The Accidental Project Manager: Starting a New Project

I am a project manager, I manage people, I manage process, and I manage risk. Here are some thoughts about how I prepare for a project and what I try to keep in mind when I start a new project.

I began my career at Lullabot as a front-end developer, not a project manager. I put my heart and soul into lines of code. I pored over articles and studied the methods of other coders to make my code more efficient and better quality. I leveraged my skills, ticket by ticket; I completed task after task and was proud of what I could accomplish on a daily basis. Code, unlike people, either works or it doesn't. Once it works, there is inherent satisfaction.

Then the lure of project management entered the picture, and I transitioned from coder to communicator. I quickly realized most of what I knew as a front-end developer was very different than what I needed to know to be a successful project manager.

In my role as project manager, I no longer guide the technical aspects of a project or make decisions about code and architecture. My focus now is to create an environment where those decisions can take place. I am a project manager, I manage people, I manage process, and I manage risk. I'm dependent on others to solve problems collectively, and some days I miss the black and white world of it works, or it doesn't. But getting a group of human beings performing at a level greater than we might as individuals can be profoundly rewarding, perhaps more so than solving problems in code. That said, the gratification lies much further down the road. Here are some thoughts about how I prepare for a project and what I try to keep in mind when I start a new project in hopes that it may help you reach this destination.

Find out where you're headed

"Begin with the end in mind" - Stephen Covey

As the project manager, you are accountable for keeping the train on the tracks. Undoubtedly, during the project you will be faced with ambiguity, there will be requests and change orders for you to triage, and there will be aspects of the project that will ebb and flow based on factors beyond your control. Before anything else, I familiarize myself with the Statement of Work and/or the Project Scope. Educating myself on the specifics of the commercial documents aids me in keeping the wheel pointed towards the destination even when encountering delays and bandits on the rails.

Some key aspects I look for include: vocabulary around specific tasks and expectations, specifics and terminology around deliverables, and clarity around ‘what done means.'

Stephen Covey said in 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, "Begin with the end in mind." I think the leveraging the documentation provided at the beginning of a project is a perfect example if this point.

Do some research

“You can catch more flies with honey than vinegar.” - English Proverb

As a project manager, you will be consistently balancing the goals of the client, with the capabilities and velocity of the team, with the time and money available to complete the tasks. The more you know and understand about the client's business and the project as a whole, the better you will be able to advocate for the project needs.

In all likelihood you are already familiar with your team, if not, research there too. The focus of your research will be on the client, the client’s business space, and the product in question. Preparing yourself with as much information as possible not only provides you with confidence and insight, it can also serve as a basis for trust between you and the client. At Lullabot, we work with a lot of public companies. I find that reading the publically available 10-K filing before the project familiarizes me with the company's "big picture." What are their ultimate goals as a business, what are their risks and challenges? Knowing these, I can then start to understand where the project I'm working on fits in.

Additionally, it can be very useful to know about each of the individuals you will be working with. I find it important to know more than just a name and title. I'm in no way suggesting you Facebook stalk new clients; however, viewing their LinkedIn profile and connecting with them is informative and a nice gesture. Knowing each individual's role on the project, their hierarchy of accountability and getting a feel for their specialty/talents can help a project manager steer communication to the right people, at the right time, and in the right way. 

Everyone wants the project to be successful. The path to success lies in managing the team, the client, the timeframe, and the scope, and for me, that begins with research and learning about the client.

Know how to communicate

“You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.” - John Lydgate

As a project manager, there are many types of communication you will need to navigate. On most modern development projects you will be communicating verbally, you’ll be screen sharing/video sharing, you’ll leverage email as well as instant messaging, and you’ll be using an issue tracker and a documentation application, such as a Wiki. All of these forms of communication have their benefits, their drawbacks, and their place on the project.

I value verbal communication. I like to talk through situations, to brainstorm, and to share the goings on about a project. I believe this type of communication is vital and I include it as part of my communication plan and share my expectations as part of a project kick-off or on-site. One of my expectations is to meet with the whole team on a regular interval to keep everyone up-to-date. I have found that the average project benefits from having scheduled ongoing conversations.

Technology! They don’t always work the way you want when you want them to work. As you spin up your new project, be sure to ask about the technology the client already has in place, learn and share information about what has worked for you on past projects, and establish a day and time to test software and applications before you need to facilitate a crucial meeting. Technology will be your friend, but do a test run before using any of them with the client.

Written communication is crucial to any successful project. I find email to be an efficient means of communication for a few reasons. First, it is asynchronous. I can compose an email, send it to the right people, then go about my business. Second, it’s structured and archived. I can track a conversation as it happens and refer to it in the future. Third, I can take my time. For better or worse, my mind moves pretty fast, and it's better if my mouth doesn't keep pace. Email allows me to slow down and to be more methodical with my communication. I like to use email for producing short weekly summaries that include highlights from the week, any important tasks that are underway, and a summary of risks.

To communicate the managing of work on the project, you should be familiar with the many tools to facilitate issue tracking and task management.  At Lullabot, we work with enterprise clients and don't always have the opportunity to dictate the toolset. As a consequence, we have to be familiar with all of them. Sometimes, clients are open and willing to leverage a new system or tool and look to me to make a recommendation. It's good to know your favorites should the need arise.

Final Thoughts

“Only you can control your future.” - Dr. Suess

Believe it or not there ARE things that, as the project manager, you are in fact, NOT responsible for. Before you get too excited, let me explain.

As a project manager your role isn't to dictate the deliverables, to make all the decisions, or to solve all the technical problems and business challenges. While you need to have knowledge of these things, an understanding of how they interrelate, and how each impacts the project overall, your goal is to know they exist and facilitate the problem-solving process.

While that may offer some relief, the lack of control may invoke feelings of stress. Meanwhile, everyone is looking to you for clues on how to behave. So, managing yourself will be a substantial part of the job. I try to avoid letting this lack of control infringe on my well being. Accepting that some things will be beyond my control and I must trust the team, I focus instead on managing to my strengths and bearing in mind the desired result. Couple that with advanced planning and establishing clear and consistent means of communication, I can provide a foundation for success on a new project.

This is all part of what you signed up for as a project manager: a ton of responsibility, a limited amount of control, and the impossible desire to predict the future.

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