Who needs project managers anyway?
Turns out, we do. But not in the way we expected.
We don’t have project managers at Upstatement. That’s not a marketing slogan or rallying cry or anything like that, it’s a simple fact: no PMs.
Why not? Well, we love that all our designers and developers talk directly with our clients. Together they uncover problems and opportunities, discuss them, and get on with the work. All without mediation, without a middleman, and without the game of telephone. This is what made sense seven years ago when we started Upstatement and it’s how we’ve done things since. It’s always been the way we want to work.
But as we grow and work on larger and more complex projects, the management of our work has become more complex, too. Not surprisingly, that has created tension in the way we do things. We’ve started asking ourselves some difficult questions, the same questions we’ve heard a lot in the design community. What makes a good project manager? How do they fit in at a design studio? And how do we integrate someone without losing what we really value about the current process?
To see how we got to those questions, it helps to understand how things work (and don’t work) today. Typically, there’s one lead designer per project and they act as the day-to-day point person for the client team. Designers work on just one project at a time so they are able to devote complete focus to it. Our process is centered around the designers, developers and client team closely collaborating in an agile environment to identify challenges and come up with solutions. Which is why the traditional project management approach never really jived with our ethos.
We talk to our clients every day. We tell them what we’re working on, what issues we’re having, what’s going fast or slow and why. And we discuss the nuances of the project, how we’re writing the code, the idea we’re trying to illustrate, the feedback we’re trying to address, etc. These are sometimes very technical discussions, or situations where a designer is explaining her work to a client and helping them understand how it meets their needs and fits into the story they’re looking to tell.
However, the same direct line of designer-client communication that leads to great work can also become a source of stress for designers and frustration for the client. All projects have deadlines, budgets, stakeholders to manage, presentations to give, and people to update. Sometimes this layer of activity gets in the way of the actual creation of the work. If all of this falls on the designer, they can get bogged down in the project management layer and the work gets pushed to the periphery. This obviously sucks.
But the other extreme is just as frustrating, with all our focus dedicated to the work and not enough time spent discussing timeline, budget, deliverables, and things of that nature. Despite our daily communication, clients sometimes feel confused. They see lots of work getting done, but can’t always place it within the overall context of the project. Honestly, we encounter this problem ourselves.
We’re just as dedicated to producing exceptional work as we are to fostering truly exceptional client relationships. We’re not willing to compromise either. And that creates a dilemma: How can we provide a direct and intimate connection to the design and dev team without distracting them? And how can we give clients the best possible insight into project health and status without compromising the work and the experience?
It doesn’t seem like this should be such a tough problem. I mean, the world has pretty much figured out project management, right? But studios actually occupy a unique position at the intersection of two very different worlds. We’re managing two of everything, one for the client and one for us. That means trying to do great work while merging different cultures, processes, stakeholders, and work styles. And frequently, our clients are not tech-first companies with a singular product focus. This is a whole new universe for them.
In order to solve this problem, we applied the same research-oriented approach we use with our clients. We asked Holly Copeland, one of our designers, to lead the effort. She investigated our current PM situation, defined the problems, and helped us brainstorm solutions. Holly interviewed everyone at the firm about their projects, process, and project management experience. How are you managing your project right now? What do you like about your role in project management? When is it annoying? How could you feel more supported? And a hundred other great questions.
Holly also spoke to some project managers who are doing wonderful, thoughtful work in the field right now. Brett Harned, a consultant who worked with agencies like Happy Cog and Razorfish, talked to us about how a good, hands-on project manager needs to be fluent in all the things a studio does. He sees the modern project manager as a multi-disciplinary role.
“Ultimately, you need someone who can do the job of an account manager and a project manager. Someone who can talk about strategy, be a part of the project teams, and work with clients. Someone who is at the core a good communicator, likable, and can build good relationships.”
Finding that person might mean looking beyond people who are formally trained and certified. These days, the best people might already be working as designers, developers, or copywriters. That felt good to hear. (And for more from Brett, definitely check out his excellent blog).
After the interviews, she conducted a workshop with a smaller group to define the current problem and get some solutions out there. We set some goals and started with a How Might We exercise as a warmup.
We also spent some time vocalizing our concerns around the new role. We discovered that most of us were worried about the same thing: losing the direct designer-client connection that makes our process special. Talking about our hesitations made it easier to articulate what we’re looking for in a candidate later in the workshop.
Next, we walked through a recap of the interviews and looked at the characteristics our designers and developers said they would like to see in a PM.
Finally, we drafted a list of the project management responsibilities our team takes on today and put them up on the wall with sticky notes. Then we created a new column for Project Manager and moved tasks away from current team members. This perspective helped us visualize the relationship we want this person to have with our projects and our people. We could keep certain client communication responsibilities with the designer, remove some of the project management burden from their plates, define shared designer-PM responsibilities, and create some new PM tasks that currently don’t (but probably should) exist.
As Holly led us through this process, the potential of a new role became much more clear. Instead of how we previously imagined a PM — someone who sits in a scheduling control tower managing deadlines and deliverables — we were able to describe a new role more focused on supporting designers and developers on the ground where they can work side-by-side to get buy-in, help with research, work with clients and be a part of a focused, connected team.
Sort of like a product manager, project manager, and account manager rolled into one.
We’re calling this new position a Digital Producer. We liked the idea of the producer title, as it helps define the person’s role as one of action. Instead of managing and overseeing, the producer is an active participant in the work. They get things done.
Our job description defines the goals of the job:
- Keep the pulse of the project
- Capture, communicate and keep people accountable
- Make sure clients feel well-informed
We’re excited to try this out in our studio and see how it works. If you know anyone who would be a good fit, please send ‘em our way!