How to master your project management

What are the newest challenges facing project management professionals? How are efficiency-minded PMs using technology? At Collabosphere, we convened a panel of inspiring, battle-tested PM pros to discuss an array of hot topics. Moderated by our very own Frank Nardi, the panel consisted of:

  • Melissa Gordon, Account Executive, Leopard
  • Shannon Leighton, VP, Director of Creative Operations, Leopard
  • Wendy Niebank, VP of Global Services PMO, PGi
  • Nada Saidi Smith, VP, Account Operations, Y&R Austin

Here are a few highlights from their discussion—or you can jump right into the full video at the bottom of this post.


Biggest project management challenges

Leopard’s Leighton quickly mentioned resource management as the primary challenge facing her agency, and she wasn’t alone; resource management came up repeatedly. Projects come in and are supposed to have quick turnarounds, but… well, you know how that goes. The ensuing juggling act poses a consistent challenge for PMs.

While three of the panelists came from the agency trenches, Niebank brought a different perspective. In her PM work with PGi, she’s dealing with longer-term projects—which in itself becomes an obstacle.

“One of the biggest challenges is keeping the team motivated through the kind of duration, especially on some projects,” she said. “You end up sprinting the whole way through.” To add to the challenge, no two projects are built alike. “I have some customers who are very budget-focused, I have others who are schedule-focused, and others who want their scope no matter what.” Her team has to be able to adapt its practices, then, to each project or customer.


Secrets of project management efficiency

Prior to implementing iMeet Central, Smith’s team at Y&R Austin had project management systems in place, but they didn’t have everything in one place. “Utilizing iMeet Central, we’re able to include the amount of hours that each resource has, it’s right there for them, so they can see what work they need to do and how many hours they have to do it,” she said. Centralized knowledge has been a critical driver of efficiency.

Leopard’s Gordon agreed. “I think what tools like iMeet Central do is give everybody accountability,” she said. “Each person is responsible for knowing when something is due, how long they have to do it, what the next step of the process is; they’re not shoving it back to the project manager and saying ‘OK, my part is done, check.'”

This all removes a little pressure from the PM. “If I’m not [in the office], I have faith that the team has what they need to keep projects going; everything doesn’t shut down when one person walks away,” Gordon said.


Rolling with the punches and/or last-minute changes

It’s bound to happen: you’re right on track for an on-time and relatively stress-free delivery and bam: changes from the client.

The panelists agreed that the key step is to ask the right questions when these situations arise—and to not necessarily assume that honoring the client’s request is a good idea. After asking questions related to scope and resource management, both Smith and Niebank suggested that you may find a different, more mutually beneficial path.

“We get a lot of last-minute requests… and if you ask a few more questions, you can figure out [whether] there’s another way to get it done,” said Smith.


Managing freelancers

For Leopard, sometimes a change in scope requires additional vendors or freelancers. Leighton credits iMeet Central for helping her manage those external teams; she has a special report built that shows what all of her team members have on their plates. “That’s priceless to me,” she said. “I live in that report.”

What’s more: Leopard insists that their freelancers live in iMeet Central, too. All freelancers are brought into the system and expected to keep up with the schedule and do all of their communication within the workspaces. No more rogue email chains! “[iMeet Central] is where the communication is happening,” Leighton explained. “It’s not happening in outside emails. We’ve got the one central place, and everybody knows that that’s where you should be able to go to get your information.”


Project management software

Prior to iMeet Central, Smith and her team were carrying out a number of tasks manually. If an ad needed to go through review, it would physically make the rounds from account manager to copywriter to art director, and so on through the different stakeholders who needed to sign off prior to delivery to the client. One of their first action items once they were on iMeet Central: getting “out of the Stone Age” and starting to route that process electronically.

“That was half my day, walking around and getting sign-offs,” said Leighton.

In addition to reducing the inefficiencies of manual approval processes, iMeet Central has also been improving individual efficiency. “I don’t have to search through emails to catch up on what’s been happening,” said Gordon. “I can just go to the tool, I go to our project page, and I can just scan quickly through the past few conversations.”

“If you all of a sudden have a project that’s been dead for a while and you need to bring in someone from the outside to pick it up, all you have to do is add them to that particular workspace and they have everything that they need right there,” said Smith.


Collaboration breakdowns

Even with the right processes in place, project management tools aren’t all puppies and rainbows.

“It’s a tool; it’s only as good as what goes into it,” said Leighton. “If somebody is not communicating correctly, either through the tool or in-person to the rest of their team, that’s the main place any kind of breakdown will happen.”

“I think when things break down, it’s because someone is not following the process,” Smith said.

For Niebank, who’s dealing with customers in a global environment, language can cause a few hiccups. One of the biggest immediate benefits she noticed after moving to iMeet Central was that project materials could be distributed to customers, and in a transparent and controlled fashion (e.g. there’s never any worry about someone accessing the wrong version of a document). When customers read these materials offline, Niebank saw an increase in how well the customers were understanding and connecting to what was discussed during their meetings or conference calls.


Reevaluation of processes

Nothing lasts forever, and the process that’s a life-saver today may be a time-killer next year. Or even sooner.

“As a project manager, you have to evaluate your own process each and every project,” said Leighton.

Y&R Austin has a process team that meets every other week. Someone from every department is invited to participate. She also makes it a point to involve the newest employees on the team. “There are a lot of old-timers who don’t want to change the process, but if someone new comes in and we can make a case for it, I think sometimes that’s the best way for change—to embrace the newer people and their ideas.”

“An account person is going to see things so much differently than a copywriter would, and vice versa,” Leighton said. “It’s important to include a representative crowd before you make changes.”

Of course, there’s also a risk of making arbitrary changes, or not giving a new process enough time to take hold. Niebank says she generally evaluates processes on a quarterly basis to avoid “analysis paralysis.”


Keeping your corners uncut

With your team staring at a long project road and a daunting task list, how can you keep everyone motivated and cheerful?

Start with smart planning and open communication.

“If you have a good schedule in place, I think people look at it as individual steps,” Smith said. “Even if it’s a really long, extended project, people follow the steps and do what they need to do.” Her agency also implemented a program called “You Earned It,” in which employees can award a certain allotment of points to colleagues for jobs well done; the points can then be cashed in for gift cards, bikes, cameras, or other prizes. “It’s been a huge help in getting us through projects and keeping morale high when it’s dipped.”

Be mindful with assignments, Leighton advised. Once you have a more comprehensive handle on your team’s workload, think about the next assignment; don’t throw someone from one grueling, 24-7 project into another if it’s avoidable.

“Some variety with what’s coming up next helps a lot,” she said.

When all else fails: muffins and tequila.

“There’s what I call ‘muffin motivation,'” Niebank said. “I do actually hand-bake goods and send them to people as a thank-you. It’s really about going that extra mile to go out of your way and say thank you, especially when they go above and beyond for you.”

“When we run into trouble is when we might be going round after round after round on something, and the creative team and sometimes the account team starts to feel a little beaten down,” Smith said. “I do agree that’s when the breakfast tacos and cookies and tequila and all of that good stuff comes in.”

And of course even the busiest project manager shouldn’t forget good old-fashioned manners.

“Just saying thank you goes a long way,” Gordon said.

Watch the full video from our “Master Your Project Management” session below!

Post by Adam McKibbin

Adam McKibbin is the content marketing manager for iMeet Central. His writing has been featured in Adweek, the Chicago Tribune and The Nation, and he’s produced content for some of the leading tech brands on the Fortune 500.