March 4th 2020
We're going straight to the source, asking real working project managers what they know about running effective projects. From a digital nomad in the digital marketing industry to a hybrid PM/designer based in New York, we tapped into SuperHi's amazing global community to find out all the things you want to know about the realities of project management today and why project management is a truly essential skill of the future.
Project management is the glue and tissue (pick your analogy) to all the creative work happening around us. When it’s not done well or valued, things start to fall apart and all the best ideas fall to ruin. But it’s not necessarily the easiest thing to understand, if you’ve never done it before. You might think it’s just about being hyper-organized but there’s so much more to it. It’s a multi-faceted role and career, sometimes done as a role itself (project manager, account manager, producer are some of the other names common to project management roles, depending on your field) and sometimes done as a part of a conglomerate of other roles.
We wanted to peek inside the minds and practices of working project managers today: what do they know and what can they share to help us all do better work together?
So we asked a few project managers about how they manage projects effectively, what their biggest challenges are, and what’s in their PM toolkits. Here’s what they said.
On how they got into project management
“I’m a designer, but our PM left the team and I filled in their place as a dual role.” - Sarah, Senior Product Designer in Media and Digital Technology, New York, 2 years experience
“Fell into it after interning at an agency start up!” - Keith, Project Manager in Digital Marketing, Edmonton, 3 years experience
“I started off as a digital marketing exec in an agency and took on more projects as the company grew.” - Nina, Account Manager at Junction43, nomad, 4+ years experience
“I honestly didn’t plan it - I worked at a startup as intern and then in an entry level position, have been given my first side projects and as those went well, I’ve been assigned more and more projects to lead until I was in the position of managing all of our digital projects.” - Claudia, Digital Acquisition and Product Manager in Ecommerce, Barcelona, 4 years experience
“I kind of fell into it at a previous job. I was hired to handle social media, and that role evolved into a PM role.” - Max, Project Manager, San Diego, 5 years experience
On the biggest misconception about project management
“That you micromanage! Yes, I’m trying to work with multiple people across different departments on a tight deadline, but I will never micromanage you. Communication with your team is key to preventing this.” - Sarah
“That you are the biggest expert on all the elements of the project, more the connector and organizer of the experts and their tasks.” - Keith
“That the job is easy because you aren’t necessarily executing on the work itself. However, people don’t account for the client comms, managing deadlines, multiple people, and having to know the project and its needs more than anyone else.” - Max
On what successful project managers do well
“They communicate well. They have the experience to foresee issues before they happen so they can avoid them. They’re organized. They take criticism well and know how to manage conflict. They understand each team members’ individual strengths/weaknesses.” - Nina
“They are on top of everything. Seriously, as a PM you have to know the client’s needs and be able to communicate that to your team. You also need to go to bat for your team if the client is pushy/demanding and own the project from start to finish.” - Max
On the biggest challenge project managers face
“Managing clients and stakeholders. In house work is drastically different from client work in my experience, you spend a lot of time managing client expectations instead of managing the project.” - Sarah
“Adapting to changes in goals and scope of the projects. I’m in a startup environment where things can change a lot and quickly. I got used to it but when it happens during a project, it isn’t always easy for me to keep the team motivated if they worked hard on something that in the end isn’t needed anymore at all”. - Claudia
“Dealing with clients who have unrealistic expectations and who are demanding/go off scope. One thing that is almost guaranteed is that nothing goes according to plan, even if you have the most full-proof plan in place. Things will go wrong, and it is on the PM’s plate to handle it.” - Max
On how to run happy, effective projects
“Set very clear expectations, roles, hierarchies, and goals from the start. Document it thoroughly. Also, record your meetings!” - Keith
“As project manager, a lot of the legwork happens before the project starts. Most of my time in the beginning is spent planning and creating a structure/process for my team to work with. Set expectations from the get-go. At the same time, I try to keep things as simple as possible (you don’t want to confuse or distract people). Make sure to keep information/files centralized and easy to access. Don’t be afraid to make changes to structure/process mid-project if something isn’t working. Great project management is just about enabling the team to do their best work.” - Nina
“Communicate proactively - don’t wait for your PM to check in and ask for updates, but keep track of progress. Trello, Basecamp or whichever tool should always be up to date. If you spot a potential issue, mention it. There are things the PM might not be thinking of and it’s better to be prepared. Make it a team effort without disregarding individual achievements - we work towards a common goal but we all like hearing ‘good job’. Even better if that’s not always only coming from the project lead. If your colleague has a good idea or does a solid job on something, tell them: it boosts morale and can strengthen your connection with them within the team. Break down your tasks into sub-tasks - this will help you estimate completion times better. The worst nightmare of a PM are people who constantly underestimate their work and promise deadlines they can never meet. Thinking about every sub-task individually helps making realistic estimates. If you’re asked for a deadline, don’t be afraid of not committing to one immediately but to tell your manager you need a moment to go over it in detail. Better to get a good answer an hour later than getting something made-up immediately!” - Claudia
“Really knowing your team’s strengths and weaknesses and playing into that. As a PM you are the only one accountable in the client’s eyes. By knowing your team and seeing problems arise before they happen, will save you a lot of headaches.” - Max
On what’s in their PM toolkits
“I always create well documented Project Requirement Documents that define clear Business Goals (why are we doing this and how does it benefit the company), Problem Statements (what is the problem were solving), and Requirements (a list of all features as user stories with all possible expected behaviors.)” - Sarah
“Google Suite, all the way. For everything.” - Keith
“My tech stack consists of Notion, Slack, Google Drive (I also like Airtable but Notion is more relevant for current projects). I always have a master gnatt-style doc for each project and will run weekly standups to keep track of progress, discuss/troubleshoot any problems (or daily for super intensive projects).” - Nina
“Agile approach with weekly sprints including everyone and quick daily updates with individual groups. Tools: Trello for tracking and visualizing tasks, Toggle for tracking time (staying productive and getting a better idea of time spent to help with future estimates), Teamweek for an easy overview of what everyone is doing.” - Claudia
“What I use most is Google Calendar to keep all of my dates/deadlines in place, Asana for tasks and assigning out tasks to the team, and pen and paper for physically writing down my to-dos for the day. I found that once I write something down, I am able to get it in front of me to focus on the task at hand.” - Max
On the future of project management
“It’s important, but difficult, to keep up with all of the new tools and practices in your own fields, as well as with design and development. Future roles will need to have incredibly flexible people who are up for learning and can quickly adapt.” - Sarah
“I think there will always be a place for it. It’s not something that’s easily replaced completely by technology. I would say there’s opportunity to develop more management processes/frameworks.” - Nina
“With the rise of remote work, communication can be a challenge for some. Choosing talent and identifying strengths of team members will be even more important than it already is. It’s a development that has already begun because especially digital projects are fast-paced and roles aren’t as clearly defined as they were 20 years ago (we’re becoming lifelong learners and don’t have the exact same occupation during our entire career). Projects are an opportunity to have team members develop new skills or get insights into something that isn’t their primary specialization, which is on the one hand a challenge but on the other hand a huge opportunity for managers who have a good feeling for spotting hidden talents.” - Claudia
Special thanks to our panelists: Sarah, Keith, Nina, Claudia, and Max. Want to learn the skills to run healthy projects? Join our Digital Project Management course, led by Louder Than Ten. If you missed the rest of the series, start at the very beginning with Why Everyone is a Project Manager. Stay tuned next week as we bring back our popular Ask SuperHi advice column. This time, we’re kicking it off with Rachel from Louder Than Ten. Want to Ask a Project Manager? Submit your questions here.