Marketing, web design, and other creative projects are always fun to be involved in. They throw up some tough challenges, but they also allow your mind to roam free and explore the far reaches of your imagination to meet your creative targets.
But how do you achieve project management success in your creative projects? After all, project management, especially within the IT and creative industries is not without its challenges:
- 45% of projects run over budget
- almost 10% run over the planned time
- and up to 56% deliver less value than expected...
The trick to project management success is to set clear, attainable (and SMART) goals but also to plan for change, which is one of the top factors in project failure.
Change is the problem
Change is life; it's evolution. It's an inevitability. However, in our industry of web things, design mediums, and marketing plans, change is often viewed as a bad thing, a harbinger of doom. In fact I'd go far as to say that some companies would even proclaim that 'change is not possible', but this would be ignoring a base part of daily life.
It's easy to see why businesses fear change so much when almost 40% of projects attribute their failure to a change in project requirements.
A common approach
Most projects in a digital agency environment - web design, social media, marketing or similar - follow a four-phase cycle of discussion, design, development, and deployment.
These roughly translate in the following ways:
- Discussion / discovery - this is initial research or meetings that take place to define the client's needs and scope of the project - what needs to be done and who's doing what;
- Design / planning - this can mean anything from project architecture, to UX / UI planning, to - more commonly - actual graphical designs of some sort, a website for example;
- Development - often the nuts and bolts of the project, whether it's building a website or working on a blog writing campaign;
- Deploy / maintain - this covers the launch of the project and any post-launch support or ongoing work
Now, this is all good and well, and indeed seems like a sensible, logical approach to taking a brief and fulfilling it. However it still has all the trappings of potential failure and headaches built in as it often doesn't account for or deal with change.
Change: the eternal shape-shifter
Change comes in many forms:
- it could be unforeseen technological constraints that rear their head, forcing a rethink of your development strategy;
- it could be a fantastic bit of design, or UI that just doesn't seem to work in practice;
- or more likely it will be the client deciding that they don't want a particular feature, or would like to change a colour scheme, or something along those lines.
The reason that client requests feel like spanners in the works is that we often simply haven't accounted for them, or more specifically, we haven't collaborated effectively enough with our clients to prevent these apparent blind-sides hitting us out of the blue.
During the discussion phase there is a tendency to have scoping meetings and workshops and really try to nail the client requirements and coax problems to the surface to which we can sculpt and apply our digital marketing solutions.
I've sat in countless long workshops and meetings, but always left with a niggling feeling that although we've got a good understanding how the client's business works and took some of the fuzz off what they're after, we could have spent a large part of this time actually producing something to show the client and adapt it based on their feedback.
So what happens?
The big problem with creative projects is what I'm going to call the 'Stars In Their Eyes' effect. You get some requirements, build all the things, and then whip open the metaphorical glitzy curtain to reveal 'ta da', your brand new website / marketing plan / social media campaign, etc.
That works great for television where you've got the sudden impact of straight-laced Dave from Chester suddenly leaping on stage as wild man Axl Rose, but when it comes to something that's been in the works for weeks, or months, a client has time to build up a very different picture of how, for example, their website will look and function, not to mention how, over the course time, their needs or desires have changed.
This is bound to happen more often than not, no matter how meticulously you document things, or provide project deliverable documents to outline your obligations.
A better way
So what's the alternative?
Well, it's unquestionably difficult to remain 100% fluid, even in a non-physical medium such as web development or digital marketing, but here is the simple rule:
"Get clients involved early, often, and as thoroughly as you can."
When designing a website, for example, set up a preview site right from the get go and make sure you publish regular updates to it.
It doesn't have to be anything crazy like hourly, or even daily, but somewhere between every 1-2 weeks, depending on the project size will be good.
The sooner a client can see and feel (relatively speaking) what they're paying for, the sooner you can get their feedback and bring their ideas on board, or tackle any amends head on when it's easier to implement the changes.
It sounds so obvious when you write it down and say it back to yourself, but it's a really uncommon practice to show our clients what's going on, as it's going on and get their vital buy-in and early feedback in the incubation stages.
It's not all roses
Of course, you could run into the scenario where you have something in production that isn't quite ready, thus inviting a wealth of unnecessary feedback about something not working, or 'why is x like y?'.
Fortunately this too can be mitigated by simply communicating the situation and any 'gotchas' to your clients early.
Sure enough, some clients will run away from your request for them to be more involved. After all, they're paying you for a service, why can't they just leave you to get on with it?
Well, these are the very types of client that you will need to work even harder to convince as they are also sometimes the most difficult when it comes to pleasing. If you can convince them, then you'll be saving them, and yourself lots of headaches down the line.
That's great for this type of project, but what about that type?
At this point. you might be asking yourself, 'well, that's all good and well for marketing, or website development, but what about my non-creative project?".
Well, simply remember the mantra:
"Get the client involved early, often, and as thoroughly as you can"
This mantra still applies and it should work for just about any type of project. Here are a few pointers to remember about communication with your clients:
- Commit to an initial plan that mixes some 'must-haves' (these might be legal requirements), with potentially changeable 'would-likes'.
- Deliver a minimal viable product or solution as soon as possible to get early feedback from clients
- Set a maintainable schedule of regular contact points that work for your business and your client to allow them to give you any feedback and to discuss the direction that the project is moving in
- Make it easy for your clients to provide feedback to you via collaborative tools such as Marqueed
Cutting through the white noise
In case we haven't stressed it enough, the linchpin of project management success is early and regular communication between client and company.
However, all of this is for nothing if your communication system isn't up to snuff; a high number of companies we come across still use emails as their communication tool of choice.
Unfortunately though, when something is as vital as simple communication, leaving the job to a system like email is like wearing paper swimming shorts to a pool party.
It's powerful, especially with the latest breeds of Outlook and applications such as GMail, but only in small doses and in certain forums. Once you start to send a lot of messages back and forth between any number of stakeholders, internal or external, it's easy to lose yourself in the digital noise, no matter how many labels, folders or filters you throw at the problem.
Enter the tools
We're in a wonderful age of web app development where there is almost certainly a great tool to solve whatever problem you have. At Red Guerrilla, we use online apps like Slack and Asana (which we talk about in more detail here) to help keep track of important topics and projects.
Slack allows hugely searchable message threads which can store documents and track conversations and it really helps to know that you don't have multiple email threads buried who knows where across a countless amount of difficult-to-track folders.
Asana on the other hand offers assignable project management to-do lists, which sounds simple, but again, allows us to create project-specific, traceable goals with progress reports and regular updates to see where various invested parties are at each stage of the project lifecycle.
The best part of these specific tools is that clients can be invited to use or view selected parts, thus giving them another avenue to keep an eye on their project's progress and help cut down on unknowns later down the line.
Of course there are plenty of other options out there, but these work for us and cut down on potentially lost information that existing platforms, such as email, can create.
Keep things simple and you'll be on track for project management success in your next marketing or web design project
Whatever we do and however we choose to work, we just have to remember to keep things as simple and straightforward as possible for our clients and keep them on the same page.
This is how we can keep our projects on track, keep the unexpected curve-balls nice and linear, and ultimately keep those valuable, loveable clients as happy and in the loop as we can.