When you think about it, project management is not the sexiest of skills.
Compared to the creative flair of a designer or the wordsmithery of a content marketer, the ability to produce colour-coded GANTT charts with dependencies is hardly something worth writing home about.
…Or is it?
Making stuff happen
When we describe our job of optimisation strategists, we often come up with something along the lines of: “we combine data and insights to conceptualise, plan, and execute changes to online journeys, to improve user experience and KPIs.”
In other words: we make stuff happen online.
In general, we are happy to spend a lot of time elaborating on the “data”, “insight”, and “user experience” components of the job, but we don’t give the “plan” part anywhere near the attention and credit it deserves. Which is surprising, because planning is a crucial part of an optimisation strategy, and it means so many different things:
- Developing testing/activity roadmaps with precise milestones and release dates;
- Documenting actions via shared roadmaps/charts/boards/etc.;
- Planning tasks for internal resources and third parties on a daily, weekly, monthly basis;
- Delivering on time and to budget;
- Dealing promptly with roadblocks and bottlenecks;
- Creating and maintaining project and progress documentation;
- Coming up with alternative plans when, not if, something goes wrong;
- Organising and co-ordinating meetings—also known as: scavenger-hunting for that miraculous hour two weeks from now where fifteen people are all available.
If this sounds like a lot, that’s because it is.
Planning happens behind the scenes, away from the sparkle of a new page redesign and the thrill of a +15% uplift in [insert relevant metric here]. And I cannot help but think that part of the reason behind this protracted invisibility is that “planning” and, more in general, “project management” just don’t have a reputation for being… cool.
Let’s try an experiment.
Take three seconds to answer this question:
What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you think about a “project manager”?
I bet it looks something like this:
Not exactly the pinnacle of glamour, am I right?
The Symphony of Optimisation
If you’ve ever seen an orchestra perform (…or even just watched Disney’s Fantasia), you will be familiar with the figure of the conductor—that tuxedoed individual who stands on a podium in front of the ensemble, waves a baton, and makes dozens of musicians work together as one:
There is a certain magic to the work of the conductor—getting people to work together in harmony and produce perfectly synched melodies is something genuinely worthy of a standing ovation. But when you look at the job description, it doesn’t sound much like magic:
Conductors act as guides to the orchestras and/or choirs they conduct. They choose the works to be performed and study their scores, to which they may make certain adjustments… work out their interpretation, and relay their vision to the performers. They may also attend to organisational matters, such as scheduling rehearsals [and] planning a concert season.
I bet you see where this is going.
Let me change 8 words:
Project managers act as guides to the teams they conduct. They choose the works to be executed and study their requirements, to which they may make certain adjustments… work out their feasibility, and relay their vision to the team. They may also attend to organisational matters, such as scheduling meetings [and] planning a roadmap.
Much like orchestra conductors, project managers know how to be in charge and own a project, and are perfectly comfortable with it. They are in control but know how to stay flexible, direct without micro-managing, spot inefficiencies and jump on opportunities.
Most of all, they do not just dream up big plans: they make them happen.
How is that not sexy?
The unsung heroes of optimisation
Conductors have two main tools at their disposal: a baton and a music sheet. I am not sure project managers need a baton (though I’d love to try!), but they definitely have a music sheet—it just so happens to be, more often than not, an excel file.
Of course, there are also innumerable tools out there—think of Trello, Toggl, Basecamp, Kanban boards, etc.—that help project managers communicate, track, monitor and update projects and deliverables.
But, as we always say, it’s the skill, not the tool, that gets things done.
In this industry, we are very quick to congratulate ourselves and each other on the end result, but overlook the meticulous, determined, patient day-to-day work that gets to the result in the first place.
So here is to the unsung heroes of optimisation: the next time you read about an uplift, a re-design, or any other uber-successful achievement, give a round of mental applause to the project managers who got it done.
This blog post first appeared on the PRWD blog at https://www.prwd.co.uk/blog/Fifty-Shades-of-Project-Management/