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Design, Product Management and Project Management

Five Project Management Techniques for Creatives

Most creatives I talk to view project management as being a stifling set of forms and procedures that keeps them from getting real work done. After all, what is more dreary than filling out a status report on a Friday afternoon? Or sitting through a dry planning session to create a schedule everyone knows is going to change anyway?

We’ve all been there.  As a designer, product owner and project manager, I’ve had my share of frustrations with process and procedures that add no value, with forms that have no meaning, and with meetings that waste everyone’s time.  

But, I’ve also seen the obvious benefits that a little discipline and structure adds to my creativity and my ability to deliver. By implementing just the right amount of process and discipline to my projects, I’m able to focus on what needs to get done first, and, as a result, I deliver better products to happier clients because I get more accomplished with a little structure and discipline.

What I’m about to describe are five simple project management techniques that any creative professional can use to improve their customer relationships, get more done, and wrestle down some of the time-killing chaos that comes with being in a creative field.

1. Create a plan.

Maybe this is too obvious. But you might be surprised how many designers I work with who jump into a contract or project with no plan written down, much less shared with colleagues and clients. Three weeks into a project, and the client is frustrated and the project team is confused simply because their expectations were never set. Enter a project plan.

A plan doesn’t have to be a complex thing; even a simple list of tasks with owners and target completion dates goes a long way in setting expectations for your client and your team. It also shows that you know what you’re doing because you have a clearly identified process in mind.

I’m tool-agnostic on this point. There are plenty of planning tools available, and none of them fit every occasion. I find that the simpler the tool, the better because complexity breeds confusion, and the plan will likely change anyway. Besides, the planning process is more important than the actual plan.

The easiest way to create a plan is to write down the steps you typically go through to deliver a design project. Review it with your team to gain agreement, and then share that with your client to set expectations. All most clients want to know is when they are going to get something from you, whether it’s a wireframe, prototype, or just a phone call telling them how things are going. 

And yes, I said give them some dates. We’ve all felt the creeping anxiousness of an impending deliverable date, and there’s a school of thought that says committing to dates stifles creativity. I disagree. Well-Conceived dates force you to be disciplined in your daily approach. They set clear expectations with everybody. Dates force you to prioritize your work and focus on what’s important.

And be flexible with the language you use to describe your plan. If a client wants to refer to your “ideation” phase as “origination”, or “purple cows”, then change it. I see too many designers get caught up in semantics and forget that the point of planning is to agree with your client on an approach for delivering something of value to them, not get into a debate about the labels you choose for the steps. Being willing to flex here shows that you are not only accommodating, but that your knowledge of your craft goes well-beyond any methodology.

So, write a plan. Be flexible and allow your client to have some input to the plan. Don’t be afraid of committing to reasonable dates. You will find that starting your engagement or project off with a plan sets everyone at ease that you have things under control.

2. Hold a scrum.

What? A scrum? What, are we playing rugby? In the world of Agile, which is a topic I’ll save for another time, there’s a concept called a “scrum”. A scrum is simply a short, daily meeting, where everyone on the project team literally stands in a circle and shares what they got done yesterday, what they plan to work on today, and any “impediments” that are keeping them from getting work done. It’s the job of the project manager, or “scrum master”, to then go and remove those impediments so that the team can keep working.

Although I could make (and have made) the argument that Agile methods are perfect for design projects, the simple point I am going to make here is to check in with your team and your client often.  How often is up to you.  But, you should set that expectation when you plan the project with your client.

The benefits of a quick recurring checkpoint are several. First, it keeps everyone on the team aware of everything that is going on. We like to call that “transparency”. No hidden agendas. No working on the wrong things. No egos. 

A daily team standup also helps raise impediments, or issues, as soon as they come up. No more finding out too late that you’re going to miss a delivery date because someone hasn’t returned a phone call.

Finally, if you hold a recurring meeting with your client, it helps give them a comfort level of how things are progressing. I’m not suggesting showing that actual progress of a design to a client on a daily basis, but a quick touchpoint lets a client know that they are a priority. If daily calls are overkill, offer weekly, or bi-weekly. The point is to keep your client in the loop, and set the expectation for communication up front during planning.

One important note: I don’t recommend meeting with your design team and your client together because it can lead to your client getting too much into the details.  This can actually interfere with the productivity of your team as the client starts forgetting they are they client and you are the expert. Best to keep the team and the client meetings separate.

3. Send an update.

Regardless of how often you meet with your client, you should send them a recurring status update in writing. Status updates are another way of being transparent and keeping your client abreast of what’s going on. The best updates are high-level and focus on risks or issues that could have a negative impact on the delivery of the project.

Some would argue that it’s foolish to let a client know about problems. While I agree that the client doesn’t need to know about every problem that arises on a daily basis, they should be kept in the loop on the larger issues. It’s important to remember that your client is not naive. They know you’re going to run into problems - everyone does. When you aren’t sharing that information, it leaves the client to their imagination, and that’s never a good thing. Transparency is always the best route.

Don’t forget, when you do share risks and issues with your client, also share what you are doing to manage them.  Especially, let the client know when you will need something from them to manage the issue away. Everyone expects (or should expect) problems to come up. The challenge, and the sign of professionalism and maturity, is showing that you are capable of managing those problems.

So, plan to provide your client with a recurring status update. Just make sure that you both understand and agree on how often you will send them something, whether it requires an actual meeting, and in what format the update will come.

4. Make a daily schedule.

If you take one suggestion from this article, make sure you implement a daily, personal schedule. As creative professionals, we have two main, and competing objectives: create new stuff, and get shit done. Add to that the many different details of running a business, and all the technology that’s constantly screaming for attention, and you have a devil’s potion of inefficiency.

From answering emails to reviewing ad copy to come up with a new logo design, creative professionals are constantly barraged with things that are clamoring for our attention and energy. As much as we wish we could, we cannot deal with all of them at the same time. We can manage them, however, by giving them each a time and place where we can focus on them completely.

There may be staunch believers who find multi-tasking to be a great way to get things done, but in my opinion, it’s confusing an unproductive. I can’t do it, and I don’t know many creatives who can. So, I put together a daily (and realistic. Mostly.) schedule that compartmentalizes the things I need to get done. Over time, I’ve found this to be much more productive, and as a result, satisfying, than trying to respond to everything as it hits me.

My schedule always starts with creative time. The beginning of the day is when I’m freshest, and being creative is where I want my best energy spent. It’s not the same thing every day; some days I’m writing, while others I focus on drawing new ideas. The point is, being creative is the most important thing I do, so I do it first.

After creative time, I workout. I discovered very early on the benefits of keeping my body healthy and strong. Exercise helps clear my mind and settles anxieties. It makes me feel better about myself: more confident and calm.

After my daily workout, I get to proper work. This is one of only two times during the day that I look at emails. I sort them into things that need immediate attention (as in, today), which I add to a written task list, and everything else, which I sort by priority into my task app, Todo. The only other time I will look at email is the end of my day. In my opinion, email is one of those tools that tries to trick me into thinking it deserves my immediate attention. It doesn’t. I actually close my mail app on my computer while I’m working so I’m not tempted to have a peek while I’m doing important stuff.

Once my inbox is emptied and my tasks are sorted, I focus on work for my clients. This is where I’ll spend the majority of my day because my clients are the lifeblood of my business. Pretty simple. But even this has some order. I try, as much as it’s convenient for my clients, to schedule meetings for the first part of the day. Sometimes, timezones, or client availability keep me form doing this, and that’s okay. 

The point is that I’m trying to pull out tasks earlier in the day, from email and meetings, so that I can focus on completing them with minimal interruptions later in the day. Which leads me to the latter part of the day. This is when I focus on getting shit done. I’ve read my email, met with everyone, and have a nice list of things I need to accomplish. What doesn’t get accomplished, gets punted to tomorrow.

At the end of my day, I handle administrative stuff, and I take another look at email. I add punted tasks to Todo, along with anything new that’s emerged during the day. After a bit of sorting, I have a list of things that need doing tomorrow. 

It’s simple schedule, but it keeps me sane and focused. It allows me to spend my energy on the important things, first, and still get the stuff done that needs doing.

5. Retrospect.

You’re going to run into problems. You’re going to make mistakes. You’re going have some unexpected wins. The best thing you can do is learn from them.

At the end of every client engagement, I set aside some time to review the project.  I look for the things that didn’t go as well as I had planned, the thing that went well, and the things that came along and surprised me.  After 20 plus years, I still get surprised.

Sometimes, depending on circumstances, I do this with the project team. Since I am independent (a “solo-preneur”), my project teams tend to formed just for the project at hand. People I’ve worked with repeatedly appreciate the idea of a retrospective. I typically invite folks I would like to work with again to be part of this retrospective review.

Sometimes a client will be gracious enough to provide feedback. I find that most clients appreciate being included in this process, and will offer honest feedback, but be careful. Sometimes things go badly, or a client feels disgruntled for some reason. Taking an upset client down this path can lead to contract and payment issues.

The point of a retrospective is to learn. I want to learn from both my mistakes and the things that went well.

CONCLUSION

Being a creative professional presents a unique set of challenges because you have to balance the competing objective of creativity and order. You have to deliver, and you have to deliver in time and repeatedly. applying some simple project management techniques can help us creatives find balance and ensure we have time for both sides of our brains.

In the end, it’s really all about setting expectations,and then delivering on those expectations.  So, make a plan, communicate regularly, schedule time for what needs doing, and learn, learn, learn.