Flexible Project Management in Inflexible Environments

Handling unforeseen circumstances is an inevitable part of any project. It’s also often the most uncomfortable, and there is no amount of skill or planning that will fully eradicate the need to adapt to change. The ability to be flexible, responsive, and unafraid of facing not only problems, but also potentially positive scope changes and new ideas, isn’t an easy one to master. I am by no means saying that I have, but what I have learned is that there is often the temptation to shut out anything that might derail your plan, even sometimes at the cost of the quality you’re committed to.

The reality is that as someone leading a project you know there will be challenges, but, in general, it’s a hassle to try keep the landscape open. Problems are bridges we should cross when we come to them, but intentional changes to the plan, and adapting for the sake of improving your first idea, is harder. There are tight schedules, resource is planned miles ahead, and you’re already juggling twenty other things. If you’re passionate about the quality of work you deliver and are working somewhere that considers itself expert within the field of digital, then having an attitude of flexibility is extremely important. It’s important when you’re overcoming a challenge or problem, but it’s also important for allowing ideas to evolve and be refined as much as they can be throughout the course of a project.

Where theory falls short

The premise of any Agile methodology, Scrum for example, is based around being able to work efficiently, react quickly and deliver relevant chunks of a product in manageable increments. It’s often hailed as king of flexible management and it can work really well, especially for in-house software products developed over a long or even an indefinite period of time. It holds off defining scope too far ahead and lets teams focus on smaller amounts of work, and allows them to regularly reprioritise. Unfortunately though, not all environments lend themselves as easily to a fully Agile setup. Even the ones that do may be restrained from putting it fully into practice for an array of other internal reasons.

Delivering digital services to clients—within an agency setting or as a freelancer—often demands a more rigid structure. You need clear sign-off points, there’s a lot less flexibility in defining features, or working within budgets and timeframes. To start with, for a project to warrant a fully Agile team working on it, and especially for agencies, you need clients big enough and rich enough to justify the resource. You also need a lot of client trust to propose defining features and scope as you go. Although this is achievable—and there are agencies that operate an agile setup—it takes a long journey to reach that scale in the full sense of the word. Building a reputation that commands unconditional trust and reaching the point where your projects are consistently of a certain size often requires backing by long journey of success and excellence.

So there is a lot of room left for understanding how we can best strive to still deliver excellent projects within more constrained structures. We know that rigid waterfall planning, more often than not, falls over as soon as a project gets anything past a basic brochure site. There are many critiques of the system, but one of the main ones tends to be that nobody considers each other’s work properly, which can result in very expensive and inefficient development.

Equally, for reasons we’ve already touched upon, running fully agile teams often isn’t the right answer. So many companies, individuals, and organisations look for a middle-ground that balances being flexible and adaptive, but also provides enough upfront commitment to agree budgets, get client/stakeholder sign off, and effectively coordinate internal resource across multiple parallel projects.

Although I don’t have a perfect formula—and can very much assert there is no one perfect way of managing a project because every project is different to the next—I’ve identified a few different ways you can approach flexibility that have really helped me in running projects more smoothly within more realistic constraints.

Planned Flexibility

Drawing on some of the traditional methodologies such as PRINCE2, a good starting point for aspiring to be flexible is by planning for it from the start.

Planning flexibility comes in a few forms. For one, you can regularly identify and log potential risks as a generally good, on-going habit over the course of the project. This essentially just involves scanning the horizon for potential blips on a regular basis (for example weekly) by consulting with your team and documenting it somewhere. It means you have a checkpoint when you sit down and make sure you’re minimising what will or may catch you by surprise. A good time to do this is in a weekly catch up meeting. It’s not going to fix all your problems, but it will make sure you have a head start on the ones you can see coming.

On the subject of team meetings, setting up recurring project events, including a weekly call, a weekly team meeting and (depending on the size of the project) I like to try also do a stand-up as often as possible. Keeping everyone involved and bought in to a project is going to help you infinitely when you need to spot a problem or manage changes to the plan. It will be the difference between your designer spotting an issue and making a mental note to ‘tell you later’, and them actually coming over to tell you directly and immediately. Despite the overhead of meetings, and looping people into stages that they aren’t directly responsible for, the business benefits are chances for success are drastically increased. Planning in, and being aware of how important your team is, will help you be flexible.

Building contingency (formally know as slack) into your project plan from the word go is another well-known and essential way of planning to be flexible. Your project plan will change a lot over the course of a project, but there are still the days that you estimate a job will take, and the days you should actually plan in. Most sensible management teams understand that budgets need to be agreed with this slack in mind or you will not be able to deliver a quality service. I believe that commercial awareness is one of the most valuable skills a project manager can have, but penny pinching will ruin client and team relationships, destroy buy-in and creativity, and often end you up with a much more expensive, hacky, and resented product.

It’s not a justification to let budgets spiral out of control, but a way of thinking about the bigger picture and wider plan of the company itself. It’s unlikely you want high staff turnover because everyone fell out while you were screaming money at them and they didn’t feel like they could do a good job. It’s also unlikely that you will be able to deliver quality products, which will win you a strong reputation and subsequently bigger and better projects. Evaluating risk factors and building in the right amount of slack from the start will give you more wriggle room when you need to adapt and react. On the flip side, also keeping an overview of the wider workload (that you’re not necessarily responsible for), and knowing who to talk if resource is becoming free or needs filling, is another handy way of being able to react quickly and ensuring your management system is respected. You want pockets of backup time planned in, but you also want everyone being as productive as they can most of the time. Never run at 100% capacity: as soon as something does need to change, you’re left with nowhere to move.

Transparency

Having a client or stakeholder that trusts you is a really powerful aid in any regard, but especially so when you need to communicate an issue or new suggestion. Positioning yourself and your team as experts and taking the time to delve into the wider picture—and the goals surrounding your client’s reasons to commission the project in the first place—will make you more valuable to them. Clients and stakeholders will always be different, and sometimes you will get people who are just plain difficult, but more often than not people will listen if you’re willing to talk and explain things.

As I’m sure all of us have realised at one point or another, a lot of people think they know what they want, and it’s usually the wrong thing. Managing key stakeholders in your project is arguably your biggest challenge, if they are on the your side and feel like the team is genuinely working to give them something of quality and value, then they will make your job easier. It’s often down to you to educate them, and to help them recognise and understand the work involved and you and your team’s reasoning behind your decisions.

Being overly submissive or overly secretive will foster a dynamic in which they feel expected to steer the project. In this situation they may not respect the team’s suggestions or may come up with some unreasonable and counterproductive ideas that are likely to hinder progress and lower morale. Getting the stakeholder on board and making them feel a part of the wider picture will make things easier. Pushing back and challenging ideas or working hard to justify something they don’t quite understand will often work in your favour and protects your team. On quite a basic level it also shows you care and are invested; on another, it shows you feel confident in your expertise within your field and that is ultimately the reason they hired you.

Taking the time to think about and be aware of this relationship, will make it easier to be flexible and handle new ideas or suggestions that pop up as the project goes along. Change doesn’t need to be ‘scope creep’ if it’s raised in a practical, value-orientated, and level headed discussion. There is usually a way forward for new ideas, as long as they’re valuable and support the wider goals. Maybe the deadline gets pushed back, maybe you get more budget, maybe the client is happy to forgo something else. As long as there’s value and reason, it shows integrity to the project and respect for its success. You can’t expect for this to go smoothly without having invested in the client relationship, so it’s a large point in paving the way to handling change well.

Reactive Flexibility

Finally, if you’ve been doing this for a while, you’ll know by now that you can’t anticipate everything. Sometimes you will have to react and change the plan under circumstances that aren’t easy. When an unexpected problem first rears its head—a client’s casual afterthought that’s threatening the scope of the project, an internal resource conflict, a junior member of staff that’s not grasping the ropes quite as quickly as you’d hoped—you have to react quickly.

In his book, ‘Pitch Anything’, Oren Klaff talks about people’s first reactions being processed by their ‘crocodile brain’ before they’ve had a chance to refine and digest the information more intelligibly. As project managers, product owners, or scrum masters, it’s natural for our immediate reactions to an unexpected problem to cause a pang of stress. But after that initial jolt you need to turn to practical solutions and start racking your brain for different ways forward. It’s here you need to remember to not let your imagination get the better of you, especially if you’ve been putting in the legwork with your team and your client. There is always a way forward and moments like this can be a good opportunity to develop your negotiation and diplomacy skills. Don’t let your immediate reaction be shutting the problem down; instead, take a second to think about it before you decide on the best direction. In a stressful situation, your first idea probably won’t be your best one.

From an internal point of view, it’s very important that whatever went wrong doesn’t turn into a finger pointing exercise and you don’t lose your cool. Getting caught up in a blame game or a witch hunt is never productive. Relationship cultivating can sometimes be the pillar that gets you through a stressful blip. Biggest tip for staying flexible when you’re reacting to a problem—apart form obviously thinking of ways forward—is to communicate. Don’t go quiet until you feel like you have a plan, you’ll often need to put everyone else at ease before you can move things forward. Problem solving is part of the job and will need to happen in even the most flexible of product delivery systems.

In conclusion, being flexible is never simple but there are things you can do to make your life easier. Owning a position of expertise, putting together a team that’s involved in each other’s work and cultivating a client/stakeholder relationship that’s as transparent and respectful as possible will get you a long way. In times of crisis, believe in your skills and be open to adapting over getting frustrated.

About the author

Gill is an Anglo-Bulgarian Digital Project Manager based in Leeds, UK. With a background in International Relations and languages, she is now a Certified ScrumMaster® coordinating multiple teams to deliver projects at leading full-service agency Epiphany Solutions.

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