11 Things Project Managers Can Do To Make A Large-Scale Project A Success
In almost everything in life, communication is king. When it comes to agency/client projects and relationships, that communication takes the form of the Project Manager. They’re the glue that keeps the project together, the one focal point that connects the dots between everyone involved, and the person who can translate internal tech talk to client-friendly language. In short, project managers are key to the success of each and every project.
However, when that project becomes a mega project, this role takes on even more importance. We experienced this recently on our work with a recent high-profile client. Our team embarked on a journey with them that was so multi-faceted and in depth, that our PM discipline was really put to the test. We did some great things and learned some lessons from mistakes. We’ve taken those learnings forward with us to the next project. We also wanted to share the project management tips that we learned here so you (and your PMs) can set yourself up for success on your next large scale project.
1) DON’T CUT PM CORNERS TO CUT “STICKER PRICE” SHOCK
When it comes to large scale projects, it’s only natural that your sales team or client may be tempted to cut process corners, reduce timelines, or take away buffers to make large budgets or long schedules easier to stomach. However, for projects like these that typically involve multi-vendor and multi-team deliverables, it’s more important than ever to stick rigorously to established processes and set your goal posts firmly. You can always deliver early or under budget if you don’t use your buffer, but if you cut that out up front you’re risking all of your dependencies falling apart as soon as any delay or change order comes around. Under promising and over delivering will never be criticized!
2) CREATE IRONCLAD SOWS
Think of the Scope of Work (your SOW) as your project Bible. Not only will this document help align client and agency expectations upfront (and squash any crossed wires before the rubber meets the road), it will also give you a place to nail down functionality expectations, tech stacks, template counts, and who is responsible for what. Another insider tip? Try to include the schedule in the SOW if possible, as well as what happens if the client is late on delivering their fully tested APIs. These small adjustments can make a huge impact further down the road if (we should probably say “when”) something doesn’t go quite to plan.
3) IDENTIFY THE PROJECTS WITHIN THE PROJECTS
Once you’ve got the green light to kick off the “project”, it’s time to break it down into smaller, bite sized chunks. Large, complicated projects will always look daunting at first. Breaking them down into manageable sections will help get the planning process in motion. It’s the same theory you might use to overcome overwhelm in any aspect of your life, but always keep in mind that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and that while you create these “manageable chunks” they are all still connected and will overlap.
4) TAKE TIME MAPPING DEPENDENCIES
This point is a natural progression from number three. On projects where there are so many systems talking to one another, it is important to understand how it all connects. More importantly, it is crucial to understand the interdependencies. This often requires collaboration across teams, endless questions, and multiple rounds before getting right. Only by spending the time up front can a PM properly sequence the workstreams and minimize surprises down the road.
5) START API PLANNING IMMEDIATELY
If your project includes APIs and you think you can start these after design, think again. In our experience, API planning needs to start immediately after project kick off. Why? Because your client may need to build APIs from scratch to serve up data as well as informing development on how they work so they can build them into the front end. We recommend making an API plan and schedule at the very beginning, because they can become the very backbone of the tech side of the site.
6) CONSIDER WORKING IN PARALLEL SPRINTS
With this particular project, we chunked everything into sprints, with 25% of templates in each sprint. It kind of turned into running four projects at the same time. Think of it as a relay race, but everyone is running at the same time! Two designers were working on sprint one templates at the same time as two other designers were working on sprint two. Each sprint had a deadline for approval and full delivery of all breakpoints and tech/functional specs so that they could be started on-time for development (which also happened to be running with separate teams.) The benefit of this? You get to condense your project timeline by increasing the size of your team.
7) STICK TO PROCESS
While sticking to process on projects of any scale is important, if something needs to be adjusted on the fly on a smaller project, it won’t impact the entire scope, simply because there are fewer dependencies. However, imagine moving five teams’ schedules around to adjust for a missed deadline (versus one or two teams) and you can start to see the compound effect this will have on everyone and every step of the project. That’s why sticking to process on large scale projects isn’t just a nice-to-have, it’s critical to the entire project’s success. While you’re at it, make sure you guard timelines and budget buffers with equal strength, because they are also contenders for derailing the best laid plans…
8) (OVER) COMMUNICATE WITH ALL TEAMS INVOLVED
Actually, that one’s a slightly misleading header, because we don’t think there is such a thing as over-communicating on large scale projects. Communication is the oil that keeps the wheels turning smoothly. We say, over-communicate with all teams involved, all the time. While you’re at it, make sure you have optimal cross-team communication. Keep channels of communication open between designers and developers during the UX and UI process for feasibility checks and scope awareness. This extra effort will pay itself forward tenfold.
9) DELIVER WEEKLY PROJECT STATUS REPORTS
While this may be something you already have in your project management arsenal, it takes on a new level of importance on mega projects. Plan on delivering a project status report with a risk register and change request log weekly. Risks are inevitable, and raising them early and repeatedly to everyone will help to avoid them becoming a problem.
10) DEPLOY A TRUSTWORTHY TRACKING SYSTEM
With a project of this scale, it’s really important to keep track of your teams, tasks, and time. After some research, we found the best tool for the job to be ClickUp. We were able to use ClickUp to chunk our scopes into quarter project sprints and within those sprints, we broke down specific tasks, subtasks, and subtasks of subtasks. This is necessary because often, you’ll find that there are a series of checklist items that lead up to completing a single line task. Not only was this useful in making sure every ‘t’ was crossed and each ‘i’ dotted, but we were able to keep within the hours allotted for each piece, making sure that scope and budget were always met, and that each person involved was well informed with the project as a whole, and the project at each minute detail. While there are other tools out there, we’d recommend checking this one out.
11) STAY ON TOP OF YOUR CREATIVE TEAM
And last, but by no means certainly not least, let’s just remind ourselves that we PMs are responsible for sailing the “stay on track” ship. That means we need to keep a check on our creative teams within the realm of the project scope too. The best Creative Directors will always be looking at inspired ways to make a project the best it can be, but it’s important that you keep guardrails up once the SOW has been signed. In other words, don’t let your Creative Director push you out of scope without a change order!
With all this said, project management, like everything else, is always an evolving discipline over here. We learn from every project and take those learnings into the next one. And while we need to make sure the above project management tips are well taken care of, we also need to make sure we take care of the people involved. Don’t forget that large scale projects can be stressful. So take care of your people, protecting them against scope creep, unnecessary meetings and arbitrary deadlines. Know when to push and when to pull back. And take care of yourself! This is going to be a long journey and one in which you will sometimes feel like all of the pressure is on you. In some ways it is. But remember… it’s just a job. Try your best, understand you can’t possibly control everything, and don’t let the pressure get to you.