On today’s episode, Carrie interviews Diane Kinney from the Versatility Group about project management. Diane has 20 years of experience as a small business owner and many years as a C-level exec. Diane has helped small business owners and freelancers get a handle on the business end of their businesses. When you start as a specialist – developer, designer, writer – the challenge is to learn “the other stuff” from project management, client management and organizing your time to balance all the work in your day-to-day activities.
What you will learn in this episode:
- A project is defined as work that has a specific beginning and an end.
- Do not get wrapped up in the terminology of project management terms
- Typically your project will follow a task by task approach.
- The actual date of a project start is when the client has signed the contract.
- You need to allow for time for learning something new on a project that is unfamiliar to you.
Important Steps of a Project:
- Project Management is a set of skills, processes, and communication.
- Planning – the scale of the project can impact the work that needs to be complete.
- Scope – it is important to define what is in and what will be out (not delivered) in the scope of your project.
- Time – this does not have to be exact. It should be defined as the amount of time to work with all the resources that are available.
- Dependencies – things needed to be received before work can continue. (ex: approvals from client to continue work on a logo or receiving content from the client).
- Items that are out of scope – do not get carried away adding cool features that you or the client come up with.
- Communication – It is important to have regular updates with the stakeholder of where things stand. You do not want to be “heads down” doing the work without regularly updating the client.
- You need to master and define actionable items and tasks in your project.
- Track the time of everything that may not be in scope to know where your time is going.
Tips for Freelancers:
- You wear many hats as a freelancer. Be aware of the hat you’re wearing when you’re planning a project.
- It is important to master and define actionable items and tasks in a project.
- When you have that “PM hat” on you need to realize that project management increases in complexity and depth with a larger project and a larger team.
- If you do not drill down the tasks of a project adequately you can’t create dependencies between them and schedule them correctly.
- Remember that your client has another full-time focus other than your project.
- Make efficient use of your time by having “filler” work you can do as you are waiting on the client or stakeholder to get back to you.
About Diane Kinney
Diane Kinney is the Founder of The Versatility Group, a boutique professional services firm. Over the last twenty years, she’s used her extensive business and technology experience to help clients achieve meaningful results with digital projects.
She’s worked with publicly traded companies and enterprise clients to craft smart solutions and deliver multi-million dollar projects on time and budget. She specializes in marketing and growth strategy, workflow optimization and creating operational efficiencies.
Diane Kinney is widely known in the WordPress community and has built her reputation on sharing her experience with small business owners on freelancing and project management. Diane and Carrie are currently working on a new book that will be released this year titled Real World Freelancing.
Carrie: Hey Diane, it’s so great to have you back on the show. How are you doing today?
Diane: I’m great Carrie, how are you?
Carrie: I’m well, thank you. I sourced you out of all the people in the world that know about project management you happen to be my favorite.
Diane: Well thank you.
Carrie: I know, right? Favorite project managers. Actually one of the things I love about you is that you’re able to take … I don’t know, you’re just down to earth in the way [00:00:30] that you describe things and know … Just cut to the chase. Today, what I would really love for you to be able to share with my listeners what your approach to project management is, and how they can take that back into their own agency. Let’s start, maybe, but just sharing what is project management?
Diane: I think it’s really important to talk about this because [00:01:00] the definition, I think, that most people use has become so broad as to not be that helpful. Classic project management has a specific outcome. It has a point that it starts, it has a point that it ends. You have a defined scope that you’re trying to accomplish and you have defined resources for that project. Sometimes you hear [00:01:30] people talk about agile versus waterfall, which are development methodologies. That is not super relevant for this discussion. Whether you’re working in sprints, which is an agile methodology, or you’re working in a waterfall method, which is a task followed by a defined task, by a defined task. [00:02:00] The things we’re going to talk about today are going to hopefully apply to both of those.
Again, the concept that we have here is a project that has a beginning and an end. These aren’t the day to day things you do to run your business, this isn’t your accounting or marketing or things like that that are ongoing. These are your projects, whether it’s new branding for a client, a website [00:02:30] build, producing a catalog. It’s got a start date and an end date, and maybe some milestones along the way.
Carrie: I love that. Okay, and you mentioned some other tasks that are not necessarily under the umbrella of project management. Where does project management … Where is that start date? Let’s say I’ve got a client, we’ve got a contract signed, we’re ready to roll. Is that where a project manager would step in?
Diane: [00:03:00] Yes, although a lot of times you can benefit from having a project manager in the conversation earlier. Because project management is really closely tied to scope, estimate, and communication. The better understanding the project manager has of the expectations, the client, the project manager can sometimes provide some realistic input into [00:03:30] scope. Also if you’re committing to dates with a client, “Such and such project is going to be done on such and such day,” your life will be a little bit easier if you’ve thought through the project management aspect of that, whether it’s you that’s project managing or whether somebody else is. You can’t really go wrong by having your project [00:04:00] management hat on, or having a PM involved in the … I guess I would call it the sales process.
Carrie: Okay. I’m glad that you said either your project management hat or an actual project manager because for those of us that freelance we’re wearing that hat along with all of the other hats. I guess just to clarify, the things that we’re going to be talking about have application whether you’re in that freelancer role, whether you have a small [00:04:30] team, or whether you’re in a larger agency environment. Is that fair?
Diane: Definitely. Project management increases in complexity and depth as the size of the team and the size of the project increases. The fundamental concepts that we’re going to talk about are universal. It’s really important, I think too, in smaller situations, [00:05:00] as wearers of many hats, it’s important to know which hat you have on at a given time. If you’re being the salesperson, if you’re doing scope or strategy, or you’re doing project management make sure you’re clear with yourself which one you’re doing so you don’t trip yourself up. Sometimes the project management role is that dose of reality. [00:05:30] We’re all inclined to say that we can make miracles happen, and we want to delight our clients, and we want to say yes. Project managers, when you take an objective look at what’s really going to happen, and you start to look at things like contingencies, and reality. It’s just really important to … What lens [00:06:00] are you looking through?
Carrie: I love that, the reality lens is always … It’s true. When you get, as a developer going down the road trying to solve a problem and I guess you can do this in any role but particularly in a developer role, you can rabbit hole yourself down into trying to figure out the nuance of how something works, and “Oh, let me just try one more thing.” If you throw on your project management hat, that’s like the hammer [00:06:30] of justice.
Diane: It is.
Carrie: I need this solution and I need it by end of day.
Diane: It’s such a key thing to be able to do because, especially when you fulfill multiple roles … When you take a step back and you look at what you’re doing, and you’re five hours down the path of, like, “Well we could make this even cooler if we just did this.” [00:07:00] It’s like, “Well, wait a minute.” There’s specific ways to handle that. Maybe that is something you want to do, but you want to be aware of the fact that that’s out of scope, or it’s something that … Maybe it’s not even a scope change because it was your idea, but you need to box it off. Maybe you need to get out of that rabbit hole and come back to it later if there’s time. [00:07:30] Those kind of thoughts are project manager thoughts.
Carrie: Okay. Those are the reality thoughts, I like that.
Carrie: I need a pocket Diane, on my shoulder when I’m … Needing that dose of reality.
Diane: Yeah, sometimes Diane needs a pocket Diane. We all go there.
Carrie: Let’s get into talking about some of the strategies that you’re using to [00:08:00] do that planning piece, to do the assignment of resources. Would you walk us through that?
Diane: Absolutely. Again, depending on scale there are some nuances to project management. At its root, at the heart, project management is not a tool. That’s one of the most common misconceptions I think people fall into is, [00:08:30] “I need some project management in my life. What tools should I use?” Instead, it’s a set of skills and processes, and it has a huge focus on communication. One thing I really can’t emphasize enough is if you have a client, and it doesn’t matter who that client is, it could be another developer that you’re working for, it could [00:09:00] be business, but you have a client somewhere if you’re doing a project. It could even be an internal stakeholder in a company.
You are largely responsible for communication. Even if that communication is delivered in the form of a status report, a standup, an update, there’s some process here where [00:09:30] you, at regular intervals during the project, need to update someone where things stand. This is probably the single biggest reason projects derail is people tend to get very heads down and very focused at making progress, which is awesome, but if you don’t communicate that progress to anyone it’s as if it’s not happening. It’s that tree falls in the forest type of thing. Great, you’ve produced [00:10:00] a ton of work, nobody knows about it, nobody knows where the project stands. Just assume, through all the things we’re going to talk about, that there’s regular threads of communication happening.
Carrie: Quick question there on that. Where does … I don’t know if you would call those milestones or not, but are you calendaring those at the beginning of a project or is it just sort of a mental reminder to, “Okay, we need status reports”?
Diane: I would make it [00:10:30] more than a mental reminder. Depending on the type of project and the client expectations that you’ve set and what type of thing you’re doing, those actual communication points should be part of the project plan. When you sit down to build your project plan formally or informally [00:11:00] you’re either saying something like, “Are you giving weekly status updates?” Maybe those are just two other team members upstream from you, and they’re handling client communication. Are you handling client communication? Is there any kind of provision? I’m defaulting to weekly, [00:11:30] but that’s not necessarily going to make sense for every project.
I think of projects as everything from, let’s say you’re doing a branding project, logo development. It’s very defined, there are two revisions. That’s probably not a 12 week effort with weekly communication. That might just span the course of two weeks if you’ve got to weld the fine process, and you update the client [00:12:00] twice about where you are. If you’re doing a three month or a six month project that’s going to look entirely different. Sometimes weekly might not be enough. If it’s a more complex project there may need to be some sharing of communication every day, like a standup, or a couple times a week. That’s one of the things that you need to define [00:12:30] based on the team, the project, and the client expectations and build it into your plan.
Carrie: Awesome. Thank you for that. Let’s talk about some of the elements or components of project management. What all goes into it?
Diane: At the most fundamental level we’re talking about scope, which is huge. What is this project? What does it include? [00:13:00] We’re talking about that at a broken down level. A good scope is not, “Let’s build a website.” It’s all of the detailed elements that that’s comprised of. Those elements, when they’re broken down into scope, actually become the basic of your project plan. If you think about the good elements of scope, building pieces, doing things, [00:13:30] putting things here or delivering this there. In a scope of work they exist in a little bit of a vacuum. They don’t have timeline dates, or dependencies, or durations. Your job, when you’re project managing, is to take that scope and start giving them those elements.
The second element of project management is time. Time [00:14:00] is not so much about exactly how many … Is this going to take two hours and 45 minutes? It’s the concept of time as it works across multiple resources as the amount of time that you have available to work. Maybe your developer isn’t available until such and such a date, what’s [00:14:30] that going to do to look at the project? Another element that you need to manage is cost. Cost [inaudible 00:14:37] is tied to time and scope. Dependency could be a lot of things. Dependency can be people, people that you need to do work. Dependency could be approvals from clients, it could be review, it could be content. [00:15:00] Dependency is probably one of the single biggest issues you need to look at when you’re building a project plan because it’s where time tends to be absorbed.
For example, let’s say you build a nice little plan that says you are going to deliver concepts on Wednesday of next week for your client to approve, and then in your mind they’re going to look at those on Thursday, and you’re going to have their approval [00:15:30] on Friday. Well how realistic is that? Not very. Building in those variances, where time tends to not be under your direct control, is really important.
Workload and resources, there’s overlap with these, but let’s talk about you’re the wearer of many hats, right? If you’re doing work yourself [00:16:00] during the course of a week, sometimes you’re a project manager, maybe you’re a writer, maybe you’re a builder or an implementer. Exactly how much time across those different disciplines do you have available to devote to each task? People tend to think in terms of a 40 hour work week or 40 hours of availability. [00:16:30] That’s not terribly realistic. Most people don’t have more than, say, 20 on task hours in a week. You need to look at those types of things. Then, of course, communication ties through all of this.
Carrie: Okay, so you’re managing a lot of different things in there. I heard you mention scope, your cost, your dependencies, which I love that. Because let’s say that that client, [00:17:00] in order to proceed with doing your mock ups you need approval on, say, a logo. If you’re depending on their approval that can hold you up from moving on.
Diane: Right. Sometimes those approvals in the real world take weeks and weeks. Sometimes changes come back that are changes to scope. [00:17:30] There’s a fluidity here that is the core job of the project manager to deal with.
Carrie: I think this is such a point of frustration for I’m going to say freelancers, because that’s what I’m most familiar with, but maybe people at other levels too. I have, in my mind, that this particular project is a four week effort. [00:18:00] That’s how much of my time is required. Then you’ve got to factor in like what’s the typical client response time, if I don’t hear from them in x amount of time can I just move on and assume that is an approval? Of course you would have to have that actually written into your contract or something. I like that you said fluid, because it is a back and forth and without a doubt something is going to come back that’s out of scope. [00:18:30] That’s okay, that’s an opportunity to add to the project, perhaps.
Diane: Absolutely. Where it gets complex, and, I think, frustrating for people, and myself included, you sit down in a very cerebral mode and you plot things out, and you think, “This is going to take six weeks.” The reality is that it’s going to take six months. [00:19:00] You have a hard time getting your brain wrapped around that gap, from six weeks to six months. “Okay, this is all neat and tidy and I think it’s going to take this amount of time,” and in reality you know from a combination of experience and advice and other things that it’s probably a lot more like this period of time.
The other thing that I think is very challenging for people is [00:19:30] you are almost always have multiple projects going on. The smaller size projects that you focus on the more of them there are going to be. Maybe you do different things in your business, like maybe you do projects where you’re developing them start to finish, you have those. Maybe you also have subcontract dev work for someone else. All of those things are fluid, so now [00:20:00] how do you start to keep all of those different elements moving and on track and keeping everybody happy and well informed? That’s the art of project management. It’s a little bit more art than science. There’s juggling and there’s flexibility and there’s some element of experience where once you’ve [00:20:30] set out a theoretical project, and then had a real result, and you can look at that and say, “Oh, okay.”
Carrie: Yeah, or maybe it actually is only four weeks of effort, but that four weeks spans four months by the time you add in all those other things.
Diane: Absolutely. Driven in part by all these things we’re touching on a little bit. For example, how many productive hours do you actually work [00:21:00] per week? It’s less than you think. That’s a challenge. Then you have the issue of scope. Your project plan is really only as good as the scope and estimate. What I’ve seen, what I’ve learned personally and seen a lot of other people go through, is there are a lot of times unidentified tasks [00:21:30] and unidentified chunks of time in projects. You have a theory, and then you spend five hours looking for a stock image that’s going to work.
Carrie: I’ve never done that.
Diane: For the … No, me either. For the hero because it has to be just right and, well, you certainly didn’t plan on that five hours. [00:22:00] Or, this is one that got me very early years ago, and it was the first eCommerce project that I ever did, I’m going to guess like 15 years ago. Good Lord. Photos, and descriptions, and all the photos need to be sized to be consistent. I didn’t know that I needed to tell the client to name them [00:22:30] with the product ID so I had to go through and name them. Then product descriptions are over here, and they’re not … There’s an element of surprise every time you take on a new and different type project, which is a really important thought. Is if something has a new element, [00:23:00] maybe it’s something like a membership site that you haven’t done before, or it’s a type of eCommerce or digital product, you need to pad that project plan with learning and research time.
Carrie: Oh, okay. Now I’m almost hesitant to ask this question because it really makes us go off on a different trail. Just, quickly, when you’re padding that time, you’re building that time into your schedule, [00:23:30] say, for research purposes or whatever, are you passing that cost to the client?
Diane: My education development is my responsibility. The client could have hired anyone to do this project for them. When they decided to hire me it was with [00:24:00] full faith and competence that I would deliver it for them, not that it would be a learning opportunity for me. That’s just my personal belief, but I’ve always believed that. Particularly in the early years of business I probably worked like a full time job delivering services, and at least another half time job learning things. [00:24:30] I think that’s just part of your responsibility as a service provider.
Carrie: Boom! Wow! You made that so succinct. We’re going to hop right back on the trail but I love that answer. Okay, project management, I feel like if it’s done well that this is something that brings a sense of calm and order to a project.
Carrie: If this is all kind of new information, [00:25:00] or a new way of thinking about tackling a project, it can seem almost overwhelming. Can we talk about maybe some, I don’t know if strategies is the right word, but some ways that people could start implementing better project management skills into a project?
Diane: Yeah, there are really two elements, [00:25:30] two fundamentals that I think you need to master to get started. Like we talked about at the beginning, this is a skill. Designing, development, it’s something that you learn and get better at the more you do it, the more you practice. One of the first things that you really want to work on is your ability to define actionable [00:26:00] items or tasks. This has been my personal experience that the better that I have been about tracking time on projects, my time and other people’s time, the more I have learned about where that time is going and where I know time is involved that’s not necessarily part of the project [00:26:30] scope.
For example, when you start a new web design project, a website build, you’re going to potentially set up a local hosting environment for that. That first set of tasks may be something that’s not in the scope document for the project. You’re going to set up some sort of client file, where are you going to stash [00:27:00] their content and their logos and their contract and the [inaudible 00:27:06]. You’re going to do some housekeeping as a part of bringing that client on board. Did you account for that? There’s a cycle with time tracking, thinking about past projects, learning from them, that’s going to help inform you of tasks that [00:27:30] you end up doing over and over again and tasks that you don’t necessarily think about. Also it’s going to help you break down scope items into actionable bites.
I just have a personal belief that you should have one task, you shouldn’t bundle tasks. Something like customize [00:28:00] the event calendar. Let’s say you’re doing a project that has a very complex, many categories, purchase buttons, all kinds of different things around an event calendar. There’s some theme customization that needs to happen, there’s code customization, there’s content loading, there’s testing and review. All of those tasks are [00:28:30] within setting up the event functionality for that project. What a lot of people tend to do is they’ll have one or two tasks associated with that when it’s actually 11 or 12. If you don’t break those tasks out adequately you can’t create dependencies between them, you can’t schedule them as well. It’s important [00:29:00] to be … Try to drill down to the smallest action possible will help you tremendously. It seems like extra work but it really will benefit you in the long run.
Carrie: Oh, that is so ridiculously practical and helpful. That’s excellent. Are there any other tips or strategies that you would recommend to [00:29:30] start implementing better project management into your life?
Diane: Yeah, I would say remember that your client, whoever it is, has another completely full time focus, other than the project you’re working on. In most cases. Unless you’re working on a large project in a corporate environment where you’ve got a resource dedicated to working with you, almost [00:30:00] all of the time a small business owner or … They have a full time commitment to something else. It’s really important to remember when you’re looking at things from a project management standpoint, what is their realistic availability?
My big tip would probably be: don’t believe what they say. Because everyone, human nature, is very excited about [00:30:30] their new website, they’re very motivated, they’re going to get you everything, it’s only going to take three days, they’re going to … They’re so optimistic and they’re so excited. They’re not trying to mislead you, they’re just excited. The amount of time and energy it takes to actually gather those resources and gather content while they’re doing their full time job, you have to put on the hat of reason. You do this for a living, not [00:31:00] them. You have to say, “Okay. All that enthusiasm is awesome but this is not going to take three days. I know from working on other projects this is at least a multi week process.” That is one of my biggest tips is just being super realistic about the interaction with your client.
Another tip is that you [00:31:30] aren’t just going to have one project because what are you going to do while you’re waiting to get content and project A? You probably need to work on project B. There’s a multi threading element.
Carrie: I thought I got to go get a cup of coffee.
Diane: If you have a trust fund that is valid. If you have cashflow concerns, no. No. You are going to have to do some multi [00:32:00] threading. No matter how you structure your contracts and invoices there is some element of work completion tied to money earned. You’re going to want to fill the gaps while you’re waiting with tasks that can be performed in those timeframes. You need to be able to get a little bit of a bird’s eye view of what’s going on, what’s coming up, [00:32:30] can you do some pre-work on something you have booked while you’re waiting for something on project A. Making efficient use of your time, where you take a step back and view yourself as a resource, “How can I put this resource best to use?” God, love coffee, but that’s probably not it.
Carrie: Oh, Diane. So many excellent nuggets in this episode. [00:33:00] If people want to dive further into the topic of project management or how it fits into the broader context of managing service projects … I guess this doesn’t even apply necessarily just to service projects. Could be [crosstalk 00:33:16].
Carrie: Any resources that you would recommend?
Diane: The biggest resource I’m working on is our book, “Real World Freelancing” which is going to have [00:33:30] the topics we covered today and more in terms of processes, and project management, and efficiencies. I would go to realworldfreelancing.com and get on the list.
Carrie: Oh, Diane, it is always a pleasure chatting with you. Where can folks find you online?
Diane: You can find me on Twitter, dkinney, dianekinney.com. The Versatility Group is our business site and [00:34:00] various slack channels here and yon.
Carrie: Perfect. For those of you listening I will definitely have those links over for the show notes on officehours.fm. Thanks again, Diane, so much for your time and we’ll talk soon.
Diane: Thanks for having me!