Putting the User First in Project Management

Do you remember Schoolhouse Rock’s “I’m Just a Bill”? I loved this song growing up. In it, the bill starts as an idea and by going through a defined process becomes a real bill and eventually a law! To me, this ties in closely with the job of a PM. As the project manager for some unique and very fun clients, I get to take projects from an idea to a real bill!. Or PPC campaign. Or nonprofit website promoting animal welfare. Or any number of exciting outcomes.

I may be completely biased, but I think project managers are amazing. I mean, think about it. Project managers take a thought in someone’s head, plan out all the details, work to make sure there aren’t any major roadblocks in the way, motivate their team to complete the work, and then present a fully finished project at the end to their clients or stakeholders. Just like the bill from Schoolhouse Rock.

THAT’s amazing.

At a lot of places, though, PMs can be a bit undervalued. On the surface, our job is easy. Some might think that all PMs do is assign deliverables for other team members to complete or nag people about when they’re going to be finished. When you think of it that way, are Project Managers really necessary?

The answer is yes… of course! But it’s not because you need someone to define scope, assess potential risks, and manage timelines for deliverables. Good PMs do those things and do them well. However, it’s the PMs that go beyond just getting the project completed and out the door that make themselves indispensable to their teams. To become a Great PM, you have to learn to put the end user first.


Building a House versus a Home


Project managers can often be seen as the Masters of Calendars. They set timelines and deliverable due dates. They work to understand potential risks for a project and how to minimize those risks. They assign tasks. They work with stakeholders to manage expectations.

In doing all of this, the Master of Calendars plans and executes a project from the very beginning stages to completion. Metaphorically and sometimes literally, they take the project from blueprints to completion. The “house” they build has walls, doors, windows, plain white ceramic tile in the bathroom, and unfortunate linoleum in the kitchen (since looking at fancier flooring options wasn’t within the original scope, and in an effort to minimize scope creep and project delay, the floor ended up being the cheapest and easiest to obtain material possible).

It’s easy to fall into this trap. It’s what Good PMs do, and there’s nothing really wrong with it. They build these houses with efficiency -- on time and on budget. But Great PMs realize that the end user isn’t looking for a house. They’re looking for a home. 


Amazing Acronyms: Combining UX with PM


User Experience is a big buzzword in the digital community. Many designers and online strategists specialize in the “user experience” or “UX” of a site or online project. Essentially, a project with good UX will put the end user and his or her needs and goals first. For example, a website with well-thought-out UX is one that allows the people actually using the site to easily find what they are looking for, and it also affords them the opportunity to easily complete whatever actions will help them achieve their goal. The key here is that the user’s needs are considered first.

When I look at any project, I feel like I have a great opportunity to think about things from a different angle than the specialists on the team. I’m not a designer or SEO or PPC specialist. My allegiances don’t lie with one team or the other. I’m able to look at the project from a more holistic and outside perspective, which can give some interesting insights. Yes, I am still a PM, so I want to complete the project on time and make sure risks are mitigated and whatnot, but honestly, if I had the choice between delivering a safe project quickly that was just “good” or a risky project that may be a bit late but was going to make a huge impact for the end user, I would always choose the latter. It seems that PMs rarely stop and think about their client’s customer. Ultimately, isn’t that the person paying my salary? Shouldn’t we be putting their needs first.

At Nebo, I work with a certain group of clients on all of their projects, so I know their specific needs, the needs of their customers, and what problems they’re trying to solve. When I’m looking at a project for them, my goal isn’t simply building the house. I understand that having that foundation is important to project success, but I also look at whether or not that project is actually going to make a real impact on my client and solve their customer’s problems because that is how my team and I are going to be judged. If my project does that, then that’s where the real reward comes.

I’ve not just built a simple house with walls and windows and doors. I’ve given my client the keys to a place where their users will feel taken care of. I’ve given them the keys to a home.


Stepping Up Your Game Is Harder than You Think


So, being a Great PM sounds amazing, right?! Let’s do it every time! Wouldn’t you love to be able to make every single project you touch that impactful?

Unfortunately, it’s never easy being a Great PM, and sometimes it’s flat out impossible. There are definite challenges and risks that go along with it.

  • Potential for late delivery on projects
  • Potential to go over budget
  • Possibility of conflict with your client
  • Possibility of being wrong!

During every stage of a project, it’s important to stay grounded and think about the end goal. At certain points, you need to stop and re-analyze whether your project is really going to be as powerful as you had planned and if not, adjust. Even if adjusting mid-project means pushing back the timeline, going over budget, or potentially upsetting your boss or client, it is something to seriously consider. If you don’t push the envelope, all you will ever get is mediocre work.

It’s not easy or something to take lightly, but to me, if a project is a bit late or over budget but will really make an impact at the end of the day, then I push for it. However, it’s important to tread carefully and use your judgment. Some things just have to get done while other things can be pushed. The tough part is knowing which of those things you’re considering, and the only advice I can give you here is know your client, know the end goal, and follow your gut.


The Great PM Checklist


To determine if a project is successful, I don’t run through the typical “good” PM checklist. I don’t just ask whether all the necessary paperwork got signed or if the project was on time or if I was able to stay within my allotted hours cap. Instead, I run through this checklist of questions that are much more difficult to answer:

  • Did this project solve a problem?
  • Did it have an impact?
  • Did it solve my client’s needs?
  • Is my team proud of it?
  • Am I proud of it?
  • Most importantly, did it meet the end user’s needs?

To me, a project is good if it’s completed on time with properly managed risk and a pleased client; however, that project could still be a complete failure. A project is great when you are able to provide something really valuable to the end user that solves his or her problems.

The way I see it, you have two choices. You can be the kind of PM who stops at managing budgets, calendars, and deliverables; or you can be the kind of PM who fights for the decisions along the course of a project that will help it make a positive impact.

Which do you want to be?

Written by Abie McCauley on October 21, 2013


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Manage IT says:

Project management capabilities are a strong indicator of an organizations maturity

Written by
Abie McCauley