The Art of Business: Project Management for Creative Professionals
You may have gotten into this business because you're an artist, but as soon as you land your first big gig, you'll find yourself in a much different role: project manager. However dazzling your work may be creatively, the project might fail if you can't manage timelines, projections, goals, people, stakeholders, and the bag of stray cats that bedevils every project of any complexity.
Here's the five-minute guide to project management:
1. Identify stakeholders. A stakeholder is anyone with a vested interest in either the project or the project outcome. It's in your best interest to know who the stakeholders are even if they're not involved in the day-to-day management or review.
There are four common types of stakeholders:
- Top executives or managers, who may not be involved in the day-to-day creation but will offer their political or commercial endorsement to the project and/or be part of the final review.
- Tactical client participants. They will provide you with the knowledge, content, and resources you need to complete the project and will approve the project as it passes through its various stages.
- The people who will use your materials in their business efforts. Often these are frontline sales or marketing staff, and it's amazing how many projects move forward without anyone thinking to ask these people what they need and want. See if you can include them in early discussions about project goals. If they're not happy with the results, the project will ultimately be deemed a failure, even if all the bigwigs in the company initially like what you've done.
- The customers or clients. The most important stakeholders are the people who will be receiving or using the results of your work to learn more about a company, product, or service. Always, always, know the customer and create with their needs and desires in mind.
2. Put your goals in writing. It may sound obvious, but if you don't have an end-point in mind, how will you know if you've gotten there? Start by clearly stating the goal of your project in a single sentence that everyone can understand: "A Web site redesign that improves the user experience and integrates more readily with back-end services and applications." "A new tri-fold brochure with a shelf-life of at least 12 months that updates the company image." And so on.
Composing such a statement isn't as easy as it seems. The many stakeholders in the project may have different ideas about what that singular goal should be. The process of creating such a statement often works as a Rorschach test to help you decipher the true meaning of your project. During the review process and through completion, you can use the goal statement to measure your success and to defend yourself if someone suggests that the end product doesn't match the original proposal.
Now expand the goal statement to include or clarify any or all of the following:
- the business need and business problem
- the project objectives, stating why the project can solve the business problem
- the benefits of completing the project, as well as justification for the project
3. Create a project plan. Next, get down to the tactical level by creating a statement of work that is a kitchen sink of possibilities, including:
- the project scope
- a detailed list of deliverables you will deliver
- a detailed list of deliverables the client must deliver to you (copy, pre-established art, etc.)
- key project milestones
- key payment milestones
- criteria for success
- workflow chart
- review process
As you begin, you can use the project plan as a collaborative tool to garner agreement among project creators, stakeholders, and sponsors. During the project, you can use the plan to ensure that you remain on task, on schedule, and reach milestones for payment.
Obviously, the plan may change several times during the life of the project. Nonetheless, make it part of your contract between you and the project sponsor.
4. Assemble and know your team. Will you be working with a database developer, animator, printer, illustrator, writer? Get great people on board and take the time to understand their skills, limits, and commitment levels. Get clarity and agreement on what work needs to be done by whom, as well as which decisions each partner will make.
Communication is critical. Invest time in opening lines of communication, promoting trust, and ensuring that everyone knows what they have to contribute to the bigger picture. Your team is the most important resource you have, and their enthusiastic contribution will make or break your project. Look after them and make sure the team operates as a unit and not as a collection of individuals. Lead by example.
5. Master your collaboration tools. Whether you're working with a high-end content publishing management system or seat-of-the-pants e-mail, start by understanding the capabilities and limitations of your collaboration tools. How will you share information? Monitor progress? Communicate among multiple workgroups? Lay out a protocol that addresses as many communication bottlenecks as possible.
Both Quark and Adobe include workflow features in some of their programs. QuarkXpress 7, for example, has a feature called Composition Zones that lets one person farm out areas of a page to others to work on. And the new Job Jacket feature reduces errors by letting users create "tickets" that specify file-output parameters, such as proper resolution, color guidelines, and fonts to use.
The Adobe Creative Suite 2 includes a time-saving utility called Adobe Bridge, which allows you to organize, browse, locate, and use all assets saved in virtually any print or Web format. Get to know these tools and use them.
6. Promise low and deliver high. Try to deliver happy surprises. By understating your goals and timelines and delivering more or earlier than you've promised, you build confidence in yourself, the project, and the team. Most importantly, you buy yourself contingency time in the event that something goes wrong.
The Bottom Line
Project management requires a different set of skills than creative design. But you can learn these skills, and you should -- they're just as important as you rise up the ladder of success.
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