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Every business requires some level of project management, especially in our global remote world. This is why project managing has become such an in-demand profession across industries, from construction to healthcare to IT.
I suspect project managers in all of these fields face similar challenges and could empathize with one another about everything from email etiquette (when to CC and when to BCC) to urgent texts (when to respond to last-minute requests) to spreadsheet pivot tables (how to count unique values).
If I may be so bold, I’d like to make a case that marketing agency project managers are best-in-class and possess as versatile a skillset as you can imagine due to the sheer variety of projects we’re tasked to handle. In my career, I’ve helped shepherd everything from animated product demo videos to research-heavy white papers to interactive trade-show installations across the finish line. These projects have all involved countless moving pieces, many of which I’ve had to twist like a Rubik’s Cube to get in order and on budget.
Many of the tips and tricks I’ve picked up over the years applying to any project, including the project of launching and running a business. That’s why when I consult for brands, large or small, one of the essential value-adds I’m bringing to the table is procedural and conceptual organization.
So with further ado, let’s review some of the top project management hacks that will keep your clients and customers happy and your operation running smoothly.
Streamline project communication
I’m always amazed to find out how many businesses handle their internal digital communications via email and (worse yet) text messages. It’s not that I can’t parse my way through a 100+ message email thread, but when I’m managing, I always funnel those conversations to a project management system where they belong. These platforms make it much easier to find relevant discussions — always separated into project or task threads — without searching your inbox. And if you’re sharing documents back and forth, project management systems make it easy to ensure the whole team is looking at the most recent versions.
instant messaging platforms like Slack can also help to reduce inbox overload, especially when something urgent pops up that requires your immediate attention. And if someone isn’t around during a critical Slack conversation, post a summary of the chat and any related actions to your project management system so they don’t miss it!
Mitigate scope creep
“Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.”
Scope creep is the bane of not only agency project managers but also freelancers, contractors and small business owners across the planet. Just when you’re getting ready to put the bow on a project and call it complete, along comes a last-minute request “for something small” that requires you to tack on extra hours of labor to make an adjustment that could have been addressed at the outset.
Worse yet, these requests usually don’t stop at one — and once you’ve agreed to the first change, it becomes harder and harder to say no.
Scope creep like the example above is something agency project managers see repeatedly, and we’ve developed a secret playbook (please don’t tell anybody about it) for dealing with these requests. The truth is that sometimes you can’t just “say no,” no matter how tempting that might be, especially if this is a client or customer you’ll keep doing business with in the future. But you can get better at more effectively detailing scope at the outset and (just as importantly) documenting any deviations during execution, even if you don’t charge for them, so it’s easier to adjust project scope for the next go-round.
Identify and manage stakeholders
Failing to identify key stakeholders and integrating them into feedback rounds is one of the biggest causes of scope creep. If you’re working with a client, you start this by running everything through a single point of contact who will ideally be able to consolidate all relevant comments or requests. Sometimes, you are that point of contact, in which case you’ve got to double down at ensuring your entire team chimes in on projects when there’s still time to make edits or otherwise pivot direction.
In either scenario, you want to ensure you’re getting feedback and approval from all project stakeholders — especially those with enough authority to create a bottleneck down the line if they haven’t been looped in. There’s always some bigwig who won’t be pulled in to review your project until the very end, and they almost always have “thoughts” about changes they’d like to see. The only way to avoid C-suite delays like this is by identifying these heavyweight decision-makers upfront and making sure that you’re leaving yourself the flexibility in your timeline and resources to accommodate their last-minute suggestions.
Put out fires (and check for heat, so they don’t flare back to life)
The ability to solve problems on the fly is the single most extraordinary talent a project manager (or an upstart entrepreneur) can have — and it’s one of those things that can’t be taught. Stanford does not yet offer an MBA program that will instruct you how to track down an accountant who is suddenly decamped to Costa Rica or to apply whiteout to a thousand printed assets to correct a typo.
If there’s a secret here, it’s to (a) take a deep breath, as whatever hiccup you’re facing probably isn’t life or death, (b) develop a network of professional peers whom you can lean on in emergencies and (c ) ensure that the problem in front of you is resolved so that you’re not passing the problem on to the next project manager.
Schedule an after-action review
Whether successful or not, every project should be followed by a debriefing where you document the process, identify and discuss and figure out how to implement those lessons into future projects. This should go without saying, but your whole team will learn more from mistakes than successes, so look at these meetings as opportunities to grow. Blaming people after the fact isn’t a sign of good leadership.