Five Things Every Project Manager Should Do Well

Let’s say that all project managers fall somewhere along a spectrum. At one end, imagine a PM holding a clipboard and a red pen. Their head is down and they are completely focused on checking off a list of precise tasks that have been completed by others. At the opposite end of the spectrum, picture an individual jabbing thumbs at a phone screen in a manic chase to respond to every email related to their project. If you talked to her, you’d find that she feels limited by her PM role and tries to use its techniques and artifacts as a means to seize ownership of the project’s strategy and direction.

I have no use for either of these project managers.

As a user experience professional, I take full responsibility for my work and the processes required to get that work done. I can define the problem that design needs to solve, identify the skills required and the tasks involved, estimate the time it will take to accomplish those tasks and commit to a project schedule.

I’m very good at all of that, so what do I need from a project manager? Quite a bit, in fact. If you are a PM I need you to do these five things exceptionally well:

1. Own the RACI Matrix

Not all letters are created equal. It’s useful with any significant task to identify who is responsible (R) for getting the work done, who should be consulted (C) on key decisions and who only needs to be informed (I) on progress, but it is the “A” of the RACI matrix that matters most to me. Successful ownership of the matrix demands that there be just one person held accountable for results. While a good project manager will remain flexible as people shift within the other three roles, I need the PM to fight for a single A to be identified early and to stay committed to the role through the task’s completion.

In practice, the “A” might as well stand for “ass” because when a single person’s butt is on the line to deliver results, it empowers them to convert brilliant input from the team into decisive action.

Typically, too many people think they are the “A” and not enough are comfortable being an “I”. If the PM keeps the RACI matrix relevant and meaningful, it allows me to be successful in whichever of the four roles I’ve ended up with for that task.

2. Protect Expertise

We designers have always bitched about other flavors of professionals thinking they’re designers. Well to get done what we have to get done in the 21st century, we actually DO need to invite everybody to the party. More and more, we’re designing data experiences across multiple channels and that gets real complex real fast. The trick to successful collaborative design is protecting the expertise of all of the individuals involved in the process.

I need a PM who will help the team manage a sliding scale of expertise where every conversation is like playing on a playground seesaw. One side floats to the top position as the other descends, then the person in the bottom position floats up as their partner drops, again and again. If I’m talking about product strategy with a product owner, they should be the expert and I’m just a smart guy who (hopefully) says smart things worth considering. As the conversation shifts to design, I become the expert and what they have to say should be considered, but not treated as expert opinion.

This is a pretty simple mechanism when you can get enough people to play nice on the seesaw; a good PM can make that happen. 

3. Spark Arguments Early and Often

That might sound a little crazy with team morale so often one of the project manager’s big concerns, but respectful disagreements among people who know their stuff can be powerful, especially early in a project. And the lack of arguments when they’re needed can be toxic as hell. 

Years ago, I worked on a night copy desk at a daily print newspaper. Our managing editor ran the weekday news meetings. He’d go around a long wooden table, asking each section editor what stories they wanted to see on 1A. He’d nod his head, scratch at a yellow legal pad with his #2 pencil and ask a few lightweight questions. Then he’d reel off the list of more than 20 stories for a page that could fit five at most and go home to watch his kids’ soccer practices while we spent the rest of the night fighting the side effects of his non-confrontational management style.

Committing to the front-page stories at 5 PM would have been irresponsible, but knocking the list down to the six or seven stories with a real shot at making the cut would have allowed the night-side folks to concentrate on the news rather than the hurt feelings and machinations of day-side editors. In effective news meetings, editors have to defend the stories they pitch and anybody in the room with concerns voices them. Issues are hashed out transparently and professionally.

A project manager who steers the team away from healthy conflict only delays the problems that will spring up later in the project when there are fewer options available to address them.

4. Solve Problems with Process and Structure

I think project management doesn’t get enough credit for being a creative discipline. Instead of designing pixels, the best PMs design with tactics, processes and structure. Some I’ve worked with liked to create things that didn’t exist before - custom solutions designed specifically for the situation at hand. Others, frequently more experienced managers, took a toolbox approach, assessing the need and then applying familiar techniques they’d used before.

The whole team should take responsibility for defining a problem, but I expect the PM to then step up with brilliant solutions pulled from their individual areas of expertise.

5. Name the Demon

In the fairy tale Rumpelstiltskin, a princess saves her baby by revealing the secret name of the evil creature who spins straw into gold. As soon as the princess says his name aloud, Rumpelstiltskin disappears, never to be heard from again. The Brothers Grimm published that story in 1812, but it came from the legend of Saint Olaf, first told more than a thousand years before.

People shy away from admitting weakness or failure, but if you say the name of a project’s demon out loud, no matter what it is, it loses much of its power. A project manager is well-positioned to figure out what has gone wrong, but their greater value is to support an environment where anyone can call Rumpelstiltskin.

Next week, the last in the series: Five Things Every Product Owner Should Do Well