biz ladiesLife & Business

biz ladies 09: project management

by Grace Bonney

today’s biz ladies post comes from tiffani jones of second and park. tiffani runs a copywriting and content strategy business as well as a web design agency and is here today to share the ins and outs of successful project management. since i’m currently facing a pretty intense project deadline myself i will be soaking up every last bit of her advice- and there’s a lot of it. tiffani will walk you through how to organize projects, break them into tasks, assign work and- my favorite part- handle some of the pitfalls that can stand in the way of a happy project ending. thanks so much to tiffani for her great advice!

CLICK HERE for the full post after the jump!

Easy Peasy Project Management

I own a copywriting business (Second and Park) and co-own a web design agency (thingsthatarebrown) with my husband. This means that on a typical day, I’m up to my ears in projects of all shapes and sizes. Juggling it all can be tricky, to say the least.

If face-planting into near chaos daily has taught me one thing, it’s how to manage projects. What I’ve learned? When I stick to the basics, use common sense, and focus on building strong relationships with my clients, I get it right most the time. Below are a few of my secrets.

Whether you are a designer, art director, or copywriter and manager like I am—these simple tricks work. Strap in.

1. Know What You’re Doing (the dirty version)

First things first. Before you’ve got a contract and check in-hand, you must know what your client wants, what they expect from you, and what you’ll actually be doing. Seem painfully obvious? I can’t count how many times I’ve seen people enter into agreements without a clear picture of who’s doing what, russian roulette style. Start by asking a few simple questions:

* What do you want me to do? Be specific.

* What business problem are you trying to solve?

* In general, what’s your goal for this project?

* Who’s your audience? How do they use your product / service?

* Who are your main competitors?

* What’s your budget?

* What’s your deadline, and is anything specific driving it?

* Who will be my main point of contact?

If any part of your potential client’s answer vexes you, take time to clarify.

This is also a good time to give your opinions on what a good solution might be. Maybe this project would be best divided into two phases, for example. Or maybe the client really needs something she doesn’t know she needs (copywriting help, for example). Now is your chance to suggest an (ahem) ‘upsell’ option.

2. Define Roles. Set Expectations. Schedule It.

By now you know what the project entails and how you want to organize the work. Now it’s time to fully communicate the plan to your client and team. You can do this before kick-off in an informal phone call, but remember to reiterate everything in the actual kick-off meeting, where all stakeholders are sure to be present. Here are the main points to cover:

* Who on your team will be working on this project? Who is the project manager? The designer? The writer? If it’s just you, say so.

* Who on your client’s team will be working on this project? Who is your main point of contact? Will you have access to key stakeholders?

* Who is responsible for what? This is where expectations come in. Tell your clients if you need someone to dedicate 5 hours per week for meetings, reviews, etc. Let them know if/when they should gather resources for you. And be clear about what they can expect from you, by outlining:

* What specific steps or phases involved in this project? My projects usually involve Discovery & Strategy, Copywriting, & Project Management. I break each of these phases down into its component parts, listing tools I’ll use, how long each will take, how much each costs, what deliverables are involved, and how many rounds of revision my client gets. This ensures that everyone is on the same page throughout the project.

* What AREN’T you doing? Every client is different. Every one has a set of unspoken assumptions about what you’ll do and how you’ll do it. You can draw out these assumptions by clearly indicating what you won’t be doing.

* What are the unknowns? Face it—there are always unknowns. Airing these out early on will help set your clients’ expectations and keep them from being shocked two stages in, when you have questions about this or that portion of the project.

* What’s our schedule? I find that creating a very general, high-level schedule is best. I usually list kick-offs, when each phase begins and ends, and when the project will be officially over. At the beginning of each phase, I let my clients know when they can expect key deliverables and how many days they have to give me their feedback (typically one). I also let them know that if their feedback is late, it might affect our completion date.

3. Put It In Writing.

As a project manager you might help create or facilitate many types of documents. The most important of these is the contract, which contains all the details about the project, along with legal language.

Contracts are all over the map. I’ve seen contracts that are 20-pages long. Contracts with thickets of old-fashioned legalese. Contracts with spikes around their necks. But for my small businesses a short, humane, simple, & legally viable document works just fine.

A good contract:

* Lists the name of the project (such as “Acme.com Redesign”), your client, and your main contact

* Lists what you will be doing in specific detail

* Shows how much each phase costs

* Defines payment terms (Such as 1/2 pre-payment. 1/2 at the end. Net 15. Fixed Fee.)

* Outlines what happens if your client doesn’t pay or pays late

* Defines what you are not responsible for

* Includes termination language (When can your client quit? When can you quit? What happens if someone breaks the contract?)

* States that you are allowed to use the work in your portfolio

If you’re a really good writer or have lots of experience, you might be able to write the legal language yourself. If not, it’s a good idea to have a lawyer review your handywork, to ensure there aren’t any gaping holes.

I’ve also seen a couple very good contract samples on the web. My favorite of these is Andy Clark’s Contract Killer.

4. Get Approval On the Plan.

This too is an achingly simple, but oft-overlooked, part of project management. You’ve put in a lot of hard work defining roles, setting expectations, and generating a contract—whatever you do, don’t forget to get approval on these plans. And not just from your main point of contact. Be sure to ask whether key stakeholders on your client’s end have read and agree to your contract. Then, be sure that everyone on your team has read and understands his or her part of the contract. Time consuming? Yes. Indispensable? Indeed.

This process of gaining approval is not just for the contract phase. Every time you have a major milestone in your project, every time something changes, or every time there’s a document up for review, be sure to check in with your client and team. Be sure they understand what you’re saying. When in doubt, encourage them to repeat what you’ve said in their own words (y’know, not in a weird way). Then, get approval on the updated plan and move forward.

5. Break the Work Into Versions.

Rather than disappearing into a hole for two weeks and popping out with a fully completed project, try breaking your work into versions. This works very well for my businesses. When I’m copywriting a website, for instance, I will start by presenting just one page. I choose a page with a variety of content types, so my clients get a wide sense of the tone, different types of writing, etc. If they don’t like it, I go back and edit that one page until I get it right. This typically takes less than two revisions.

Once I’ve gotten the general direction down pat, I write a few more pages (anywhere from 2-20) and get approval on those. I continue this versioning process until I’ve built up a strong foundation of communication and approval with my client. By the time I enter the last phases of the project, my clients don’t have much feedback left to give. All because I gave them a lot of buy-in from the beginning.

A note: if you work in this way, it’s important to specify how many rounds of revision you will do in your contract. You may occasionally go over your allotted revisions, but specifying rounds will keep those extremely picky clients in check.

6. Use the Right Tools.

Note that I didn’t say, “use the most popular tools” or “use the cheapest tools.” Though there’s a cranky luddite somewhere deep inside me screaming “less is more!!!”, I have to admit that much of being a successful project manager revolves around the equipment.

If you’re bogged down with too many shiny productivity apps you’ll spend time managing those. If you’re keeping all your records on paper, you’ll want to stab yourself through the eyeball by the time the project ends. A healthy mix of low and hi-fi tools work perfectly for me. My arsenal includes:

* Basecamp for collaborating with clients and my team, creating a schedule and managing milestones, sharing documents, etc. I’m not sure it’s possible to love a non-human entity more than I love basecamp. It works better than any other project management tool I’ve seen. And it’s cheap ($24/mo).

* Harvest for tracking my time and invoicing. Even though it’s just my husband and me, we log all our time in harvest—from sales & biz dev, to billable hours for specific projects, to taking walks, to the time I spent writing this article. Whenever I want a snapshot of how our business really works, I can generate a report on the spot. And Harvest makes invoicing easy.

* A piece of paper for daily to-do’s. I’ve seen a lot of task management software out there (things is a great one for Mac) but in my opinion, nothing works better than a big, juicy piece of paper. Scratch off completed items as you go. Easy peasy.

* A MacBook. Call me west-coasty, but I won’t work on anything but a mac. My husband works on an iMac. They don’t break. They’re easy to use. Apple’s got great customer service.

7. Prepare For Fire.

Inside every project, there’s a fire waiting for someone to light it. These fires come in all shapes and sizes. Best case scenario? They keep your job interesting. Worst case scenario? They destroy a project. Here are some common fires and tips for dealing with them.

Bad Clients

We’ve all had our fair share. Bad clients insult your work. They don’t know anything about the kind of work you do, but act like experts. They disappear for days on end and then blame you for being late on the project. They just wanna add “this one extra thing!”—for no extra money. They don’t know what they want, but expect you to. You get the picture.

Each type of bad client requires a different type of management. In general, your best bet is to step back, figure out what they’re actually upset about, and address it. If you need to, revisit the contract and restate your respective roles. Be flexible where you can, but do not negotiate on price or bend the contract unless you have done something wrong. If things get really bad through no fault of your own, take steps to negotiate out of the contract. A sour relationship won’t work for you or them.

For those of you who work in the web industry: Jeffrey Zeldman has a great post that offers advice for pinpointing a bad client right off the bat.


Seagulls (often CEO’s or high-level stakeholders) swoop in at the last possible moment and crap on your work. Typically, this happens after you’ve gone through all sorts of revisions and edits. Seagulls might not know anything about the project, really—like its goals, or how you plan to meet them—but they feel their input is needed. Maybe they simply hate the color orange. Perhaps they’re in a bad mood that day. Either way, Seagulls are a force of nature.

If you’ve played your cards right in earlier stages, the client knows 1) what the contract says, 2) how many revisions they get, and 3) what happens if in phase 4 you are required to return to phase 1. This is the best possible time to declare “scope creep” and suggest a change order. If said seagull really wants you to make those changes, it’ll cost.

Hapless teammates.

Sometimes even the best teammates have an off day. They get lazy, show up late, or turn in subpar work. It’s important to be patient when this is a rare occurrence, but if it starts to happen frequently you’ll have to take action.

The best way to navigate this sticky situation is to be fair, calm, and direct. State exactly what your teammate did wrong, when he or she did it, and how you hope he or she will fix the matter. Do not be passive aggressive or vague, and do not expect the person to read your mind. Cut right to the chase. This usually works after one time.

If you have to go through this process more than a couple of times, it’s probably time for a warning or review.

Scope Creep.

It happens to the best of us. The project you thought would take 30 hours is going to take 100 hours because of something you didn’t anticipate. When this legitimately not your fault (the scope creep doesn’t result from negligence on your part), no need to panic. Simply explain the situation to your client. Outline why you think it happened and what you can do within budget to fix it. Then, explain how much it would cost to do all the work in question. If you need to, create a change order request and fix the problem in the next phase.

8. Manage For the People.

I’ve spent all this time talking about contracts and tools. But the most real-deal, immeasurably necessary part of project management is understanding and empathizing with actual people. How do you manage people and come out unscathed? Here’s what helps me:

* Communicate clearly & fully. When you’re busy, you might be tempted to sling off one of those terse, barely comprehensible one-line emails. Don’t do that. When you need to communicate with your client or teammates, take time to fully develop your thoughts and write in a way they can understand. In a way that helps them get something done or makes them feel good. And remember to check in frequently and consistently. Don’t let huge chunks of time go without checking in, or swoop in from out of nowhere with feedback. This way, everyone knows what to expect.

* Be accessible. As manager, you are the hub of the project. More than anyone else, you should be quick to respond to emails, and quick to help people get stuff done. Try to respond to every email within an hour. If this is impossible, let folks know you won’t be sally-on-the-spot that day.

* Be disciplined. If you want your team to deliver on time and under budget, you have to be disciplined, too. Do what you say you’ll do, when you say you’ll do it. Communicate clearly and swiftly when you’re not able to fulfill a promise.

* Admit mistakes. This one is HUGE. Nothing breeds mistrust and frustration more than a manager who won’t admit when he or she is wrong. You want your team and clients to be honest and straightforward with you? Start by modeling that behavior. No need, of course, to spill your guts every time you screw up. Simply say, “You know, I think I was wrong about X. Sorry about that.” Then fix the problem and move on.

* Be nice. This one is even more important. Even in the worst of situations, it is possible to be nice. Do not take your personal frustrations out on your clients. Except when they are truly being disruptive or disrespectful, give people the benefit of the doubt. And do not, under any circumstances, belittle or demean your team’s work. Being nice and learning the delicate art of constructive criticism is key.

* Do not freak out. Most of us in the design world are not saving lives. We are not at war. Therefore, every time you start to freak out on a client or teammate, do not. Go get some fresh air and find your perspective. Good project managers do not bristle at the slightest provocation; they are stable and even.

* Do what works. No two projects—just like no two people—are alike. If you are involved in heavy client work, get used to constantly shifting requirements and scenarios. In this environment, it’s important that you move beyond simply “learning and following the system to a T” to a more creative perspective: learning how to solve problems on a case-by-case basis. This will require quick thinking and hard work, but good managers know how to do it. Don’t be so attached to your process that you forget to let what works be your guide.

The bottom line? Respect your clients. Love your team. Attend to the basics. It will not always be easy, but learning these tricks will go a long way toward making projects enjoyable—and rendering you a more effective manager.

Michael Lopp, a former manager of Software Engineers, wrote a great book called Managing Humans on this exact topic. It’s short and to the point. Pick it up.

In Summary

Management horror stories might lead you to believe that project management is rocket science. In some fields, perhaps it is. But for smaller businesses like mine, great project management amounts to hard work, respect for others, and thorough, clear communication—more common sense than rocket science.

If you want to get better at managing projects, try the following:

1. Know what you’re doing.

2. Define roles. Set expectations. Schedule it.

3. Put it in writing.

4. Get approval on the plan.

5. Break the work into versions.

6. Use the right tools.

7. Prepare for fire.

8. Manage for the people.

About the Author

Tiffani Jones owns a copywriting and content strategy business, Second and Park. She also runs a web design agency, thingsthatarebrown, with her husband. Tiffani enjoys roasted chickens, bluegrass, and books. She tweets as @ticjones.

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