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  • September 18, 2014

Artful Matchmaking: Client to Process

Over the course of hundreds of projects, project managers develop a very real sense while trying to build a perfect project plan that we are architects pulling from a Decorative Illustration tried-and-true collection of building blocks. But, (and this is a big but—I cannot lie) tried-and-true can be blinding. Though some client teams and projects seem to closely resemble past experiences, every client is unique, and there are countless combinations of project requirements and team personalities.

Our team puts a strong focus on digging deep early in the project and building a comprehensive understanding of the people and factors at play. Think of it as high-quality speed dating. Throughout early stakeholder interviews with the client team, company research, and project kickoff, we keep detailed notes on the client team’s technical proficiency, clarity (or not) of their current brand, ability to verbalize their key challenges and goals for web, and what seems to make them comfortable or uncomfortable.

There are three things we always insist on when working with a new client: involvement of key stakeholders; consistent, open communication; and signoff on key deliverables. Beyond some of these core elements, we have an open sandbox in which to experiment and craft our approach. There are many opportunities to put project management agility into practice (no, no, not Agile with a capital A, just the good old definition of the word).

Mix up your mode

A huge opportunity to adapt our project plans and the way we work per project/client’s needs is to adjust how we communicate with a client. As a project manager, it may be necessary to deviate from your ideal mode of communication in order to make a project actually move. Systemic issues within a client’s organization (lack of resources, poor email practices, etc.) often can’t be changed—at least in the duration of your engagement—so be flexible with your mode of communication! If a client is often on the road and lives and dies by his phone, text him a quick reminder that feedback is due. For a client who frequently has issues with her calendar, make sending an email or Basecamp post with meeting details and call-in information part of your process.

Doggedly insisting on a set procedure will only frustrate your team and client alike. This is your opportunity as a project manager to show compassion, take one for the team, and smooth unnecessary project wrinkles.

Plan and adjust deliverables together

When building our project plans, my and my team’s collective knowledge about how digital projects work helps us identify accurate timing, number of design deliverables, and roles on the project. Rather than stick to a series of completely known, tried-and-true design deliverables, we have been analyzing what would work—and not work—about a particular design deliverable.

On a recent project, our team dove into new territory for several early deliverables. The client team has a beautifully unique way of talking about their very beloved brand and culture. Everything is a story, and every story evokes a lot of emotion about the brand. After our stakeholder interviews, we paused and mulled over the colorful, wild notes we’d gathered from them about their history, brand, and goals.

In plotting our subsequent milestones, we decided to match the way we talked about design to their team’s casual, creative storytelling. Some of the usual suspects for early deliverables (e.g. a highly detailed early sitemap or even traditional styleboards) simply wouldn’t resonate with them. To assure the client we understood their unique story and to get early buy-in on how we intended to translate it to a redesigned website, we decided to deliver a storyboard before any other IA, UX, or design deliverables. The storyboard highlighted quotes from their stakeholder interviews and—with hand-drawn sketches that loosely represented pages on the site—user experiences the client wanted us to put a lot of focus on in the redesign.

The client loved the fact that it was hand-drawn and that it clearly illustrated our early thinking about what was most important to them. Following deliverables included more traditional styleboards and wireframes, but with their early enthusiasm and buy-in to our mode of storytelling and design. This kind of dedication to tailoring deliverables to clients can really help a project succeed—quickly.

Don’t be precious about process

In a recent Cognition article, fellow Happy Cog PM Brenna Heaps writes about not being afraid to readjust a plan for deliverables midstream. To expand on Brenna’s point, our fears often lead us to stick to traditional modes of operation and keep our motivations for choosing particular deliverables shrouded in mystery.

If we are going to be innovative and flexible, we need to also clearly communicate our motivations. If clients understand the process and are confident that the new proposition is indeed the best direction, they will appreciate the narrative behind your choices and will be far more willing to reconsider timing or format of deliverables.

Experimenting with new types of deliverables has been both a bit terrifying (well, maybe just for me as PM) and entirely thrilling. Of course, they are never perfect, but that’s okay. Selecting more innovative deliverables rewards us with focused client feedback, curious peers, and a fresh take on what our process could be for future projects. We keep evolving and improving, and get stronger as practitioners and a team—all by being willing to not be precious about our process.

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