The Right Mindset

As a project manager, you control chaos with a strong determined smile and a tenacious attitude that means stuff can get done. You’re also squeezed in the middle of various departments and levels of seniority, being pulled in different directions, into different environments, despite everyone working towards the same goal — the project being delivered successfully. So yeah… it’s stressful… but it can also reward you with the greatest sense of accomplishment as you know more than anyone how much work has gone into putting the project together. Many people fail to appreciate just how many hats you have to wear or what skill it takes to accomplish your role, yet they all look to you to be the fountain of knowledge, to give them direction, help resolve problems, and be the steady rock while everyone else crumbles.

So how are you supposed you cope? It begins with honesty, trust, and integrity. No matter what you must stay calm and give everyone the cold hard facts throughout the life-cycle of each project. This will cement your position as a leader and will earn you respect from both the project owner and/or account manager, as well as the rest of the production team. An environment of mutual respect is one that is much more conducive to a productive team and a truly excellent end product. There are many points in a project lifecycle when you may feel you have to withhold or sugar-coat the truth. For example, explaining why a deliverable is late, telling a team member their work isn’t up to scratch, or admitting that you yourself made a mistake. This will only serve to damage your relationships in the long-run, and your role is nothing if not dependent on solid relationships. It’s always obvious when people are being false or obfuscatory. Telling the truth may hurt in the short term but it will help you build stronger relationships in the longterm. Once the project owner gets over their anger about the late delivery, they will at least know you have the courage to tell them bad news and will be more likely to trust what you tell them going forward. This is especially valuable for long-running projects.

Similarly, integrity can be displayed by admitting responsibility for a mistake that you or a team member made, openly defending a project owner or team member, or insisting on maintaining quality standards, despite the pressure of looming deadlines. Having the fortitude to take the flak from angry clients isn’t easy, adding an unneeded and undeserved surplus to your existing stress levels, but it will earn you reputation points. If, on the other hand, you fail to act with honesty and integrity as a project manager then eventually those you work with will wise up and start to treat you with mistrust, which will be incredibly damaging to all your projects.

Project managers all too often get the blame. Designers and developers may think they always agree to any and all requests from project owners, no matter how preposterous, and just filter them down to those doing the real work, by which point it’s too late to say no. Unfortunately, this blame is sometimes deserved. A big part of your job, and part of being honest and having integrity is standing up to the project owners or account managers and rejecting requests if they are going to be too difficult, out of scope, a bad user experience, or jeopardise other parts of the project delivery. They are paying (hopefully!) you to advise them, to tell them the cold hard facts, to protect them from poor decisions, even if it’s not what they were hoping to hear. Situations when project managers might yield to such requests are when they don’t have enough knowledge, experience, or confidence to challenge the request and suggest an alternative, or when they are simply feeling lazy. As a project manager you need to ensure you equip yourself with knowledge, experience, confidence, and motivation, exactly for situations like this. If you don’t have the knowledge, admit this to your team; it’s ok to not know about something as long as you’re willing to learn, and maybe another team member could step in and fill your knowledge gap. If on the other hand it’s a courage or confidence issue then fear not, for this is completely normal. To overcome that fear, practice your reasoning with other team members first to reinforce your decisions. Remember that part of your role is to provide expert consultation to the project owner while showing loyalty and dedication to your team.

Sometimes, you will fail. There will be times when, perhaps due to circumstances beyond your control, you will have to accept bad requests and deliver them to your team. As with any other team-based role, one of the most important skills is empathy. First understand the request is going to piss people off; they are going to be resentful when they work on it. Also understand that this anger and resentment is a strong emotional reaction that means they actually care about what they do, which is a very good sign — they’re not just being difficult. It’s better to have a designer or developer angry about something with good cause than completely indifferent to everything, delivering as much or as little as required like a mindless automaton, incapable of innovation and passion, creating lacklustre project work. Recognise your team’s frustration as passion and embrace it.

Earlier I mentioned mutual respect. When delivering work requests to your team, whether deemed good or bad, you need to offer an explanation along with it. Why we need to carry out this request, why you’re assigning it to them, what your expectations are. No explanation and it’s as if you’re implying they don’t care, can’t understand, or that their opinions on the matter are not worth anything. Web designers and developers are highly skilled and intelligent people that will definitely understand, and want to understand, the background behind each request. If a request might at first appear a trifle waste of their time, then taking the time to explain your decision on why you’ve accepted the request may work to turn an atmosphere of resistance and frustration into one of acceptance and motivation. If you explain the history of the decision along with the rationale, then the same clever people you’re asking to execute the request will hopefully realise that they too would make the same decision in your shoes.

Honesty, integrity, trust, empathy — the character traits of a great web project manager.