07.21.2020 Process & Leadership

A PM's Guide to Managing Large Projects

Nighttime view of busy skyscraper with lit up windows.

As a project manager, you probably manage projects of all sizes–from enormous projects that fill all of your time, to small projects with quick turnarounds. While there are some core PM skills that will be useful regardless of project size, there’s a specific approach and set of skills that can benefit you when managing large projects and long-term client engagements.

Get to know your client and their industry *really* well

As PMs, I think we’re always interested in our clients, what they do, and why they do it. Here at ThinkShout, we primarily work with progressive mission-driven organizations, and we have a tremendous amount of respect for the impact of our clients’ work.

While we all love the information dump and quick digestion that happens during sprint project planning, we also know that longer tail projects– and certainly larger more complex project scopes– provide opportunity for personal and professional knowledge building that is more than learning through doing. When you have a huge project with a long-term client relationship, over time you’ll be able to know your client and their industry on a more intimate level. For example, two of my clients are in healthcare and K-12 education, respectively, and it’s been fascinating to have the opportunity to build expertise and knowledge on topics like healthcare funding, primary care in different regions of the country, how educators build lesson plans, and barriers to technology access for students.

So, how do we build these relationships?

Build a partnership with your client team

At ThinkShout, we always see our relationships with clients as a partnership. They have expertise, we have expertise, and together we can build something great.

On large projects, you have an opportunity to build that partnership even further. By observing, listening, and asking for feedback, you will, over time, understand your team and their stakeholders.

What do they want? What barriers do they face? What are they excited about?

Grow your strategy skills

Simply by nature of your deep understanding of a client and their organization, you’ll find yourself bringing more strategic ideas to the table. That’s not to say you’re replacing the members of your strategy team. They have specific skill sets that don’t overlap with yours. But your ideas and insights are valuable too–and not just on topics like timeline and budget. Don’t second guess yourself; bring your ideas to the table.

Sometimes, you may need a bit of breathing room and thinking time to bring forward these insights. I encourage you to advocate to your leadership for time and capacity to put your strategy hat on.

Keep it fresh

One of the biggest reasons that clients move away from incumbent digital agencies is because they want a fresh perspective on their digital presence. Keep the project management and account management/client services team consistent, but consider periodically rotating the strategy, design, and technology team members assigned to a large project.

Rotating out your team members can bring new perspectives to the table. The truth is that it’s hard to come up with bold, new ideas when you’ve been working on a project for years. Additionally, it can give your team a much needed break. While some team members enjoy being on large, long-term projects, others get fatigued and may want to do something different. Ask your team what they want and whenever possible, respect their wishes.

Consistency builds trust, and as long as the PM serves as an anchor point and extension of the client, they can easily serve as an efficient onboarding tool for the rotating project team.

Don’t lose sight of the “why”

When executing on many features or sub-projects at once, it’s easy to forget about the foundational goals of a project and just focus on getting things done.

Make sure you have project goals or similar high-level direction identified in a specific document or deliverable, and set up reminders to review those goals and always keep them top of mind.

Resource staff to balance consistency with fast response

As you build strong relationships with clients, they’ll grow to trust you and look to you for more and more. You’ll find that in addition to the main project you’re working on, they may ask you to work on additional smaller projects, which often require a fast turnaround. Account for that in your resourcing/staffing; have carefully planned resourcing based on the scope of your main project, but also have time set aside for tentative, quicker projects.

It is important to note that sometimes what clients want with a fast turnaround isn’t possible. If this is the case, hear their request, ask questions to understand the true requirements and timeline, and propose what you can do– even if it’s not what they originally requested. The strongest partnerships are ones where we don’t just say yes, but where we advocate for what is in the best interest of the project.

Celebrate milestones

If your team is accustomed to site launches happening fairly soon after kickoff, a year-long (or longer) site build can seem like forever. Identify milestones and celebrate along the way; for example, after the first client demo or when the site is handed to the client for staging.

Clearly communicate budget and long-term projections

When a project is large and long-term, the budget is likely quite large as well. And unless you’re at the very end of a project, it probably looks like there’s a lot of money left! This has the potential for the client team to lose sight of budget constraints and how much should be spent at each phase of the project.

Help your client keep clear budgetary guidelines:

Identify professional development opportunities for your team

Since many team members work on large projects it can be a great way for newer developers to onboard, with ample opportunity to ask questions and receive guidance. If this is the case, just keep in mind how learning time is billed at your particular organization and on this project.

A large project can also be a great opportunity for PM partnerships and learnings. This can include:

Keep getting better and improving processes

When you have a large project that stretches over time, you have opportunities to keep getting better as you learn about what the client needs and how your team works together. Ask for feedback, give feedback, and adjust processes as needed.

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