an added bonus, when you take good notes you can then share any action steps with the client after group discussion. That way, everyone has a frame of reference to point back to, and conversations never rely on a distant memory.
Sometimes (all the times?) it’s scary to disagree with a client, but at the end of the day, the client has hired you for your expertise; it’s important to express your opinion about how to best proceed and back up that opinion with your reasons as to why. It may be as simple as spreading the knowledge that QA should be done “early and often” to help ensure there aren’t big gaps left at the end of a project. Not only are you showing your bona fides, you’re making sure your team has a voice even when they’re not at the table.
Not all coffee is tasty, and not all meetings are good. Understanding that is the first step to a successful meeting. The next step? Agendas. A written agenda for any meeting helps you keep the meeting focused on its goals, and helps those joining know what to expect and how to come best prepared. Nothing is worse than showing up to a meeting that could have been an email, or showing up to a meeting only to learn for the first time you are supposed to present. Yeah… Don’t surprise your colleagues and clients. Try instead to use meetings as an expected opportunity for dialogue and not a statement of facts. Outline topics of conversation in your agenda, share it beforehand, and if it’s helpful, give the topics time constraints.
For example, consider a scenario when you’re showing a demo of work to-date. Rather than just simply sharing all progress, you can build excitement by talking through only 1 or 2 key product features while setting time aside to discuss initial feedback and any concerns, and sending the rest of the work after the meeting. During the meeting, you might ask, “Is anything unclear from the user experience?” Or verify, “Should the call to action really go there?” The bottom line is that consistently providing written agendas that outline the main goals/topics of conversation helps everyone understand what to expect each time and sets everyone up for success.
While you’re busy making notes, always make sure to capture those project decisions along the way. Think of it as a mutual point of reference for you and the client. Right about now, you might think, “But, wait, Jeanne, how could anyone forget a decision that was made together?” To which I reply, “Without documentation, did it happen, like the tree falling in the forest?” Even the shortest projects have numerous meetings. Moreover, every day will have off-the-cuff convos, casual Slack exchanges, decisions relayed by other team members… well, you get the picture. Medium story short, the more we document these decisions in a single place that both you and the client can refer to, the less likely wires will get crossed down the line. This is where your handy project management software really earns its salt.
At Tighten, we often like to document decisions in a shared Slack channel with the client, so everyone on the team has the opportunity to provide input and stay up-to-date.
We all learn differently, and the more flexible we can be for the client and each other, the greater opportunity we have to create conditions for a successful outcome where everyone wins. This might mean using different tooling on some days because the client’s team is more comfortable with it. Or it might be something as simple as remembering to keep an open mind as more, and new, information becomes available around project strategies. There is no one correct way, and the more empathy we give to one another, the better.
Of course the team will work collaboratively, but one extra helpful thing is honing and elevating the many strengths of our team members. We all have different strengths, and the more we can lean on each other, the stronger the project will be. Those strengths could be familiarity: a problem someone has solved on numerous occasions. It might be someone who can speak with helpful authority on a particular development quirk. Or it could be as simple as a fresh perspective on a tricky problem. Whatever the case may be, lean into one of our overriding themes of the day: Just ask!
Active feedback and celebration are helpful to a project’s success, especially in remote environments where in-person interactions simply don’t take place. That said, don’t wait until the end of the project to celebrate successes. Don’t focus only on the big milestones. Mindfully appreciate all the work the team puts in each day and call out the small wins along the way. You’re all in this together.
At Tighten, we like simple, repeatable systems, and tools that support doing them well. We enjoy Trello, GitHub, and Slack, but this one is up to you! Do what works best for you and the team, understanding that more often than not there is no one single solution—no matter what the software advertisements tell you.
There you have it. 11 simple steps for successful digital project management of any size. If you have favorite tips or tricks, we'd love to hear them!