Perfect your project management skills

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Project management, in any form, can be a bit daunting, especially if it's not part of your daily responsibilities. When it comes to designing and building websites, formal project management might seem like a luxury you and your team can't afford.

However, while you can complete a website without a dedicated project manager, you do need project management. Taking the time to master some very simple techniques and then using them in your projects can make your life, as well as the lives of your co-workers and clients, much easier.

It's not as hard as you might think; just about anyone can manage projects. All it takes is a bit of effort and a willingness to work. In this article, we're going to talk about some common problems that cause website projects to get bogged down and, in the worst cases, grind to a halt.

We'll be revealing the secrets of running a successful project plus the basics of project management, as well as going into a bit of detail about what makes a good project manager and the skills you'll require to ensure success, regardless of your role.

We'll be focusing on the website design and development process, talking about where project management fits in and how it can benefit everyone involved. I'll look at issues like resolving conflict and managing people who have different work styles.

Why you need it

What makes a project go awry? Common reasons include communication issues, poorly defined roles and responsibilities, distributed teams and the dreaded scope creep.

For example, most issues you have getting older versions of Internet Explorer to play nicely with your design aren't something project management is going to help you with.

However, if your developer is frustrated because they never knew they were going to have to support those older versions of IE and now has a week to do something that might take two, that's something that good project management could have helped you avoid.

I'd estimate about 90 per cent of good project management comes down to communication. This means there's no silver bullet, magical software, productivity method or process that will solve all your project management woes.

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No, instead you're going to have to rely on people. And not just any people. You'll need to rely on everyone on your team, from your stakeholders and clients to the creative and development teams.

Don't confuse project management with project manager. Sure, it's best to have someone dedicated to the role, but good project management is not any one person's responsibility.

That's one of the major problems and misconceptions. If you put the sole responsibility for a project on one individual, you're bound to run into problems. Having said that, every project, except perhaps the very smallest, can benefit from having a dedicated project manager.

It can be beneficial to have someone who has core skills that lie elsewhere. A designer, for example, can be a great project manager on design-focused projects. They'll have a strong understanding of the actual work involved, which can be very helpful.

Project management, ideally led by a dedicated, hard working project manager, is there to help solve problems – whatever they may be. This is done, as we've said, mostly by managing communication between team members, but it's also done by adding structure and organisation around the process involved with creating a website. Let's take a look at that process.

The process

There are many ways you can build a website and a solid understanding of the website design and development process can help put the role of a project manager in its proper context. I'm going to outline the basic process we use at Blue Flavor, but there are many other ways to do things that are just as valid.

It's important to note that we adjust our process according to each individual project. What follows will be a simple and generic framework that I'll use to outline where a project manager can step in to help mitigate potential problems. In brief, our process goes like this:

1. Discovery

We set goals, roles and expectations. We gather information and assets, create schedules and plan meetings. We outline opportunities and come up with a solid plan for executing ideas. The project manager's role is very important during discovery. They'll be expected to organise and communicate the overall plan and be 100 per cent sure everyone knows that plan and their role within it.

2. Design

This usually starts with brainstorming and setting some structure around what is actually going to be built. We define any processes, interactions, layouts and so on and flesh them out in an iterative manner.

The design process is much more cyclical and repetitive than the rest of the phases and is insular in some ways. Here, a project manager's job is to make sure designers keep in contact with the rest of the team and call out any issues that may arise.

3. Development

This phase, while still a little insular, is much more linear than the design phase. If things have been done right, the developers will have a pretty clear idea of what needs to be done and should be able to move forward without much involvement (distraction) from the rest of the team.

A project manager's main function here is to make sure the development team has everything it needs to execute and work as an intermediary between them and everyone else.

4. Testing and quality assurance

This is generally pretty straightforward. We test our sites and make sure we've done everything we agreed to do. Here, the project manager is responsible for making sure that the last five per cent of the project has been completed and that we've done all that the client has expected of us.

The project manager is also there to make sure any hand-off between the design and development teams and the stakeholders goes smoothly.

That's a brief rundown of a typical project's process, with some insight into where a project manager fits in. In addition to those things we've outlined here, it's vastly important to have a project manager that sees the big picture and has an eye for the project as a whole as it progresses.

One area where good project management can be a huge help is with hand-offs from phase to phase. For example, the hand-off between the design phase and the development phase is often tricky. As with many other problems that crop up over the course of a project, the problems that arise here are generally related to communication.

Designers and developers very often think and work differently and a good project manager can help facilitate these hand-offs, so that everyone is given the best opportunity to succeed.

I'll cover that more later on. Now that we've got a handle on the basic process, let's get into some specifics of what makes a good project manager.