You can design the most beautiful website ever, but nothing will cause you to lose your client’s trust quicker than a mismanaged project.
Projects plagued with scope creep, cost overruns, and a lack of communication will leave a sour taste in the mouth of your client. This negative experience will not only decrease the likelihood of winning additional work, but it can also potentially impact your personal brand as a design or development consultant. The majority of creative consultancies win work through referrals and clients want to work with people they can depend on..
For those of you coming from a design-only background, project management can be scary and unfamiliar territory. Regardless of your experience, it’s crucial that you learn to become an effective project manager if you want to find success, especially when first starting your web design or development firm.
To help you get there, this article explores the four tactics you should add to your daily workflow to become a dependable project manager.
1. Get your team’s input early on
Involving your team during the planning process can make the difference between a project that stays on track, and one that falls apart.
Your colleagues are some of your most important stakeholders. They are the subject matter experts who you’ll rely on to implement the majority of the design, development, and quality assurance work on your project.
Their skills and expertise can help you truly understand the scope of your project as well as anticipate the level of effort needed to complete individual tasks. This insight will help you identify what is realistic in terms of requirements and timelines, and can even shine light on features or opportunities you may have missed.
By looping your team in early, you’ll also be able to confirm they actually have the bandwidth to work on your project within the proposed timeline. Serious issues with balancing workloads often stem from poor internal communication, which is more commonly seen with larger teams who have multiple client projects on the go at once. If this working environment sounds familiar to you (or if you feel like you might be getting close to that point), it may be time to consider hiring a Studio Manager to control the flow of work going in and out of your creative department.
While all of this sounds great in theory, how do you get team input on your project plan? Rather than inviting your teammates to review a schedule you’ve already built, involve them in the creation process from the start. Walk through proposed features, timelines, and anticipated resource usage with them to solicit feedback. This internal collaboration will allow you to identify potential conflicts with your proposed plan and will result in a schedule that is both realistic for your team to work within and satisfies the expectations of your client.
Once your team has approved your plan, you’ll feel more confident presenting it to your client knowing that its details are accurate, unambiguous, and realistic. This will save you from having to go back on your word later on in the project.
2. Monitor your progress regularly
Project plans aren’t intended to be built and forgotten about. They are just as much forecasting tools as they are organizational ones — allowing you to predict the flow of your project, rather than prescribe exactly what that flow will look like.
By closely monitoring your project’s progress, you’ll be able to reduce overall project deliverability risk since you can easily anticipate potential deviations from timelines or impending cost overruns. This, in turn, will position you to deliver on your promises, even if it means pushing deadlines to accommodate for unforeseen challenges.
In order to monitor your project plan, you need to create one first. I suggest, at the very least, creating some form of project schedule that can be reviewed and iterated as needed. You should ensure your schedule includes milestones to make the monitoring process easier. These key dates are the cornerstones of any effective plan, and will give you a point of reference for assessing the progress of your project.
While it might feel natural to build your schedule around tasks, this document will be even more valuable if you use tangible deliverables to define these milestones. Deliverables are more easily verifiable as complete or incomplete and their starting points often rely on the completion of a preceding deliverable. This sequential approach makes the tracking process smoother, as you can more easily predict upcoming obstacles. At the same time, I would also recommend working-in regular health checks with your team, and feedback sessions with your client as key milestones in your schedule. These status checks will give you a designated time to communicate with your team or client about any problems that could impact the progress of your project.
You might also like: A Web Designer’s Guide to Project Schedules.
3. Establish transparent communication
The key to successful project management – and healthy client relationships – is the ability to establish transparent communication between the project’s contributors and its stakeholders.
Truly transparent means willing to share all progress updates with your team and client, even when those updates are not necessarily positive. Your team will be more aligned when they are kept in the loop about shifts in the project’s direction or when milestones are missed. This focus on transparency helps cut down the risk of process inefficiencies, reduces the likelihood of duplicate of efforts, and manages client expectation.
One of the most obvious places where transparency is valuable is in your standard status meetings. These meetings can exist in a variety of formats ranging from in-person meetings, to phone calls or emails. The best format for your situation will depend on your proximity to your client, and their level of involvement in the project. This gives you a consistent platform for communication with your client, where you can keep them posted on the progress of the project and remind them of upcoming deadlines or milestones. When delivering these updates, be sure to keep your communications clear and succinct so that the key message doesn’t get lost.
While regularly scheduled updates are necessary, you should proactively reach out to your clients when something goes wrong, when something the client requests falls outside of scope, or just for general housekeeping.
You can also use status meetings to communicate with your internal team. Schedule regular health checks or stand-ups with everyone involved on the project. These feedback sessions will give everyone a chance to share knowledge that can help identify risks, anticipate timeline changes, and keep track of next steps so things keep moving smoothly.
You might also like: How Cutting Out Jargon Can Help You Achieve Clear Communication.
4. Embrace (and expect) change
In a perfect world, all of your web projects will progress as you originally proposed. But the reality is that uncertainty and change are part of every project — deliverables can be delayed, priorities can be adjusted, and clients can change their minds.
Even if you’re working on a job similar to something you’ve done before, it doesn’t mean that your plan will be a carbon copy of that previous project. There are tons of variables that change between jobs and almost no two clients, brands, or web projects will be identical.
That’s why you should always head into a new project anticipating and ready to embrace deviations from your original plan. Rather than blindly assuming your deliverables will remain as predicted, you should proactively plan for changes by adopting an iterative planning strategy.
With iterative planning, your schedule will include more frequent milestones that reflect the regular delivery of minor components of a project (i.e. single page designs, wireframes, etc.), rather than waiting for the completion of larger tasks (i.e. full website). Success can be measured through the progress of these individual items towards their milestones and, in turn, this progress can be used to reforecast and alter your schedule as needed.
This style of planning gives stakeholders – clients and team members alike – a better idea of the status of your project, as you’ll have more opportunities to spot red flags in its progress. Plus, you’ll get the added benefit of showing your client that work is actually being completed.
Success lies in effective management
Project management isn’t everyone’s area of expertise. Regardless of whether you enjoy or have experience with it, it’s a vital part of running a successful web design business. When appropriately applied the management tactics above can be used to keep your team motivated, clients informed, and projects on track.