It’s difficult to accept failure. I think that’s part of human nature — to be proud, defend ourselves, survive, and dislike failing. But sometimes we fail as human beings, and as project managers. And sometimes, spectacularly, we fail at those two things at the same time.
I’ve been a total failure over the past few months.
I started this blog, intending to keep it going with new content twice a week. Fail.
I transitioned out of project management recently, but didn’t actually transition out of it because I’m a total control freak. Fail.
Even though I didn’t transition out of it, I still failed at doing a bunch of PM stuff properly. Fail.
I couldn’t think of new content ideas to save my life. Fail.
I lost my focus, my energy, my drive, and my love of what I do (temporarily). Fail.
I ate an entire tray of four cinnamon buns and washed them down with an entire bottle of wine. Fail (or… win?).
I think the important thing to remember here is that cinnamon buns fix all failures until you step on the scale and feel like a failure in an entirely new way. Not as a project manager or a human being, but even worse, a failure of a woman for not fitting into your pants anymore.
Everyone has had a “worst project ever”. Mine has been recent and is still ongoing. I don’t mean it’s the worst because the work is bad or the client is bad, quite the opposite with this one. Our team has created amazing work and everyone really cares about this project. The client is fantastic and smart, willing to think outside the box when it comes to design and to take our input. When it finally completes, it will be a great piece of work out there in the world.
But that’s the problem, when it finally completes.
It’s easy to blame others when things don’t go as planned but project managers need to be bigger than that. If it didn’t go according to plan, it means your plan didn’t work. Why not? Where were you? Why weren’t you paying attention? Or if you were paying attention, why did you miss the clear red flags that things were going awry and your plan was not working? How come you didn’t fix it?
This post is for all my DPM peeps out there. That stands for “digital project management” in case you manage projects from under a rock. So, while I no longer work full-time in digital project management (I only dabble, as now I am a strategist/writer full-time), I’m still passionate about client relationship management and making sure our lovingly crafted digital projects go smoothly. I’ve found that now being on “the creative side” has given me even more passion for project management, as I feel like I have a better idea of what it’s like for the people I used to schedule and plan for, both internally and externally.
But we’ve all been there: the digital project that goes completely off track and looks like it’s destined for the rubbish pile or worse, public consumption as a warped, ugly version of its formerly wonderful concept. Let’s face it, it’s usually a website.
So what do you do? How do you tackle this seemingly insurmountable beast and tame it back into a (oh god here comes a cliche) beauty? By following these oh so useful tips of course.
But first, we need to identify the signs of a project going off the rails… We’ll assume it’s a website for the purposes of this example because, well, it probably is.
Good digital project management is about more than just getting things done, it’s also about keeping all your stakeholders engaged, on the same page, and generally motivated and happy. That means not just your external stakeholders (clients), but your internal ones as well: your internal project team.
I truly believe that keeping your internal project team happy and motivated is of the highest importance. Sure, you need to make your client happy too, but you will never be able to accomplish that without your internal peeps.
They are the ones who slave away, making your project a real, living, breathing THING out there in the world. They create LIFE. Then they have to watch their meticulously crafted project baby take its first steps and walk away, out of their lives forever and into the great unknown. It’s like March of the Penguins but with less (more?) crying.
Let’s take a brief pause and applaud the creative talent in our lives.
So yes, the old expression “Happiness starts from within” — I believe this applies to agencies as well. Without happy, productive, insightful and inspired creative people, no awesome client work is going to get done. Your project team is literally your lifeline.
Now this doesn’t mean fetch them coffee every five minutes or slowly fan them and feed them grapes while they toil away designing, writing or developing your latest web project. Although, personally, I do appreciate when this happens for me. (Hint to any colleagues reading this.)
It means keep them motivated. Keep them engaged. Then client happiness will take care of itself.
But how do you keep a diverse project team motivated and engaged?
The story of Nerdy Organized — how it came to be, what it means, and how it came to be the way I describe myself.
Grab some wine for this one! ????
Let’s begin at the worst place to start: the beginning. The term “nerdy organized” was a phrase I made up to describe myself in my epic failure of an interview for the agency I work at now. Well, I guess it wasn’t an epic failure because I did get the job (and am still there now), but it was one of the worst interview performances of my life. Anyway.
I was being grilled about my digital marketing chops and oh yes, I felt the heat from the flames of that grillage. It was pretty intense. I blurted out that I had attention to detail, knowledge of the industry and terms, blah blah blah, all that stupid crap everyone says about themselves. Then I said I was organized too. I was met with neutral expressions. “Like… really… nerdy organized,” I word barfed next. I meant that I was good at getting shit done. There was light laughter. I managed to breathe for a second.
The term kind of stuck, and I ended up changing my Twitter username to it as a joke. But here I am like two years later, still with it. I even named this weird blog thing after it (only because I have a dumb common name so the only name-based domain left would be MichelleMartin.isplutostillaplanet).
I accepted being “nerdy organized” as part of my identity, my ethos. I clung to this term and made it fit my personality to a T. To me, it means being thorough, industrious, knowledgeable, and above all… super fuckin’ nerdy.
Not every project is going to be stuffed full of rainbows and unicorns. Even with the best of intentions on both sides – agency and client – sometimes things just go awry. Usually it’s due to miscommunication, or not managing client expectations properly. You, the agency, think your scope of work is super clear, but a client sees a different thing, you don’t communicate about it, and you’re unaware their expectations are too high until it becomes an issue and they’re unhappy. Not a good situation.
It’s hard to predict these things a lot of the time. Communication is hard. Agencies think they’re being straightforward, because they say the same terms all the time, but clients may not be familiar with those terms, or with digital processes. They may be afraid to ask questions, or to look unknowledgeable. Of course there’s no shame in asking questions, but who really likes admitting they’re not totally on the ball with what’s going on? Nobody. So things don’t get talked about, time goes by, expectations on both sides slip and then you find yourself where you didn’t want to be: client hell.
I don’t mean this to sound rude, or to snub clients. I love clients! They’re literally the reason I get to do what I love all day, and not have to live in a cardboard box. They make everything possible. And at the end of the day, they pay the bills. I work for each of them, and I keep that in mind constantly. Clients are not the enemy, clients are part of your team. And you can’t blame your client for having the wrong expectations unless you work hard to set realistic ones.
The problem with mismanaged expectations is that they can strike at any time. Even if your project is 90% done and you’re in the home stretch and so far all along everything has been great. Don’t stop communicating, or you might find yourself in hot water.