Project Management and Embracing Imperfection

As project managers (PMs), we’re conditioned (often early in our careers) to exercise control over a long list of variables in order to drive a project to successful completion. It’s commonplace to hear specificity like, “designing this comp should take 4 hours; we’ll get client feedback in 2 days; and we have to deliver the 6 comps described in the contract.” The prevailing view is that project management entails perfection -- and that perfection requires to-the-letter execution. The reality, however, is very different. Projects are made up of people and require creative problem solving. And since people aren’t perfect and creativity is often a complex exercise, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that projects are therefore full of imperfections. While many of us come to this realization eventually, we need to do so more quickly. Actively embracing project management as an imperfect science will help us be better at it. As the saying goes, “perfect is the enemy of good.”

Viewing project management through this lens doesn’t mean throwing out the contract, foregoing estimates upfront, or simply winging it. A good portion of any project can be driven quite precisely. For instance, commitment from your team and client is still something you need to establish. But know that things can and often do turn out differently. It’s disappointing when such inevitable changes make project managers feel stressed and frustrated. Prepare for the imperfect, and spend your energy (and time) worrying about those influences and disruptions that truly matter.

Risk management is a term that comes to mind within this subject. Sure, you can document risks upfront, devise mitigation strategies, and cuddle up with that plan believing you’re secure and prepared. That approach, however, is just another form of management; and oftentimes, micro-management, which is even worse. Successful project management is not just about being prepared, it’s about being adaptable.

At Viget, we have a number of tactics baked into our approach that help us embrace the inevitable project imperfections. Some include:

  1. Managing against a lower budget cap: For every project, we establish a “buffer” (typically 10-20% under the contractual cap), which allows us to appropriately allocate more time in areas of the project as needed, as our understanding evolves.
    • How does this help? If we find ourselves revising comps more times than originally intended, the overall budget isn’t suddenly blown.
  2. Booking team members 80% on a primary project: When a new project is underway, the reflex among most PMs is to make sure the designer, for example, is focused solely on that one project. But that’s risky. What happens if that designer is needed for another project they worked on previously; or an emerging new business opportunity requires their attention? At Viget, team members have headroom week-to-week to tend to emergent or smaller tasks.
    • How does this help? If Elliott is heads down on WWF design and suddenly gets pulled into a sales pitch, that time spent outside of his primary project has already been accounted for and shouldn’t disrupt the timeline or client expectations. And if no such disruption surfaces that week, Elliott’s free to get ahead on his primary project. Planning for the unplanned means your project and timeline can productively adapt.
  3. Revising the task order at the project start: At Viget, we keep our contracts fairly high-level since we understand that only so much can be known during the sales process. Does the client really need 12 user flows? It’s hard to tell at that early stage. After we kick off a project, one of our first deliverables is typically the Project Charter, which refines details included in our contracts and more accurately sets the stage (and client expectations) for the work ahead. To be sure, this doesn’t mean we’re pulling a bait-and-switch, but instead establishing a more accurate plan based on client input.
    • How does this help? To do our best work, it’s critical to have meaningful input from the entire team and the client. While we do everything possible to include that as part of the early sales process, it’s not always feasible. Your deliverables and approach will be much more successful if you have the latitude to refine them (within budget and other core contractual bounds) following focused kickoff and project conversations.

I think most PMs understand this inherent variability and that a project usually finishes in a different place than originally intended. What I don’t think most in our field embrace and admit is that this is OK. We need to acknowledge that projects will always be imperfect in one way or another, and focus our energy and attention on being flexible and adaptable within this unpredictable landscape.

Kevin is a senior digital strategist in our Falls Church, VA, HQ. He helps clients such as the World Wildlife Fund, Wildlife Conservation Society, and Valspar create dynamic and successful online strategies.

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