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  • November 17, 2011

Q&A: Design Through the Lens of a Project Manager

Hello. Thanks for coming back to part two of the conversation between Brett Harned and me. Please help yourself to some tea, a pastry, Decorative Illustration and a comfortable chair. Brett and I have worked together for nearly 5 years, so we thought it would be interesting to discuss the collaboration between our two disciplines that occurs somewhat invisibly. Working with a project manager allows designers to focus on being creative and doing good work. I’m loathe to think of going back to working without one.

I hope you enjoy the second part of the conversation. We’d both love to hear how your process has changed working in collaboration with other disciplines in your organization.

KS: From a creative point of view, if everything goes perfectly and smoothly with every deliverable, that’s probably a sign that it’s going to turn out to be a boring project. How do you balance things like timelines with the creative team’s need to make some mistakes?

BH: Boring or really, really awesome. But seriously… When I start a project, I talk to the creative director about the process and the timeline. We always know that there will be some unforeseen issues, so we say “Okay, this is how much time we’re putting in this plan to accomplish X.” When we get to X, we’ll adjust as needed. There is always going to be a challenge in a project, and knowing that in advance is what makes planning a little easier. It’s adjusting the plan to make everyone happy that makes my life harder.

KS: How do you balance knowing that our work might be missing the mark, but is a necessary step to push the client to step out of their comfort zone?

BH: Our team is constantly thinking of ways to push boundaries and get our clients to step out of their respective comfort zones.

We’ve been deep in projects where we present ideas that are just too much for clients, or more than they are really willing to take on. It can be a bummer when those ideas get shot down, especially if the team puts a lot of work into an idea and really loves it. To add to that, it drains our budgets when we spend time on a big idea that just doesn’t work. The thing is, if we didn’t at least try to push boundaries and make new and different things, our work wouldn’t be exciting and our clients wouldn’t be exposed to ideas that may work for them in the future. So, I think that with the right conversation with a client, it’s good to at least gauge just how far they are willing to go, or how much they can support a completely new concept.

KS: As a project manager, what gives you the greatest amount of satisfaction?

BH: To me, it’s happiness. I want to know that my team is proud of the work they’ve done, the client is pleased with it, and that I’ve helped orchestrate all of that happiness. Let’s face it: my job is not meant to star in the show. I am okay with that. But on the rare occasion that a client says, “the project was managed really well,” I’m beaming with happiness.

KS: What is your biggest frustration?

BH: Delays. They ruin my work day. If our team or the client team causes a delay, it means that I have to rework the project plan and resourcing, and make sure that everyone is okay with new milestone dates. It’s not just one simple update, it’s a bunch of them with minor details tied to each change. It’s a part of the job and the process, so I’m used to it. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t frustrating.

KS: You and I both have kids that are very close in age. I work from home and you work out of our Philadelphia office, meaning you have a completely different morning routine. After you drop your daughter off in the morning, you walk to work. What do you think about during that time?

BH: I start thinking about work the minute I wake up. It’s like I can’t turn it off. There’s just something about the morning that makes my brain go straight into work-mode; it’s when I am most productive. I am that guy who walks into working looking at his phone. I’m either checking or responding to email, looking at my calendar to prepare myself for the day, or texting my wife about how both kids cried when I dropped them off and it made me feel awful. Those are the worst days. On my best days, I take the bus and read Twitter.

KS: I’ve found the best way to work better and avoid feeling stressed or overwhelmed by work is to shut off IM and Skype and stop looking at email as soon as the day is over. I never read work emails on the weekend or vacation. I could see how that situation might be impossible for a project manager, but do you think it is healthy?

BH: It’s definitely tough, because there is an overwhelming sense to always be aware of as much as possible so I can start to plan a response or act quickly. Part of that sense is to always be connected and I’ll admit that this is where I’m bad. I’m working on trying to not check email and do all business within working hours to set the right expectations of the team, our clients, and my family. There is definitely a balance that needs to be struck, though, because I’ll never feel comfortable going completely dark on email or any type of communication. Picking and choosing when it’s appropriate to address work issues while I’m outside of work is what can be difficult. I’m sure everyone deals with this, not just project managers.

KS: You and I have both worked for larger agencies and smaller ones. Even as a senior member of a team, at a large agency, I felt completely divorced from process and never understood who was making decisions or why. What was your perspective? How does agency size affect process?

BH: Greatly. At a larger agency I was wrangling giant, ineffective teams who were not the “leads” of their disciplines. When the lead was involved, it was for a quick review or maybe a presentation. There was no cause for that person to get involved and want to change the way things were done. And I was in that same position as a project manager; no one really cared what I thought worked or didn’t work. It was about the bottom line, not the product or how we worked to make it. With a nimble group of 12, you can do so much more and give everyone a voice. That can get tough too, but I’d much rather have that problem!

KS: How do you feel about the title “project manager?” Other industries would call you a “producer.”

BH: Good question. A person who attended my SXSW core conversation asked me this question, but said “What’s the difference?” I didn’t have a response, really, because there isn’t a difference if you’re doing the same things I am doing. The titles we hold vary from agency to agency, and it just depends on the size of the agency and the clients you’re dealing with, I guess. To answer your question: I’m fine with my title, really. A title is a title. I’m a producer, account director, and even a therapist at times. At Happy Cog, project managers do a lot more than just manage projects; we manage client relationships, internal issues, calendars, and more. It’s definitely a juggling act.

KS: Do you know how to juggle?

BH: I am, and never was, a court jester or a hippie kid on your college campus with those devil’s sticks. I do juggle a lot of details, deadlines, notes, and personalities. That’s why I love what I do. There is some predictability in project work, but there are many, many factors that make every project unique. Plus, I work with a good crew of people who like to switch it up from time to time and try new things as well as new approaches to those things.

KS: Are you the PM of family vacations?

BH: No! I actually wrote a personal blog post about this. I like to let go and not do any planning when I’m on vacation. I strive to not wake up and think about work when I am on vacation (it happens anyway), so I try to let it all go. Believe it or not, Kevin, I am actually really laid back and have no problem not having plans. It’s just not a reality for me at work, or at home now that I have 2 daughters.

KS: What’s one thing a designer can do (or understand) to make your life easier?

BH: Just know that we’re here to help you. If we’re not doing that right, tell us. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard “I work with a PM and he/she sucks.” I think part of what makes designers and developers not have good relationships with project managers is that they don’t want to hear the tough stuff. It’s part of what we do, though. We tell people when they’re off track. We call them out when they’ve missed a deadline. We are forced to have so many difficult conversations on a day-to-day basis that we can come off as the people who control the process but don’t contribute to it. I never want the team to feel that way about me; I want them to know that while I must keep things on track, I want to do it on their terms as much as humanly possible. What I am saying is, I love you guys and I want to collaborate. Working with me, not against me, will make my life a LOT easier.

KS: What’s the biggest misconception about project managers?

BH: That we’re not creative. There has been this saying at Happy Cog that “good ideas can come from anyone on our team…even a project manager.” It’s funny (and maybe only slightly offensive to me), but true. If your company is doing it right, the PM is a part of the project from day one, listening to all conversations, opinions, and ideas coming from clients and the internal team. I think it’s best to involve us in the creative process, because there is a chance that we’ll share some info that you might not know (even if it is in our exhaustive meeting notes), or maybe we’ll even come up with a solution to a problem that you would not have thought of otherwise. I’m not saying that you should ever let a PM sit down and design anything, but be open to their ideas and critique. If the critique is out of left field, talk to them and tell them why.

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