As a client-focused studio, we operate under many changing variables and have a lot of variety in our project portfolio. Tools and methodologies come and go, industries and challenges are diverse, but the one constant is that with any project you are working with people—people who are trying to do their best work. We recognize that there are some valuable frameworks and methodologies for managing a project, but even more importantly we believe in solid, people-focused project management.
Three Guiding Principles
Managing projects involves managing a changing environment—things rarely go as planned—and when faced with changes it’s important to remain focused on the principles that guide your work. These three principles can be summed up with the 3 C’s: Culture, Clarity, and Course Correction. Culture builds a strong foundation within the project team, Clarity builds on that culture to establish a shared vision for the project, and Course Correction ensures that the project continuously moves toward the defined vision.
Culture builds a strong foundation within the project team.
One of the most important things a project manager can do is create a people-first culture. As the Vice President at our company, Rob Harr, explains so well—projects fail because of the people things, not the technical things. A great project manager intentionally and proactively creates an environment of communication and trust.
We understand everyone has a story, we value every person we work with, and we treat every member of the team with dignity and respect. Project managers set the tone for the team. If you’re a project manager, you’re ultimately a culture carrier. You’re in a position to make sure all members of the team feel heard and every idea is welcome. If you facilitate meetings with this outlook, your intention will permeate to the rest of the team as well.
Another part of creating a culture of trust is a willingness to have hard conversations. Take time to address the pain points, because it’s as important to talk about what’s not working as it is to celebrate wins. This kind of conversation is important during retrospectives, which offer a structured opportunity for feedback. But it is just as important that project teams are encouraged to speak openly about challenges and move toward resolving them during regular meetings.
To build the right culture, ask yourself: Am I doing everything I can as a project manager to promote open dialogue and trust? How can I use my role to encourage mutual respect and transparency?
Clarity builds on that culture to establish a shared vision for the project.
Every time Sparkbox begins a new engagement or project, the entire team comes together to ensure that the objectives are carefully and clearly defined. That’s an important part of what we offer our clients. Project managers are uniquely positioned to push for maximum clarity with both internal teams and client teams, ensuring that all those involved have a shared vision for the project and are moving toward it. From the beginning, the project manager is key to verifying the client needs are understood and addressed, while also making sure there’s transparency with the process and how the team will accomplish the agreed upon tasks.
Project managers look for the best way to add value by working closely with the client to find the right solution. This is one of the reasons that having a collaborative culture is so important. A conversation about project scope and goals can be complicated, as there will be detailed questions to address and subtle objectives to uncover. You may find that if team members are holding back from giving each other honest feedback, you’ll end up with miscommunications that can cause problems later. Building on the culture of communication, trust, and mutual respect will allow you to have greater clarity and openness with your team.
To ensure clarity, ask yourself: What’s one thing I could do to make things more clear for my team? How can I make sure we are getting clarity from the client?
Course Correction ensures that the project continuously moves toward the defined vision.
Anyone who’s been on a software project knows that things don’t always go exactly as planned, no matter how clear the plan. Project managers often need to provide course correction by proactively identifying change in the expected flow of the project, assessing risks and benefits, and making sure that all those involved have the information they need to determine how to move forward. Project management involves managing people and processes. A great project manager strikes a balance between giving people the freedom they want and having helpful, flexible processes in place. Creating the right culture and having a focus on clarity allows the team to be able to respond quickly to change and course correct when needed.
Product roadmapping can be incredibly valuable when it comes to course correction. A product roadmap helps chart the course of a product’s evolution through its lifetime, showing you where you are and where you’re going. Project roadmaps incorporate the main components of a project and its objectives, but even more importantly, they offer strategies for change. A roadmap ensures that when a project evolves—as it inevitably will—all parties understand how to react. Having tools like roadmaps in place helps ensure that your team is on the right course. From there, you can identify roadblocks and course correct when needed.
To decide whether or not you need course correction, ask yourself: Is my project path currently aligned with the clear direction we defined? If not, what are the potential risks and benefits of making a change?
A Principled Approach to Project Management
When managing a project it’s important to take a step back and examine the project from the perspective of the 3 C’s: Am I promoting the right culture within my team? Does my team have clarity? Do I need to help my team course correct? Once you have all the C’s in place, you’ll be prepared and equipped for the challenge ahead of you.