Managing web design projects is one difficult job. There are communication and organizing issues, negotiation and networking, and most of all, a strong need for planning. Effectively wielding the skills necessary to implement a successful project can be painful. Sometimes you have to tell a client, “no,” and other times you have deal with a plan that’s falling apart. And if you’re a freelancer or small business, you’re probably doing a majority of the actual design and development work.
Then again, that’s part of the game and what makes project and client relationship management such a diverse and interesting field. Each day throws a new rock at you. You just need to be sure you can catch it.
What kind of skills does it take to make an effective web design project manager? I asked myself this and came up with six definitive qualities. I don’t think you need to master each one, but it doesn’t hurt to be constantly sharpening and refining these skills.
Being able to communicate effectively is probably the most important quality of a strong project manager. Usually, there are multiple stakeholders that you must coordinate with, and each of those stakeholders has their own communication preferences.
Here are some tips on exercising your communication abilities.
- When beginning a new project, identify all of the stakeholders and then make notations on how each one prefers to communicate. One may prefer to be kept up-to-date daily via email while another may be more lax and perhaps call or email once every couple of days.
- Spend time observing people, their personalities and how they communicate. If you know any master communicators, try to observe their skills in action. People with different personalities communicate differently. A Type A person will be all over the wall while a Type B person might seem more reasonable.
- Practice active listening. Active listening is a form of conversation that allows you to really engage in what the other person is saying. One method is to use a statement said by the other party and form it into a question. For example, if your client is on the phone and says, “I think our users are getting confused over the navigation menu,” you could reply with something like, “So you think the structure of the navigation menu is difficult for users?” This will show that you’re engage and it will allow you to really dig deep into what the other person is saying. Of course, don’t ask questions as if you were an interrogator, but ask enough to make sure you aren’t going off performing tasks that are not aligned with the client’s expectations.
- Constantly practice all forms of communication. If you’re an email junkie, practice making phone calls, and vice versa if you’re a phone addict. Hold an occasional meeting as well, as that’s the most effective form of communication.
Projects are a mess of milestones, expectations, plans, ideas, people and messages. It’s the job of the project manager to organize this mess into a cohesive, well-oiled machine that can get the job done. Poorly organized projects are always a source of misery especially when no one has any idea what’s going on.
Here are some tips on becoming a better organizer.
- Implement systems and procedures to help automate as much as possible. This could be in the simple form of a checklist or it could require a complex series of software that help manage the workflow of the project. The key is automation and accountability.
- Constantly evaluate your own methodologies. Figure out what is and isn’t working. Is there a certain activity that takes too long or becomes too cluttered? Review options to alleviate that pain point.
- Make sure you get buy-in from all of your stakeholders, partners, co-workers, subcontractors and subordinates. If you throw a system at them that they aren’t familiar with or willing to use, you’re going to have problems keeping the project organized.
- Research project management software and tools that can help you keep milestones, goals and communication on track.
What’s a project without a plan? A project plan, even if just a mental picture, is essential in establishing a desired outcome. Without a plan all you really have is an undefined job that needs to get done in an undefined amount of time. Chances are, that project will never get done.
A project plan doesn’t necessarily need to be a lengthy document with charts and situation analyses. Instead, a project plan just needs to get you to the point where you can clearly identify milestones, responsibilities and tasks, and communicate that in an effective fashion to the stakeholders involved.
Here are some tips on flexing your project planning muscle.
- Get in the habit of completing scopes of work. A scope of work is a pre-project document that outlines what needs to be done and provides some specific recommendations. If you’re a good salesperson, you can convince your client that this is worth paying for. Otherwise, I would still recommend completing one at least for more complex projects to make sure you and the stakeholders understand the requirements of the project.
- Practice using software to setup and track milestones and to-do items. You may be good in the setting up part, but you might need to really practice the tracking part. If even just one milestone gets off track, it can derail the project. Get on people’s cases if you have to, but practice getting milestones done on time.
- Communicate directly with new clients and ask them specifically what they envision as the perfect project. This isn’t something that needs to be shrouded in mystery and your client will likely have some excellent feedback.
- Learn how to be adaptable by developing contingency plans or options. No project is ever going to be perfect, but you should at least have some options on the table for when things start to go awry.
Projects are about people. Communicating, delegating and outsourcing all involve a human element. While your in-house network is probably strong (since you’re likely a freelancer or small business), it’s the outside connections that matter most. Where do you go if you need an experienced programmer you can trust? Or, what if you need assistance with administrative duties? Exercise your networking skills to build a group of people you can fall back on when the workload exceeds your abilities.
Here are some tips on getting your network in order.
- Start soliciting resumes of freelancers with complementary skills. Are you a designer? Find some good developers. Craigslist is a great place to begin.
- Use your social media networks to fish for some prospective freelancers. Twitter and LinkedIn have worked in the past connecting people.
- Develop a document that specifically outlines what skills you need. You can use this as a cheat sheet to qualify people for your network.
- Familiarize those within your network as much as needed with your systems and methodologies. It may hurt at first, but it will hurt even more if people within your network are utilizing incompatible methods.
Negotiation is a tough nugget to crack. There are many theories on how to approach different situations, and in the end, your situation always seems to be the unique case. Regardless, being able to negotiate with a variety of people is a valuable skill. Whether it’s fleshing out the details of a proposal or settling on a service charge with a vendor, negotiation can save you time and money.
Here are some tips on practicing these essential skills.
- Negotiate everything. Even if it’s a small transaction, put on your bargaining hat and see how flexible people can become. This will help soften your nerves for the larger deals.
- Like good communication, practice active listening. If someone won’t budge on a project detail, get to the root of the issue. Many times, we’re so afraid of offending someone or losing a project that we don’t thoroughly understand the other party’s need.
- Find out what’s important to the other party. What is their end goal? You can use this knowledge to make sure your negotiating tactics line up with this goal.
- Determine what issues you’ll take a stand on. Sometimes the best option is to end negotiations; however, you need to know what your fallback level is so that you don’t end up losing much, if anything.
There are endless types of leaders. Some are good and some can be really bad. Project leadership is essential in not only determining the direction of a project, but leading the way as well. Sometimes you have to crack heads to get things done and other times you need to know when to be compassionate. In any case, the leadership style you choose to take on should fit with your personality and it should benefit the outcome of the project.
Here are some tips on becoming a better leader.
- Determine what kind of leader you want to be. Are you going to micromanage or give people a wide berth? There’s no one correct way, but you should always stick to your principles while knowing when to be flexible.
- Always let clients and stakeholders know that you’re leading the project. They want to know who’s in charge and you need to step up to the plate.
- Embrace conflict. Some people wither away when potential conflict nears, but you should take it head on and exercise leadership skills to manage it. You may fail, but you’ll never fail at learning something new for future projects.
The skills don’t stop there. Hopefully, these can serve as a beginning foundation to build on. The one thing I’ve noticed that is most demanding of project managers is flexibility and adaptability. Always be willing to accept new ways and methods, and do the occasional check on yourself to make sure you’re always optimizing.