I have learned a lot in my experience running Web projects including Spot.Us, a non-profit startup organization that fundraises for independent journalists. Building anything from the ground up requires myriad skills. One skill in particular played a pivotal role and enabled me to avoid many pitfalls that entrepreneurial journalists face as we tread into the unknown future of our craft. The fundamentals of journalism are still required. An organization must know how to produce engaging content. But it also needs at least one person who can do project management.
Project management isn’t about middle-managers, paper-pushing or other forms of newsroom bureaucracy. Project management at Spot.Us doesn’t entail dealing with our accountant, managing freelancers or planning our publication cycle. Managing a project isn’t about “business as usual” and has nothing to do with the day-to-day grind of putting out a publication.
Project management is the ability to plan, organize and secure resources necessary to see a project from start to finish, such as building a website or mobile application. One way to think about projects is in comparison to our understanding of games (video games, board games, etc). Like all games, projects have a stated purpose, an end point or definition of winning. They also have rules or constraints. Get caught as a “fish out of water” and you lose Marco Polo. For projects, constraints are either budgetary, time or scope. And like games, projects need a player who is making decisions to try to reach the end goal within those constraints. This is the project manager’s mission, should he or she choose to accept it.
Some organizations have the wrong vision for a project. This is a natural and acceptable position to be caught in. May a thousand flowers bloom and the industry learn from these mistakes. A much worse fate, and one that is not applauded, is a vision that never comes to fruition at all because of failed project management.
Once the vision and idea of success is articulated and agreed upon, the first conversation a project manager needs to have is around constraints. All too often this conversation is absent and the project suffers. It comes down to picking and choosing battles.
TWO OUTTA THREE AIN’T BAD
Games have very real constraints. Many have a limit of “lives.” Lose your last life in Mario Bros. and the game is over; the player’s actions in the game reflect this. Other games don’t have a sense of “life or death” but put in constraints of “points.” In Monopoly the points are literally “dollars,” and you only start the game with so much, but by taking risks you can earn more. It’s a game that requires an enormous commitment of trial and error in order to build a “monopoly.” Players in Mario Bros. may be cautious, where Monopoly players will try to buy up lots of property while they can, each reacting to their constraints.
These constraints are known to the player, but if an observer doesn’t understand them, it can be confusing. Project managers need to convey their constraints to everyone involved, especially the stakeholder. I often use the following phrase: “There’s good, fast and cheap. Pick two.”
In other words, project management constraints are usually some combination of time, budget or quality. If you want a website done cheap and fast, a capable project manager will find cheap developers and designers. But be prepared for the website to have bugs. If you want quality on a low budget, the project manager may have to rely on volunteers who’ll work at their own pace. The ideal scenario is to get a site built that is both good and fast, but it will cost you a pretty penny. If you have that option, congrats; you’ve been dealt a good hand.
The project manager doesn’t make the rules, but she does play by them. There is no wrong/right choice, but these are constraints a project manager will need to know in order to make the right decision. Constraints should be made in cahoots with stakeholders so there aren’t any surprises. A good project manager finds out the budgetary and time constraints, does research, and explains what is reasonable to deliver and at what quality. Then negotiation of constraints can happen in an informed manner.
TIMING IS EVERYTHING
To rescue the princess in one popular video game, Zelda always needs to accomplish annoying side tasks. These feel like distractions, but it’s really a matter of timing and getting things in order. He can’t kill the dragon until he has acquired the sword. Zelda can’t find the sword until he has won the archery contest, and you can’t win that archery contest until you earn the rupees to buy the damn thing.
Depending on the project, there will be any number of side tasks. They are not distractions, and the order in which you do them can be fatal. For example, when building a website, you want to start with a clear description of every feature, then lay out those features in a design (forgetting aesthetics/logo). You will discover new features and priorities along the way, and that’s why you save development for last, right before the aesthetics and skin of the site. Otherwise you could blow through your development budget, and any discovery in the layout phase will result in a sub-par product. If you start with the logo, you’re just plain doing it wrong.
DISTRACTIONS OF TECHNOLOGY
There are, of course, tons of practical decisions a project manager makes. What technology platform should a site be built on? Who should we hire to build or design it? What hosting service should we use? A project manager cannot be an expert on everything. But she should know how to communicate with experts, interpret their knowledge and put it to practical use.
There are always trade-offs. If a decision is made and the project manager isn’t aware of what is sacrificed, even if it turns out to be the right decision, it is being made blindly and is a poor decision. If you build a site in Drupal, you are choosing a robust starting point and sacrificing flexibility to build out custom features. If you choose Django, you are making the opposite decision. When you hire someone straight out of college, you are sacrificing experience for a lower salary and hopefully some enthusiasm. Again, there is no right or wrong. But there is informed and uninformed. Doing anything in the latter could bite you in the butt.
Every project is unique and has its own constraints. But it’s the job of the project manager to make decisions in light of constraints so the job still gets done. There is always a finish line in sight for a project manager. As news and technology collide and combine, publishers will increasingly find themselves in the position of technology companies. And technology companies live and die around their ability to launch new projects. In the near future I suspect we will all shout: “Project managers for the win!”
David Cohn has written for Wired, Seed, Columbia Journalism Review and The New York Times, among other publications. He is currently a fellow at the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri and runs Spot.Us, a non-profit and Knight News Challenge project that has pioneered “community-funded reporting.”