How a Great Project Manager Can Benefit Everyone

Being a freelancer, I have the benefit of working with a lot of different agencies, who all have widely different ways of working. I’ve come to appreciate agencies that employ really, really good project managers. Especially as I’ve had two projects back to back from different clients – one who employed a fantastic project manager, and the other who had a terrible one.

Project management is often overlooked in a company but it can make a massive difference in the ease of a project. No project manager (or a bad one, which is worse than none), can make an easy project drag on for forever; while a great project manager can make a massive project finish faster and more smoothly. Project management is more than just sticking a date on a calendar. It’s more than asking your freelancers and employees whether they’re going to be done with a project one time. A bad project manager can make your freelancer decide they no longer want to work with your company due to the project taking 10x longer than it should have,  the project specs getting out of control, or just because it’s not great working with someone who makes your job harder than it should be.

So what are the pitfalls I’ve seen and how can your agency avoid them? Glad you asked!

Have one point of contact

Companies with great project managers know that having only one point of contact makes things so much easier for us – especially freelance developers where the lack of of planning up front on a project usually falls on our shoulders, since development is the “last stop” on the website launch chain.

Having one point of contact ensures consistency of directions and content. Oftentimes, when I have to talk to four different people on the project, I receive four different, competing instructions. I’ll receive content that directly contradicts someone else’s. This is both frustrating, and it wastes the freelancer’s time. It also wastes the agency’s time having to go back and forth and figure out what should be the correct course of action.

Understand what you’re asking for

The best project managers understand the tech they’re asking the developer to use. They know what that framework or CMS can and can’t do out of the box, so they understand when you tell them something is going to take a lot more time to create…or that it’s not possible, or feasible, to do that piece of functionality.

If they don’t understand the tech, then let the developer know. While I’ve made mistakes assuming in the past that the client has been familiar with, say basic WordPress functionality, I’ve often been “misled” into believing that a few times too. If you’re new to what the freelancer is building, say so. We won’t judge.

Stop overlying promising

Don’t tell your freelancer that you have a project manager, when what you actually have is someone who puts things on the calendar. I’ve actually contemplated putting a “no project manager” fee on my services simply because I’m realizing how much longer and how much more hassle these sorts of projects are. Sometimes, it takes one project with a new client to realize this. Sometimes, it takes working with a better, more streamlined team somewhere else to realize what you’re missing.

Ask your new freelancer for feedback

A great way to gauge how your company is doing, is to simply ask for feedback. A few great questions would be:

  • “What could we have done to make this project go smoother?”
  • “What can we do in the future?”
  • “Do you feel like you have all the resources you needed to do a good job?”
  • “Would you work with us again? If not, why not?”

Don’t go over your freelancer’s head

A common problem all the way up the “food chain” of design agencies. You hired your freelancer because you felt they were an expert in their field, right? So when they tell you X can’t (or shouldn’t be done), don’t immediately jump in with “Should we ask someone else instead?” It’s demeaning, demoralizing, and rude. Assume the freelancer has already done the work to discover if what they’ve told you can’t be done, really can’t be done.

A Detailed Spec

The most important job of a project manager is keeping the project spec’ed correctly. Telling me you want a photo gallery doesn’t tell me much. It means I’ll take 10 minutes to build you a grid of images in WordPress. That’s it.

Telling me you a photo gallery with a Masonry grid, Ajax sorting, Ajax pagination, Lightboxes and a drag and drop interface is another matter. One costs 5x that of the other.

Make sure you give your freelancer a detailed spec. While this should be the freelancer’s responsibility to ask for one, it can also be confusing when you’re asking for what sounds like default functionality, but actually means something completely different.

For example, on a recent website I’ve finished, the spec asking for batch uploading and categorizing of photos in WordPress. Technically, this is already default functionality so I didn’t charge anything for it, because it was already built in. While it was my fault for not digging deeper, it was also the client’s fault for not providing me details of what they actually wanted – and I was also lead to believe the team already had experience with WordPress. So I told them it was already built in.

Of course, come to the end of the project when it’s time to input content and suddenly I’m told that what they *actually* wanted was not what was default functionality. Being the nice person I am, and realizing my error in not asking for more detail up front – I went ahead and bit the bullet and decided to find out a detailed description of what they were needing and was going to code it for them for free. It took several emails to finally find out that they wanted to be able to upload photos and have the image metadata grabbed out of the them and assigned as categories. However, after several back and forth emails, a phone conversation and over a week of frustration – the categories weren’t in the metadata anyways. So I lost all that time when I could’ve actually been working. It ended up with me uploaded 3,500 photos and categorizing them myself because the client didn’t want to learn how to do it themselves and I just wanted to get the project done and out the door.

Another point of contention is missing resources – be that fonts, icons, design comps, or content – make sure you have all that upfront before you tell your developer to get started. It’ll make things faster for the both of you.

My shortcomings in projects

I’m amazed at how much I still have to learn when working with outside agencies, which is always surprising because I’ve been freelancing for over 8 years. It’s taught me to question every single functionality bullet point, especially when I’m working with a new client. It’s taught me that I should stop the client in the project and not feel obligated to do all this free work. It’s taught me that I’m still working on learning to say “no, this isn’t ok” and to manage my stress and frustration levels. It’s also made me think about whether or not I should allow the project to get started without what I need – forcing me to rewrite code 2, 3, sometimes even 4 times.

I rarely have massive problems like this with the 99% of my clients. I seriously believe it’s because a lot of them have a fantastic workflow with proper project managers in place, or at least a detailed enough spec’ed to make things less confusing for the both of us.

All of this has taught me to really appreciate the agencies who have fantastic project management in place.