Ten Lessons For Every Project Manager

Hellofable
16 min readOct 8, 2020

Introduction

I’m Eugenia, and I run a design studio together with Jiahui. I don’t have any formal education in design, so I learnt (and am still learning) on the job.

My official job title is Studio Director. What is my job scope, then?

I am first and foremost a Project Manager. I manage projects from the first call/mail, to sealing the deal, commencement, execution, and handover.

‘Management’ is a very vague word that doesn’t fully capture the essence of the job.

Here you will find a few lessons I learnt along the way, though you should keep in mind that I also am a business owner, thus part of my job scope might not be fully applicable to you.

(I shall keep the whole business and finance part separate from this list.)

Lesson 1: Define yourself.

This applies to every single job out there. You need to know what role you’re filling, and how you’re supposed to be doing it.

The first tip is to understand your job scope and expectations. Companies differ, and so will job scopes. Read your JD (Job Description) clearly. Ask and clarify during your interview. Make sure you enter the workplace with clarity.

As mentioned, different companies have different job scopes, but they all fall under the generic title, ‘Project Manager’. Here is a general and non-exhaustive list of expectations, starting from the most essential to the “good-to-have”.

- Handle all communications with clients and vendors efficiently and proficiently
- Plan timelines and ensure the internal team works within deadlines
- Craft and deliver creative briefs accurately and in a clear manner for both clients and designers
- Put together presentation decks, compile edits, meeting minutes, and all other related documentation
- Keep the balance between happy client and satisfied designer — the end goal is client retention

In our studio, I expect all of the above. That is because we are a small-medium sized studio, and we work very closely with clients (right up to their big boss) on selected projects. We don’t compartmentalise roles. Rather, we work on the basis that all members on the project handle it in its entirety.

For larger companies, I suspect the job scope will be mainly the first three of five points for a fresh graduate. For the more senior ones, a high proficiency in the third and fourth points will be expected. For Account Directors, all five apply, together with budgeting and business development.

That said, what is your job scope? You have to be clear on this. Ask your superior. My experience with past employees was that I expected them to ‘manage’ from the get go. I was very wrong. They were unclear on the extent of ‘management’, let alone the soft skills I had expected of them (eg: flexibility in communication, ability to think on one’s own feet, proposing alternative solutions, etc). (This resulted in Lesson 2.)

If you have a clear answer to what and how you should be as a Project Manager in your company, you will find yourself well-defined in your career.

Lesson 2: You are not a yes-man/woman. You are a thinker and a strategist.

This is the first thing I told my Project Manager on her first day with us, “I am not looking for a yes-woman. I don’t need someone to say ‘yes’ to everything without thinking.”

It is the most convenient word to say. The moment you start saying ‘yes’ without thinking, you become a brainless communicator. Things will start breaking down. How so? Your client will make unreasonable requests. You relay those to the design team. The designers get frustrated with you. They produce questionable work. You send them to the client. One of these scenarios then unfold:

a) The client gladly accepts the work and releases it. The project ends smoothly on the client’s end but you lost all respect with the team. Designers will start to dread working with you. The final artwork is archived and internally, everyone knows it is something they wished they could burn.

b) The client receives the draft and gets second thoughts about it. More edits follow, and the entire team becomes a headless goose chasing after the client. Everything becomes about what the client loves, not what is best for the project. I don’t think I need to elaborate about the end product.

c) The client snaps back after a while and gets angry. Why is the design studio blindly executing the changes I requested? I paid them to give me design consultancy. I am not getting what I am paying for. They deserve a nasty wakeup call and email from me.

I have never seen a project go down well when a client starts to be over-demanding coupled with a Project Manager saying ‘yes’ to everything. It is natural for a client to be demanding or to be frustrated. After all, the client is airing his/her views on how they feel the design can be ‘better’. How the Project Manager works on the client’s frustration and negativity is the watershed for the project’s end.

Don’t ever say yes in a heartbeat.

You have the ability to think on your own feet, and the power to make certain decisions. Ask yourself these questions:

“Is this edit a necessity? Does it better the project? Does it harm the project?”

“Is there a better way out to address the client’s concern? Is there an alternative I can propose?”

“Is this in the best interest of the project?”

My personal stand for edits is that if the edit doesn’t harm the project and is quick to execute, I will allow it. If the edit changes the direction of the initial brief, I will either advise the client to not go ahead with it (with a well-worded explanation), or I will highlight to the client a few other alternatives that address his/her concern. If the client insists on a total change in direction that goes beyond the initial scope, it means a re-negotiation is needed on the quotation, indicating some potential increase in costings.

Millennials hate calling. So do I. But I have to say, calls have value. Bad news or a longer explanation is better delivered through a call, then with a follow-up email. The written word doesn’t have a tone, just the choice of words. No matter how many exclamation marks and smiley faces you use, an old-school call still beats those. Trust me, clients appreciate the time taken to convey something using your voice and not your WhatsApp text or email.

Lesson 3: Think macro, execute micro.

This is easier said than done. The main difference between a stellar Project Manager and a typical one is the ability to have the big picture in mind. See how the dots connect, as cheesy as it sounds. See how the different milestones and deliverables in the project flow as a process.

With experience, you will know how the project should end. And with experience, you should be able to anticipate the different ways in which the project can go wrong and promptly be a step ahead.

You’re like Doctor Strange in Infinity War. You have seen 14,000,605 futures, and out of all those, just one that ends as a success. Work towards that. Don’t be surprised if a project catches fire midway. Stay composed. There’s still hope that it can end well. Sometimes you have to lose a battle to win the war.

When you keep the big picture in mind, you also have to be up to date with the daily tasks. See your project in terms of day to day, week by week, and month on month. The big picture may change, so you have to be flexible. Once you have had enough experience, it’s just another day to you. New day, new situation. Live with it.

Lastly, what will help you in your micro executions will be management tools. Find a routine and structure that works for you.

You’re a digital junkie? Then try Google Calendar, Notes, and platforms like Asana, Basecamp, etc.

You’re old school, like me? Try sticky notes, notebooks, and pure memory. I have to caution you to use memory at your own risk. I have an excellent memory so I rarely note down anything during a meeting. I prefer to focus on the person talking as opposed to frantically scribbling in my notepad.

Lesson 4: Profiling well is half the battle won.

This only comes with experience. When you can profile well, it means you can already expect how to work on this project.

Understand the client’s company structure and his/her job role. Here are some possible scenarios:

a) Client is an executive.
This means there are multiple layers above him/her. Expect more edits and cases where all is okay and suddenly, the big boss sees the design for the first time and decides he/she dislikes it. Back to the drawing board.

b) Client is the business owner of a start-up or SME.
Expectations are higher: the client expects bang for buck because it’s their own money. Delivering three edits as per contract is normal, and giving free edits is expected. Such clients tend to be more emotionally invested in their project, because it’s their “baby”.

c) Client is in the middle-management, and has direct access to the higher-ups.
This is my favourite profile. The client is experienced enough and has the power to get things moving. Bureaucracy happens but the client is mature in handling correspondence and expectations. An even better scenario is if you get to speak to the big boss himself/herself. Direct access is a double-edged sword. Wield it well, and your journey is smooth. One wrong move, and… it will not be a pretty sight.

In this line of work, I promote second guessing on our end. It is an art, more essential than non. Know what the client is looking for, and how you should present it. We have a presentation deck template, but every deck is different depending on who we show it to. When a designer shows you the design, have the courage to speak out if it greatly deviates from what the client is looking for or what the project requires. Be an accurate second guesser.

Lesson 5: Just make it work, Inspector.

This is your reality: You’re the first to be blamed for anything that goes wrong.

Designer got the brief wrong? It’s your fault.

Client is pissed off? That’s also all your fault.

Project catching fire? Everyone looks at you first.

You may have already gotten the idea that it’s a thankless job. You’re just ‘managing’. But when things go well, the designers get the praise for a job well done. When things go south, you get the brunt of it because you didn’t handle it well. I know it all too well, and yes, I understand the unfairness of the situation.

How do you avoid such a situation? It differs from studio to studio, but here’s my experience.

The biggest grey area at our studio is checking and vetting. Missed out a text edit? Pagination is off? Whose fault is that? You can blame the designer, but the client will blame you. The boss might also blame you. I learnt things the hard way. As a business owner myself, the final fault lies with me. Yes, it was the designer who failed to package the file. Yes, the designer did not path the artwork. Yes, the designer accidentally deleted the last line when he/she copied and pasted the text. Yes, the designer was lazy and just used the colour dropping tool that resulted in the wrong colour code. In your shoes, the fault lies with the designer. I mean, how could you have known? You’re just supposed to send the damn file.

At the end of the day, someone has to be responsible for the sub-par artwork. Unfortunately, you’re the ‘last touch’. Avoid blaming and just do the check on your end. You got to make things work. No one else will do that for you.

Be a combination of Ravenclaw and Slytherin at work. Use your wits like Ravenclaw and be open to sideway thinking like Slytherin. Whatever that gets a project going, just do it.

Lastly, get yourself well acquainted with every member on the team. Know their strengths and weaknesses. Play as a team. Whenever we get a new project, I always look at the designer profile before assigning. Do not assign based on designers’ availability. Assign based on expertise and work around other schedules if you need to.

Lesson 6: Disengage to engage.

Please do not become emotionally invested in any project. You will be attached to your projects when you first start out. When they end well, you feel validated as a Project Manager. When they do not end well, you get affected by everything — the client’s choice of words, the relentless calls, the frustration from all ends, the ‘ugly’ designs, the disgruntled looks from the designer, and the list goes on.

How a project ends does not define you as a person. How you carry yourself throughout the project is what defines you as a person.

Were you patient and firm at the same time? Were you respectful? Were you professional? These are the questions that you should ask yourself whenever you feel affected by a project. If the answer is yes to all three questions, you have done what you could.

Engage only with the brief. A good brief will have the project scope, objectives and timelines clearly set out from the get go. You answer to what is best for the project.

Don’t let yourself get hurt by elements you cannot control.

(Note: This is where I do a shout out for my favourite email function: scheduled emails. Clients like to see that you’re working throughout the day and week for them. I always finish my work ahead of time and schedule send my emails to clients (for non-urgent ones, of course). This is very useful in helping me ensure communications is always timely and regular.)

Lesson 7: Protection is prevention.

Everyone seeks to first protect themselves at work. The same should go for you.

Protocols and processes might seem unnecessary, but they are important. They help you more than you can imagine.

Stick to protocols like Final Artwork sign-offs. For large print jobs, I make sure I head down to the client’s office to go through every single page. They sign off on every single page to acknowledge it is alright to go ahead for print.

I wouldn’t elaborate too much on sign-offs as the intent is very obvious. Of all the processes in our studio, this is the one I value the most.

Another process I have put in place is follow-up emails. Had a call with a client? Client just WhatsApp-ed you? Follow up with a summary email to summarise the discussion — As per WA convo / As per our tele-conversation earlier today,…

It sounds like it is additional work to retype whatever has been discussed. Trust me, when your client starts to forget past conversations or get mixed up with the different comments sent in different channels, the email will be the sole piece of evidence to prove you did not fail in communications.

That said, I use the word ‘communications’ loosely in the sense that the mark of success is not communication, but comprehension.

You may communicate all you want, but if the other party fails to comprehend, you have failed in your communication.

Protect yourself by ensuring the other party comprehends. That will prevent future accusations and unhappiness, and I quote the favourite word used by humans, “miscommunication”.

There is never miscommunication — it is a lazy word for miscomprehension.

Lesson 8: Burn out is real.

Let’s be real. It’s not a glamourous job. People might hate you more than they love you, and some people have a poor impression of your career.

These are some of the comments I have received before, and I am sure you can identify with a few:

Friend: “Wow, so you handle the projects? It’s like replying emails and admin?”

Jiahui’s friend: “Make sure you don’t lose the client… You don’t have any experience, you better buck up and don’t lose face for Fable.”

Relative: “You’re leading a tai-tai (slang for a woman who does not work and lives off her rich husband) life, just handle clients’ comments, no need design, just use mouth to talk only, right?”

Designer: “I didn’t work on your edits. Can you get Jiahui to review me instead?”

Client: “Can I speak to someone who actually worked on the design?”

I still get these comments from time to time.

However, these comments became less of my concern within the first year of my career. The larger bulk of my stress came from the long hours. You may not be in office but the calls, emails, and texts still come. Past midnight, weekends, public holidays, you name it, I have experienced it.

One of my main regrets is not getting a work line. When I first started, I was hungry for business. I worked 6.5 days a week, more than 12 hours a day. No one except my immediate circle saw how hard I worked. My quick turnaround and availability came to bite me back when I soon saw how my WhatsApp was filled with work texts instead of personal ones.

There are two things I have learnt in order to prevent burn out: (1) Discover my job satisfaction; and (2) Pace myself.

I state the obvious. But I can tell you, they are not easy to accomplish.

As I near the big 30, job satisfaction is all the more important to me. By ‘job satisfaction’, I mean accepting the fact that there isn’t a perfect job out there. It is up to me to find the silver lining and joy in my work life.

This is my job satisfaction:

- When a client is genuinely appreciative and excited during my presentations

- When I clinch a deal

- When the project ends so well, my client cannot stop talking about it

- When clients come back with new projects (and when we become friends)

- When the studio is brimming with excitement and anticipation for a new project or waiting for the public launch of a completed project

- When a designer tells me he/she has learnt something from me during his/her tenure with us

Which leads me to the second tip: Pace yourself.

A job is a marathon. You’re in it for life. Run at a steady pace and in occasional spurts when you need to. Pick up a passion project or set aside weekly dates with friends. Try something that has absolutely nothing to do with your work.

Take leave. You have leave days, so just take them. You have to understand yourself well first — are you the sort to rest better with one or two long breaks every year, or are you someone who deals better with sporadic and regular short breaks? Plan your breaks every year so you are conditioned mentally and physically to work towards those periods of respite.

I have heard and seen burn outs in the design industry and I can confidently say that it is because of the individual. Nasty bosses aside (we are definitely not in that category), employees tend to take things on themselves and not highlight any potential breakpoints until they are at that very stage. If you do not sound out your superior when you foresee an impending breakpoint, you cannot blame your superior when you are burnt out.

I repeat: burn out is solely on you. You have the power over your life. If your workplace is toxic and you choose to remain in it, you only have yourself to blame. If your workplace is great, treasure it. Just like how an employer should show appreciation for the staff, the staff should also show appreciation for the job.

It’s a two-way street.

It always makes my day to have my colleagues telling me that they enjoy coming to work every day.

In return, I get them bubble tea. 

Lesson 9: Every project is different. Fall in and out of love quickly.

I see every project as a relationship, or as boomers like to call, BGR. With every new relationship, you should not bring in emotional baggage. A similar project might have caused you grief in the past, but it does not mean that the new project will turn out the same way. Always start on a fresh page.

Your client is like your boyfriend or girlfriend, whether you like it or not. You have to nurture that relationship. Some are stickier and require regular updates, no matter how insignificant they are. Some are more free-spirited, but harder to catch. You signed a relationship contract, so be an awesome partner.

When a project is over (and it ended well), celebrate it.

When a project is over (and it ended badly), down a shot of whiskey and move on.

Life goes on. With time, you will soon forget the bad experiences.

Lesson 10: Good vibes only.

The design industry and workplace can be a very toxic place, just like any others.

Don’t indulge in toxic talk.

Have beef with your colleagues? Bring it up to your superior or approach your colleague to trash things out.

Not happy with your workplace? Be introspective first, before blaming others. I am especially sensitive to this particular situation. To be brutally honest, I had employees telling me that they were unhappy. I had sit-downs to trash things out. 10/10 scenarios frustrated me. None were in the slightest bit introspective. Despite new measures put in place (two weeks of additional paid leave, extra half-day leave per week for personal matters, offers to buy insurance for family, reshuffling of portfolios, time management tips, etc), I still faced disgruntled employees. I accepted their criticisms and heard them out. But they did not want to hear me out. I highlighted areas of improvements, and ways to work more efficiently, and what I saw was selective mutism and stubbornness.

Did I try my best to work with them on their issues? Yes. Did they see my efforts? No. My conclusion: just leave.

It’s important to keep a workplace culture healthy and nurturing. Everyone has a part to play, and it is even more so for a Project Manager, who straddles between the Project and Design teams.

The moment hate speech sprouts, the studio will spiral downwards. All it takes is for one toxic person to spread negativity. Don’t be that person. Be instead, someone who uplifts and encourages.

I sometimes tell new members of our team to stop looking at social media accounts dedicated to the woes of being in a design studio. I know all about Photoshop crashing, clients asking for unlimited edits, marketing team insisting on making the logo larger. You can laugh about it sometimes, but if you let these get to you, you will find that you start work every day with a mindset that is not healthy. You start to expect that things will go wrong even before anything has started. You start to throw shade at other parties when something doesn’t go your way. You start to roll your eyes and snort when such situations arise.

Fill yourself with good vibes only.

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This is nowhere near a comprehensive list like a Dummy’s Guide to Project Management 101. However, I do hope this will provide some insights into work life in the design industry.

Go forth and conquer!

The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by me solely and do not represent the views and opinions of any other individual.

If you have any thoughts, you may reach out to me at eugenia@fable.sg.
I am a busy working mother of a toddler, so replies may take some time.

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