David Appelbaum

The Jedi Arts of Digital Agency Project Management, Episode 1

More companies are engaging agencies for digital product development in order to take advantage of higher perceived levels of quality and accountability than can be achieved with internal teams. Any time spent operating at less than maximum efficiency puts strain on an already tight budget. As project managers (PMs), we need to make sure that the team is efficient and on point at all times – and this inevitably means that PMs are feeling the pressure to deliver.

Unfortunately, this pressure is often misperceived by PMs to the detriment of the project. This is where the “Jedi Arts” of project management come into play. By “Jedi”, we are specifically referring to tactics that are not part of the standard project management process. These tactics typically require a higher level of situational awareness, which makes them harder to incorporate in a company’s standard process. Below are three examples of typical project management failures along with a “Jedi Solution.”

Failure #1

Pressure is felt by the PM, so the PM applies pressure to the team. When PM’s feel pressure and simply apply it down the line to the project team, it can quickly backfire. As they become more and more focused on applying pressure, PMs create an adversarial relationship with their teammates, making them miserable and unmotivated. The end result is lower productivity and a broken team relationship.

Jedi solution: When teams feel pressure, the PM should make an extra effort to help resolve the pressure. Sure it’s more work to do it this way, but it’s more effective. PMs can take an active role in clarifying requirements, repro steps on bugs, and wrangling dependencies from a client. Has the client delivered that critical asset yet? If not, maybe send a quick IM to ask for it again rather than passively waiting for it. Every opportunity to save a little time for the team helps – and time is money. Each time we create a little extra efficiency or minimize turnaround time, we’re adding dollars back into our budget that would have otherwise been wasted.

Going above and beyond: Not only should PM’s avoid passing the stress they may feel on to their teammates, they should appear to their teammates as being stress free. Just appearing calm, confident, and in control in front of your teammates will help keep your team calm and focused. This creates real benefits to productivity. Put on your happy face – it will pay off.

Failure #2

Question your management team at the outset. Push back where necessary to protect your team. All too often, PMs accept the projects and project parameters that get handed to them as gospel. Account management and sales often handles the initial aspects of a client engagement, with PMs getting brought in after the contract is signed. It might seem to the PM that they are powerless to control the engagement however, nothing could be further from the truth.

Jedi solution: PMs need to take proactive steps to be able to review an SOW or an estimate before it is finalized. Most account managers are fine with an extra set of eyes to review for accuracy – they might not proactively offer you a review opportunity, but you as the PM can proactively ask to review. Ask as many questions as you can to give yourself confidence in the expectations your team wants to set to control the engagement. Do not assume that this information will be provided to you without having to ask for it – that is the nature of the business. Keep in mind that no one is withholding this information from you intentionally – people are just busy. It is your job to extract and understand the expectations right off the bat so that you can hold the client accountable right from the start.

Going above and beyond: Want to be a rockstar? Get clarification on expectations, requirements, schedule, and budget in advance of your kickoff meeting. Speak to these areas of the projects in the kickoff (with everything documented in meeting notes) to create the best first impression possible with your client. Doing this will help you ensure that you are meeting and exceeding your client’s expectations while keeping the project on track and on budget. Ask them on the phone (and in your meeting notes) for every dependency that can be identified at the outset of the project. Don’t waste any time asking for something you know you need. Be the hero by being the source of clarity for your team and your client.

Failure #3

Rolling over for your client. It can be tempting to roll over for your client and pass an out of scope request on to your team. Sure, it makes you look like the good guy – but you are setting your team for failure. Don’t do it.

Jedi solution: When your client asks you for something that is out of scope, try to understand how much it is needed. Are they asking just to see if you are willing to do the extra work for them? If you said no, would they say “Ok, couldn’t hurt to ask?” Or, is this related to a truly critical issue? If they are asking just to see if you’ll do it, hold firm in pushing back while also providing an escalation path. You can always say “If you feel that this is truly needed, let’s have a conversation with our AM to see if we can accommodate it.” Don’t get frustrated by the fact that your client may ask for something they wasn’t in the contract, and certainly don’t take it personally. Its their job to get maximum value out of the engagement. It’s YOUR job to be an unemotional arbiter of the project and to look out for your team, your budget, and the quality of your deliverables.

Going above and beyond: If you get a sense that you’ve received a request that is critical for the client but not in scope, be proactive on providing an estimate. Put your account management hat on, loop in your AM, and get the ball rolling on an estimate. Don’t simply push back and tell them to talk to someone else in your company. You are their main point of contact. Show them that you can efficiently move a new work request through your company’s estimate and contract process, and that you understand and respect your client’s sense of urgency. Make them want to work with you. Make them say that they want you as their project manager on their next project.

As we mentioned from the start, these ideas are all about using one’s judgement and doing what is right for your team. Have a specific failure in mind that you would like to see answered with a Jedi solution? Ask us on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. It could end up in Episode 2!


Image courtesy of Jo Szczepanska for Unsplash.

David Appelbaum

David is a Senior Technical Project Manager at L4 Digital. Before coming to L4, David worked for multiple digital agencies in the Seattle and Los Angeles areas. David is also an avid golfer, skier, and pianist.

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