Media project management skills and techniques

Project management image courtesy of pxhere and released under Creative Commons Universal

In the first of this three-part series, we looked at the basics of project development for a media organization to launch new products or refresh current production. This module included the definition of the target audience, the presentation of the unique editorial proposal, the evaluation of the cost of the project and the calculation of the return.

In other words, you have thought about it. But there is still a lot to think about if you want to turn your idea into a real product. To do this, you must use project management skills and techniques.

Many books have been written on this subject. There are detailed project management methodologies that you could learn, if you wish. A man called Gantt chart invented a useful table that helps you manage your project.

But you can do without all this if you follow the basic rules. Here they are:

1: Specification, time and money

The three main components of any project are the specifications, the time allotted and the money available. You want to complete the project to specification, on time and on budget

This speaks for itself, but it is essential that you understand all three components in detail before you start working. So you know, and everyone knows, precisely what you’re trying to achieve. Your entire project plan is based on this understanding.

The reason I stress this point is that external forces often want to modify core components after the project has started. They can (and often try) to change the specs, move the launch date forward, or reduce the amount available.

They need to understand that any change in specification, time or budget can mean a total overhaul.

2: Planning

It is important to plan everything before doing anything. If you forget all the other rules, remember this one. Your thinking time is your most valuable time. Get a complete picture of the project in your head before allowing work to start

3: Workflow

Next, you need to identify the workflows involved in the proposed project. Workflows are the work items that all need to be done.

They may include recruiting, training, purchasing equipment and software, commissioning design work, writing technical specifications, producing guidelines or standards, renting space, obtaining permits, booking travel, market research, rehearsals, printing, marketing, producing pilots or prototypes, testing – it doesn’t matter. You need a complete list.

4: The project plan document

Once the workflows are in place, you should write everything down in a project plan document.

It can be a large sheet of paper, a Gantt chart, a spreadsheet, or a whiteboard in your office. Start by writing today’s date in the top left and the date you want to launch your product in the top right (if you’re reading right to left, reverse these instructions).

Let’s say there are two months between today’s date and the launch of your product. Divide the space between them into equal time segments. For example, you might have two months to complete the project, so your top line will be divided into eight segments representing eight weeks:

The date today L-7 L-6 L-5 L-4 L-3 L-2 L-1 Release date

Under “Today’s Date” you will make a vertical list of all the workflows – the things that need to be done.

In the row next to each workflow header, you’ll write the critical milestones, within the week they need to be achieved.

Let’s say one of the workflows is design. It could look like this, showing important milestones:

The date today L-7 L-6 L-5 L-4 L-3 L-2 L-1 Release date
Design Write the design brief Launch calls for tenders Choose the supplier Review designs Make the final choice Design work delivered

Do this with all workflows. In particular, you are looking for dependencies: when a necessary job cannot be done until another is completed. Here is an example of a Gantt chart showing the dependencies in an architectural project:

Gantt Chart by Bob Eggington

5: Plan for the unexpected

It’s important in any project to include some slack to allow for things that will inevitably go wrong.

Planning is the key to success, but as Mike Tyson said, “Everyone has a plan until it’s punched in the mouth.” Things WILL go wrong. So you need to create some slack in your project to allow for this: a little more time than you think you actually need; some hidden money for emergencies that can be solved by throwing money into it; and one or more of the specs that can wait after launch, without drastically affecting the outcome, if need be.

6: Teamwork and collaboration

Be sure to share the plan with your team and let them improve it if they can.

The team will do all the work and they must take ownership of the results. You do this by listening to them, involving them and respecting them. Make sure they are all absolutely clear and support the objective. If people doubt the relevance of the project, it would be better for them to find another place to work.

7: Begin

Now the work can really begin. And you’ll soon notice the benefit of thinking things through beforehand.

8: Communicate

Make sure to constantly communicate with your team and meet at least once a week.

Set an example for the team by understanding what they do. If you’re not interested in their work, neither will they be. Know all the details of the project inside out. Be available to everyone and don’t ask anyone to do something you wouldn’t want to do yourself.

9: Pursue progress with sensitivity

You need to make sure people are doing what they’re supposed to, so a project manager should always be looking for progress, but it’s important not to overwork people – it’s not sustainable.

It’s your job to make sure deadlines are met and the weekly meeting is a key checkpoint. Know exactly how you will react if a workflow is delayed. It must be clear how any lost time is going to be made up. But it’s also your job to make sure they don’t overwork themselves.

I’ve seen people burn themselves out trying their best to meet deadlines. Their dedication is admirable, but this way of working is not sustainable. So keep the workload within reason and make sure they take time. It will be better that way in the long run.

10: Testing

Make sure you have enough time for testing before launch.

Ideally, your product should be ready at least a few weeks before launch so you can test it thoroughly. No matter how good your work, testing is bound to raise issues that need to be addressed. Because testing is pretty much the last thing before launch, it’s also the thing that’s most pressured by delays earlier in the schedule. So be ruthless to enter the testing phase on time. Otherwise, the first thing you will know about some issues will be when the product is released to a surprised audience.

11: Learn

After launch, do a full wash, learning all the lessons of the project.

Generally, everyone is exhausted after the launch. They want to go away and party or lie down in a dark room. They should have some time to do it. But it’s important to do your review of the whole project while the memories are still fresh. This way, you can save all the lessons that have been learned and start planning fixes or improvements to the product that the project has released.

In the third and final part of this series, we look at an example of a successful media project and the steps taken along the way.