Strategy · March 2021

Project Management lessons from a spare bedroom

It's coming up to one year since I joined Significa and took on the role of Project Manager here. I started this exciting role in March 2020, a month that will forever be associated with when the world came to a halt.

Alec NortonProject Manager
Illustration by Fred Jesus
Illustration by Fred Jesus

I had 2 weeks in our beautiful Porto office, meeting colleagues and getting accustomed to the processes of Significa, Project Management and digesting all I could about interface design and development - it was great. I have since spent most of the last year in my spare room trying to figure the rest of it all out, (as well as having noticed 23 small marks on the wall behind this Macbook and extensively wondered where they may have come from...), I haven't figured it all out yet, but hopefully, I can share something of value here.

I am nowhere near being the perfect Project Manager but maybe this post can help you, maybe as a PM or even as a Designer or Developer working with a PM. I don't mean for this post to be a dive in to Project Management processes - honestly speaking I am not experienced enough to be able to add value upon what is already out there - but instead, I wanted to share the human elements of the role of which I have found myself rely on heavily throughout this past weird year.

Don't lose sleep. Deadlines are meaningless.

Sleep is important. Too many times I have failed to fall asleep, or have woken up in the middle of the night, anxious over an up-coming deadline. I found this very odd as I had never had an issue with disconnecting before. I worked it out that being the bridge between Client and Team and trying to keep that pressure off others had seeped into my subconscious, I took it on myself.

With the deepest respect to our Clients, past, present and future, I won't be doing that anymore - your project is not worth more than my health - sorry for that slap of selfish reality. I love my sleep, and you should too.

Why? Basically, deadlines just aren't that important... (stay calm, hear me out...)

"Hard deadlines are not real, they are designed to kick progress into gear. If people are making subsequent progress on what they are trying to accomplish, deadlines go away. Focus on what success looks like, as that is the over-riding goal anyway."

Chris Voss - The Art of Negotiation.

Albeit controversial and probably not something a Client wants to hear or read, the reality is that deadlines are created to convey pressure - normally based on cost control - but the world does not end if that deadline is not reached. Added to this, according to Andre Schweighofer, over half of software projects are delivered over budget and late. There are a few reasons for that, granted it sounds pretty negative, but under estimating due to optimism bias is at the heart of it.

Essentially, the final product itself is what matters, not the date it gets launched. Of course, we aim for it and we will give it our all to achieve that magical date, but it's not worth losing sleep over - focussing on what a successful project looks like and striving to make that happen, is more important.

An appreciated team is a productive team.

Sounds straightforward, and yeah, we have all heard that a million times, but in a high pressured, fast moving environment such as interface design and development, the benefit of pausing to appreciate a team member's effort, commitment, output and ultimately the outcome can go a long way to building team satisfaction.

It's not easy to deliver on someone's dream product. There can be disappointing feedback for designers, complex bugs for developers, and unexpected hitches along the way; there are a lot of hours and effort that goes in and it can sometimes take many more frustrating hours than expected to get the results the Client craves. That can affect confidence, naturally.

It sounds basic, but with pressure, people want answers and results fast.

There is already enough pressure on the team, which they are fully aware of, without the PM piling on top. Share positive feedback from Clients with the wider team, consider how best to approach constructive criticism with sensitivity, but always be open, honest and real.

Demanding a task status update every 2 hours is not going to help anyone get their job done... giving a shit about someone, just might.

Never be the smartest one in the room.

I am surrounded by some insanely talented people.

I am not capable of coding an app, and it's certainly fair to say I do not have a designer's eye either.

So when it comes to meetings, I have learned that sometimes the best answer is "I don't know. Let me get back to you on that." It may make you feel unintelligent, maybe embarrassed even. I initially felt I needed to know the answer to every question that was going to come my way, and well, that was exhausting, not efficient, and not smart.

The reality is, a genuine "I don't know" is something that people appreciate as honest, and when building a partnership with a client, honesty needs to be priority number one.

Answer questions before questions are asked.

(yes, you can say "I don't know" before the question is asked...)

Managing multiple projects at once is a challenge, but never leave a client waiting on you. If they have to come fishing for an update from you, it suggests you've left it too long and something is not going well - even if everything is. It can pretty quickly lead to a breakdown in trust.

It's important to remember your team is handling the Client's dream, from turning an idea into a reality - look after it - keep them updated, share your progress and give them answers to the questions you imagine they will be wanting to ask before they feel they have to.

These are some of my pick-ups over this last year, I hope that I'll be able to share more from beyond these marked walls in the near future. For more about our processes regarding Project Management, check out our handbook

Project ManagementPandemicLessons

Alec Norton

Project Manager @ Significa

Alec has a background in development - community development, not code. From small NGOs to large sporting corporations, he's worked to develop and deliver a variety of projects across the world from Cape Town to Shanghai. He's a Project Manager, but most importantly, the Significa Cook-off Champ 2020.