Bringing a Human-Centered Approach to a Spreadsheet-Driven World

Businessman Yells into the Phone

A project manager’s world can often feel like a mile-wide, inch-deep lake of responsibility. Even one day of juggling multiple projects, diverse clientele and a wide array of internal teams can leave you clinging to your project flow spreadsheet like the life raft it is.

The problem is, our job isn’t just about checking off to-do lists and managing calendars, and when we cling to those processes a little too closely, we can get distracted from real success. Nebo strives to be human-centered in all we do, but in a PM’s world of spreadsheets, calendars and project plans, the struggle to achieve that is real.

So how do we stay human-centered in a career where success is largely measured by deadlines and profitability?

People Management

I get it, this phrase may be a little cringe-worthy. But it’s the truth. As much as it may seem like it, we’re not really managing projects, contracts and calendars — we’re managing people. Every individual on my internal teams needs something different from me in order to be successful. Some people need constant encouragement and affirmation to do their best work. Other people need you to “pretty please not ever talk” to them.

At the end of the day, my team isn’t going to produce kick ass work because I told them something was due thirty different times on Thursday. They’re going to produce kick ass work because I figured out what it is they need to be successful. Inspiration and facilitation go a long way whether you’re managing creatives or those heady analytics types.

The same goes for clients. As much as client relationships can begin to feel like an eye in the sky waiting to drop an emergency bomb at any moment, they’re really just relationships with people. I know. It’s a radical notion that all of these emails that can blow up your day are written by real, living people, but it’s true! Their jobs are stressful, too. They’re flawed and all have different ways of organizing information. Directly asking the client what they need from me to make things run smoothly has solved a multitude of seemingly impossible problems and relationship ruts.


Anyone who knows me on any level knows I’m not an emotional, touchy feely person. I take pride in being logical and can easily get stuck in the black and white of a scenario. This lends itself to spreadsheets and project plans, but not to the world of human-centeredness. It’s taken me time to learn and hone the skill of empathy, but it turns out it can cover a multitude of sins. I highly recommend it. Taking a moment to simply understand where someone is coming from, rather than reading their email and throwing your computer out of the window, can shrink a lot of mountains down to their rightful place as molehills.

With clients, taking a second to acknowledge they have several bosses with several opinions can make that disjointed feedback a lot less jarring and bizarre. With clients or internal teams, those seemingly random suggestions and assertions can seem a lot less annoying if you understand there’s a problem they’re trying to solve. Every snarky email about a keyword audit isn’t always about the keyword audit. People have bad days, bad nights and bad bosses. It’s important to let them know that’s understandable and okay.

Open Communication

There’s one thing all the humans I work with can do that my project plan can’t — communicate. As much as I wish iTask would just speak to me and tell me why on Earth this freaking row is formatted differently, it just can’t. No matter if it’s internal or external, an open line of communication is key to keeping a project human-centered.  It’s hard to think of deliverables as items created by an individual if you never really talk to that individual.

Suddenly, that to-do becomes all about the deadline and not at all about that person producing their best work. Make sure you reach out to that team member who looks like they may cry at any moment. Chances are, they aren’t going to produce any good work for you today. Talk through what has them on edge and help them find a solution. A one-day delay in your project plan is worth a better product. Oh, and an emotionally stable team member.

With clients, the ability to communicate openly is a gift every project manager hopes for. While we don’t work in a perfect world, we can take steps to make sure there’s enough trust in the relationship so the client feels comfortable communicating openly with us. Sometimes this means humbling ourselves first and admitting our mistakes. Humanizing yourself can make the project and the client feel a little more human as we fight for solutions and success together as partners.

Successful Project Management

There are a few simple truths to project management: We can’t measure ourselves by likability, and at the end of the day project plans make our world go round. But being a human-centered project manager doesn’t mean being weak or maliciously obedient, either.

We have to look past the sea of checklists and contracts to land somewhere in the middle. True success isn’t measured by timeliness or profitability, but by the quality of work each person is inspired to create. And one of our biggest contributions as project managers is to facilitate the creation of great work — which we can do by being better communicators and having a little empathy for everyone involved.

Now, to check this off my to-do list…

Written by Lindsay Smith on September 20, 2016


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Lindsay Smith