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How Design Teams Can Avoid Bad Project Management

Aidan HornsbyLast Updated: October 2, 2017

Seeing a complicated, time-consuming project through from start to finish is a challenge no matter what your line of work is. But any good design manager knows that project management for designers can be an especially tricky—and at times perilous—task.

Most designers often bristle at the idea of being “managed.” Ask anyone who has made the leap from pure designer to design manager, and they’ll tell you the toughest part of the switch was overcoming this reluctance to manage, and finding some kind of compromise between structure and freedom. 

Overcoming this barrier is crucial, because design project management can be particularly sensitive to the effects of a dysfunctional project management process or workflow. Too little project management can leave a team with no goals or clear sense of what they’re doing, while too much structure can leave it with no time to create or do actual work.

Thankfully, there are a few simple project management habits you can develop to make sure that your next design project doesn’t get in its own way:

Habit #1: Protect Real Work Time

There are a million different things that can derail a large design project, but most of them have one thing in common: they push out real work in favour of busywork.

Justin Watt, Operations Manager at Vancouver-based design agency MetaLab, believes the most important part of his job is to protect his designers from this kind of work so that they have time to do what they’re paid to do: design.

Creating too much process or too much administrative overhead, like meetings or presentations—these are all things that can take away from somebody’s ability to spend time actually creating something.

Justin’s solution to creeping administrative overhead is a simple but effective one: he and his teams protect large swathes of his designers’ time from any management-related distractions.

“We found that our teams work best when they have four hour uninterrupted chunks of time. So we made sure that at least three days a week they don’t have anything that interrupts those four hour chunks.”

Deciding to protect team members’ time like this both decreases distractions and also forces companies to get creative with the way they facilitate internal communication. 

“This forced us to remove some meetings from the schedule and find other ways of facilitating communication. We did that through standups: specifically through 15 min huddles in the morning with the design teams on our projects.”

Project managers who understand the value of their teammates’ time know that their schedules aren’t endless to-do lists to which anyone can add tasks. On the contrary: schedules, chat applications, planners and other kinds of creative project management software should be tools for defending your time and protecting work that you think is important enough to schedule. 

Habit #2: Avoid Communication Overload

Protecting time for real work and promoting efficient communication are also valuable habits for design teams that have outgrown their ability to communicate informally. 

At MetaLab, for example, communication over the company’s Slack channels started derailing real work as the company grew to almost 100 employees.

“Notifications were completely getting in the way of people’s work. Some team members would have a notification every 90 seconds or so,” says Justin of the company’s increasingly overburdened Slack channels.

As companies and teams grow, project managers often find themselves trying to impose some kind of communication discipline. Justin says that MetaLab did it by discussing the issue openly and finding several ways to make internal communication more efficient and impactful

Encouraging team members to summarize information in single messages, turn off their notifications when they feel overwhelmed, and exercise restraint when it comes to pinging fellow team members at peak hours are all practices that can help avoid communication overload.

Habit #3: Protect Team Members From Bad Clients and Management

The pressures that the outside world puts on your design project often run completely against your team members’ interests. Designers would always prefer to have more time, rather than less; more resources, rather than fewer; and uncomplicated cooperation from clients, rather than resistance. One of the most valuable functions that a good design manager can fulfil is to protect their team from these pressures as best as they can.

I think I spend 80% of my day being a shit filter for everybody who reports to me, so they don’t have to deal with it. 

Says Josh Payton, VP of user experience at Huge, a digital agency. “That’s what I’m doing in all those meetings all day long: shutting down stupid ideas and saying no.”

“Because MetaLab is an agency, clients want and need to be informed at all times as to what’s going on and progress of things,” says Justin. “Our project managers are a shield in between clients and the people creating the work that they’re paying for.”

Bad clients aren’t the only external pressures that can derail or distract your team. Overly-ambitious deadlines and budgets that teams place on themselves can also kill a team’s momentum and sap their creativity.

“Organizations routinely kill creativity with fake deadlines or impossibly tight ones,” writes Teresa Amabile. “The former create distrust and the latter cause burnout. In either case, people feel overcontrolled and unfulfilled—which invariably damages motivation.”

Habit #4: Find A Balance Between Structure And Freedom

Most design teams tackling larger projects often find themselves in a kind of project management grey area. They aren’t big enough to merit an expensive, complicated project management solution like the kind used at Fortune 500 companies, but they can’t continue improvising and doing everything by the seat of their pants either.

“I came to MetaLab from IBM, which is a much larger company where the red tape has red tape,” says Justin. “I would say the hardest thing, no matter the team size that I’ve worked with, is finding the right balance for process and structure.”

That balance can be particularly important in a crisis situation, when teams need enough structure to remain focused while remaining flexible enough to react to unexpected changes in direction.

“Remaining flexible is the key to weathering the storm,” says Aaron Irizarry, Head of Experience at Capital One. “It is great to have process in place that allows teams to work collaboratively and efficiently, but when things go sideways you will need to make adjustments.”

Habit #5: Remember That Good Design Project Management Has Nothing To Do With Project Management

But how do you know how much structure is too much or too little for your team? Most experienced design managers find that the answer often has nothing to do with project management and everything to do with understanding their team members as a group of people.

“There is no substitute for getting to know each of your team members individually,” says Zac Halbert, Product Design Lead at Tradecraft. “Building things as a team requires a lot of trust, which is rooted in an understanding of each other’s unique strengths, weaknesses, and quirks.”

Avoid getting caught up in the activities and minutia of project management and focus on getting your team to buy into the project. Focus on developing simple, effective project management habits (check out our Simple Project Management series to see what exactly that might look like!)

Instead of arbitrarily and haphazardly applying project management frameworks to your team, focus instead on improving and building upon what already exists. Consider showing team members that you understand and appreciate their work with rewards and recognition.

“People do projects, and only people,” writes management consultant Sebastian Nokes. “Software, methodologies, and everything else apart from people do not get projects done. People do. So managing people is right at the heart of project management.”

Many managers have a tendency to forget the human element in project management. The most effective ones—whether they work in design or in any other field—know that the best way to get the most out of their team is to treat their people like, well, people!

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