45royale January 8, 2008

PMGEP Part 5: When things go wrong

If you’ve gotten this far along in the PMGEP you have done your best by laying the ground work for an extraordinary project. You found the right client, signed an agreement, created a project schedule, and now you’re tracking your time across all aspects of the project. Sometimes though, even the best laid plans can unravel along the way. The majority of our projects start and end successfully. However, over the years we have noticed that there are certain problem areas that can derail a project if they aren’t addressed quickly.

Communication

The biggest thing that can go wrong on any project is a breakdown in communication. A project’s success depends on constant and clear communication between your company and your client. If either party hasn’t properly set expectations it can lead to a lot of confusion and frustration on both sides which can negatively impact the outcome of the project. It’s easy to get wrapped up in project deadlines and forget that the client will need those vital details so that they can provide you proper direction and priority.

Also, don’t forget that both you and your client may have a lot more going on than just the project at hand. If they are comfortable with your ability to manage the project on your own, they may feel they can turn their attention to other things. At that point, you may have to make decisions on how to best keep things moving forward. Although showing this type of initiative and trust might be a good thing from time to time, there is a real danger of misinterpreting the needs of the client and setting yourself back. Even worse, by making the wrong decisions, you could leave yourself open to criticism of the way you handled certain problems and ultimately plant a seed of doubt in to your client’s head about your project leadership skills.

If you find yourself in this unfortunate position, the first step is to admit that there is a problem. It’s easy to point fingers, but the best thing to do is to forget about who or what caused the breakdown in communication and quickly get everyone back on the same page again. This is easily accomplished by calling a quick (or maybe not so quick depending on the severity of the offense) meeting to discuss the client’s concerns and how you propose to get the project back on track. Most importantly, you’ll want to take steps to ensure that this breakdown doesn’t happen again. This could mean giving up some control, setting milestones, or adhering to more structured progress update and check-in procedure. No matter what you all agree on, taking the time to nip it in the bud now will surely save you time in the long run.

Scheduling

As I stated in PMGEP Part 3, developing and maintaining a schedule is the single most important function of a Product Manager’s job. And since project schedules are based on time estimates for completion, there are many things that can pop up along the way to derail your progress. Scheduling mishaps have a way of snowballing and if you don’t get out in front of them (and quickly) you’ll be on the sidelines watching your project collapse.

I wish I could give you the secret to maintaining smooth projects and a way to stop scheduling problems from cropping up — but if I had that solution I would probably never have to work another 16 hour day in my life! However, even though you can’t prevent problems from occurring, you can keep them at bay by constantly tracking your hours and keeping a close watch on the project requirements and milestones. If your client wants to add in a new feature on a given page, make sure you adjust the entire schedule accordingly to account for it. If you continue to operate on the original schedule even after the requirements have changed you can put your team in a bad, bad spot.

Furthermore, a client needs to know that changing their minds can affect both the bottom line and future delivery dates. It’s your job as Product Manager to make sure they fully understand this concept. In that same vein, you need to learn to be honest with yourself, and if you misquoted the number of hours a task is taking your team, let the client know immediately and work with them to develop a new time line for delivery. Again, in this case (and every case) honesty is the best policy.

What if it just isn’t working?

We learned very early on that in this line of work, design is VERY subjective. A design that you find insightful and unique may leave your client wanting more (or worse). There is something to be said for compromise and working to give the client exactly what they’re looking for. However, if you keep plugging away despite the signs that you or the client are unhappy, you’ll be wasting your time and the client’s money. Ultimately they’ll either end up paying for something they don’t want or you’ll eat hours trying to make the design something that you don’t like.

If you feel the project isn’t going anywhere, try having a talk with your client and see what, if anything, can be salvaged. Do your best to convey your ideas and interject your professional opinion. At the end, if a resolution can’t be reached, it might be time for both people to agree-to-disagree and walk away. Don’t worry, this is OK. Sometimes what seems like a match made in heaven does not end up the way you (or the client) would have hoped. As long as the split is amicable and you’ve been compensated for the time you put in, you can both walk away knowing that you did your best to make it work but in the end it was not meant to be.

It’s all a part of the learning process

You can’t win them all as they say, but you can learn to recognize potential problems earlier in a project so you can make the necessary adjustments to put your team in the best position for success. Even extraordinary projects rarely go off without a hitch, so you have to be prepared to put in the time and effort needed to keep your client, your team, and the project on the right track. Communication is the key to resolving every issue; so be sure to keep those lines open at all times and you’ll be well on way to another extraordinary project!

Fin

Thus concludes the Product Manager’s Guide to Extraordinary Projects. This is by no means the end-all-be-all guide to managing your projects. The nuances of a successful project can be subtle and varied. Running a company, doing great work, and keeping your clients happy all at the same time isn’t an easy job. In fact, its pretty darn difficult! But hopefully this series has clued you in to some of the basic ingredients used in a recipe for extraordinary project. You now know the importance of finding the right client, getting an agreement in place for the work, setting and maintaining a project schedule, tracking your time, and looking out for pitfalls along the way.

I wish you nothing but the best of luck in all the work that you do. If you have any questions about this entry or any of the PMGEP, please don’t hesitate to get in touch via the comment form below or by email me at adam@45royale.com.

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