Setting the pace is paramount for establishing successful projects, deliverables, and ultimately, relationships. But once we’re in the thick of the project, what’s the right momentum that keeps things flowing well, instead of getting stagnant like a scummy pond?
As a project manager not only do you build the initial momentum, but you are responsible for keeping it going. Leaving it alone in the corner on auto-pilot is the worst thing you can do. Your job is to set and keep the pace, much like a human metronome.
Project momentum is not only important so that the project is “successful” in the traditional ways, like staying within the budget or launching on time; this is about deeper, greater accomplishment. It’s about getting the ultimate success out of the project–your team and your client all walk away with great work, the client is thrilled and getting positive ROI, and your team is happy and engaged, even at the very end.
What is project momentum?
Project momentum is defined by all the traditional milestones and how many tasks are getting checked off and when. But it’s also all of the feelings of those participating in the project, be it internal team or client.
Positive momentum signals:
- Good vibes
- Team confidence
- Positive client feedback
- Timely meetings
- Less stress
- Proactive red flag raising
Negative momentum signals:
- Deadlines are slipping
- The team is stressed or apathetic
- The client is canceling meetings
- There’s more work than budget left
- Your gut is screaming at you
How do you start well?
I won’t spend too much time here, as one of the most frequent items discussed in project manager circles is discoveries and kickoffs. There’s a lot to be said on the topic, so I’ll save that for future posts. In the meantime, we have a lot of friends writing awesome content on this topic, like this from Louder than Ten.
Starting a project well involves a lot of effort on your part. No one else can pick up that mantle like the relationship stakeholder. For me, I have to establish deep care and concern for my client at this phase. Once we’re into the contract phase of the sales process, I like to set up one of our new client briefs, where I spend time learning about our clients business, their industry, what’s the latest and greatest news with them (Google Alerts for each client are great for this.)
Lastly, you need to make sure your team and the client have the same expectations. Does the client understand how the project is going to work, and who they should be talking to? Do they know when the meetings and check-ins will be, or is that still too vague? How will you be sending deliverables? Make sure these answers are clear up front and it will save you a ton of headache.
How do you keep it going?
There are myriad tools available for project managers to automate things; this can be great, and can potentially save a lot of time. But this quickly backfires when these time-savers become soul-suckers. If you’ve ever set up an automatic standup checker in Slack, you know how quickly those things can just become extra project cruft.
Keeping your team engaged and excited about the work can be a challenge, but that’s also in the PM job description. There’s a fine line between annoying the crap out of our teams with nagging and micromanagement and knowing when to step in. Checking in at the right time and in the right manner can reestablish that important project momentum. Don’t tap your developers on the shoulder right after they get in the zone. Wait until the time is right. Then again, don’t wait too long if something is really on fire. Get good at reading the room.
Here are some activities I do that help me gauge and keep hold of project momentum:
- Check in on each and every client, every day
- Know the budget inside and out
- Establish proper metrics
- Call mid-project retros if things feel off
- Ask your team what challenges they’re facing
- Do the QA of deliverables yourself
So what do you do about project inertia?
If you practice empathy, are consistently engaged with your teams and clients, you’ll know and feel deep down when things are going off the rails. The only option you have is to call things out at that time. It’s your job to be the canary in the coal mine. Clients expect it and need it. Your team relies on it. Speaking up and bringing light into the dark corners is the most important thing you can do.
Do the right thing and just talk with your people, whether it’s your team or the client. Get on a quick phone call if things feel off. Walk over to your teammates’ desk. Empathy reciprocates empathy. Each time we do this, it makes it easier for the teams and the clients to talk with us, creating positive relationships, and ultimately, successful projects.