Project Management Lessons From a Project Without a Manager

— October 13, 2017

Team projects are a necessary evil in school. The teacher randomly assigns the group, four or five students reluctantly push their desks together, and suddenly they have to become best friends or else their grades will plummet.

Inevitably, one student will rise up and take charge.

They’ll divvy up the work, making everyone exchanges phone numbers so they can meet up outside of class. They automatically know they will have to design the PowerPoint and speak to the class during the presentation. They relish the opportunity to control group projects and command their prepubescent minions.

Those students grow up to be project managers.

Project Management Lessons From a Project Without a Manager

The project

So what happens when you put five of those students together in a room with little to no supervision and a page full of instructions? The task was to find a measurable way to discover the pervasiveness and success rate of content marketing in multiple industries.

We called it Project Albatross.

The content team hired five interns this summer: Nicolette, Liam, Paddy, Lily, and myself. We were supplied a sheet of instructions to somehow gather industry-wide research on content marketing to use for future projects.

So why was a project about content marketing in the project management industry called Project Albatross? I’ll admit, I was a bit confused when I first joined the project.

It was called Albatross because Liam, Padraig, and Nicolette first felt like, “This project was a weight hanging around our neck.” It’s in reference to the famous poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Coleridge. In the poem, a sailor shot an albatross, which was supposed to be a sign of good fortune, and this caused a curse upon the ship. His fellow sailors then forced him to wear the dead bird to represent his shame.

Lighthearted stuff, if you ask me.

While working on this project we had little supervision outside of reviews of our completed drafts. We didn’t have a formal project manager, just each other, which meant we all had to act like a project manager in a dozen different ways.

So five interns made do without a manager on the most difficult project they had faced all summer. We did a few things correctly, a bit more than a few things wrong, and we all learned quite a bit about the stress project managers must feel all the time.

What went right

Spoiler alert: this story does have a happy ending. Even in the midst of our floundering, we still pulled together in order to make our boss proud. Was it messy? Definitely. But we managed to make it work.

We experimented

And oh boy, we were bad. None of us had written a formal project overview, made a professional survey, or even worked with Java before. Upon first reading the instructions for this project, I knew there would be plenty of trials and errors.

We all had to motivate each other and ourselves to fail because we knew it would be the fastest way to learn. We wrote and rewrote the project proposal dozens of times, we remade our survey hundreds of times, and one of us, Nicolette, literally spent weeks working on a web scraper.

Everything we made, we changed. We learned, we criticized, we tried again.

Adaptability is a vital skill for project managers. A project can change irreversibly on a dime and its manager needs to change just as quickly. A manager should be able to face something they’re not an expert at and try for the sake of the project.

If a manager tackled every project with the same strategy and methodology, they would be completely lost if even the littlest thing went wrong. The willingness to change is essential in the constantly adapting industry of project management.

Key Takeaway: Try, fail, learn, repeat. Never do the same thing twice if it didn’t work the first time, and that means being willing to try something completely new.

We communicated

Project management relies on communication: communication between team members, communication between the team and the client, and communication between the team and their bosses. In this case, our boss was also our client, which helped a little.

Going into this project, all of us knew that we would be responsible for being able to talk without talking too much, being able to email without spamming GIFs, and being able to hold meetings without them devolving into hangouts.

We held multiple meetings over Project Albatross, and a majority of them were planned and led by us. We would spend an hour or so actually talking about what needed to be fixed or changed, and we would also test our own project together in order to call out flaws and make on-the-spot changes.

I have to admit, nothing made me feel more “professional” than sitting around a table and discussing quantifiable metrics for the quality of content marketing.

We set up a team Google Chat because having meetings every hour would have killed productivity. When we worked on project components outside of meetings we were still able to ask for advice and give updates to each other.

Team members should always be able to talk to each other, but it’s the quality of that communication that should be reviewed. Mary from Sales might love having her inbox spammed with every manner of cat, but that doesn’t mean it helps her work on the project.

A solution for some managers might be to organize more meetings. That way, a project manager can be there to ensure that no one communicates unnecessarily. However, daily meetings are almost always a symptom, not a solution.

Key Takeaway: Communication during a team project is essential, as long as everyone’s sharing necessary information. The best solution for a chatty team? A solid communication plan and an understanding of what should and should not be shared.

We criticized

One of our team members, Lily, started her internship a few weeks after the rest of us. Because of this, Lily was introduced to the project after the first draft had already been created, and her first task was to critique Albatross with no prior knowledge of the project. Her first meeting with the rest of the interns, soon to be her teammates, featured her giving critiques and notes on our work.

I was not envious of her position. If it had been me, I would have been too scared or too intimidated to make any negative remarks. Lily is (a lot) braver than I am, however, and was able to look at the work objectively and give actionable advice.

Project managers need to be tough. They need to give criticism when something in the project has gone wrong so it can be corrected. Will that make them a tyrant or a bully? Hardly.

Effective criticism is crucial and shouldn’t be ignored in order to protect feelings. In fact, criticism can be kind because it’s all about helping your team improve. Working on Albatross with Lily was amazing because I knew she would be honest with me if I made a mistake.

Radical candor” might sound like a terrifying idea, but sacrificing project quality for the sake of politeness won’t help the team or the manager.

Key Takeaway: Criticism is a valuable tool to make your project a success, and team members will perform better knowing that no one is coddling them.

What went wrong

Short answer: a lot. We made plenty of mistakes during Albatross, due in part to inexperience and lack of understanding. These are only the big ones.

We voted

I don’t mean democratic voting, which I’m not even old enough to do yet but highly encourage. I mean we voted on big decisions because we didn’t actually have a project manager. No matter how many good traits we had, or how hard we tried, having a leader to make final decisions would have made everything move faster and let us move on from old, circular conversations.

We waffled over where we would host our survey, who would make final edits, and what our quantitative metrics were. Did we make a decision? Eventually.

Project managers should always strive for better than eventually. They should be strong enough to make hard decisions and take direct action, even if not everybody agrees. Time is budgeted in projects, so wasting it is wasting a finite resource.

There are some decisions where a team won’t be unanimous or they want to talk it out more. The project manager has two choices in that situation: hold another meeting so everyone can insert their opinion, or decide themselves and move on with the project.

Key Takeaway: Decisive action, even if it might be controversial, if always better than having the project stall while members try to make a unanimous decision.

We all had the same skill set

All five of us were content team interns for a reason: we’re creative, we love trying new things, and we have soft skills aplenty.

But that’s the thing: we all have soft skills, but none of us have a tech background. Nicolette took a brave step in trying to program the bot we used, but her strengths lie in writing and research.

For a project manager, assembling a perfect team can be daunting. They need to find a collection of people that not only are willing to work with each other, but can also compensate for each other’s strengths and weaknesses.

A manager should have a balance of hard and soft skills in their repertoire, or at least have a team with an even mix of both. I’ll admit, we probably could have avoided having four interns write the project overview and survey while Nicolette frantically tried to teach herself JavaScript in the background.

Key Takeaway: Diversity within a team is crucial, and can lead to project success.

Why I wouldn’t change a thing

Pardon my French, but this project was a real doozy. It was beyond stressful for all of us, and I was always a mixture of anxious and excited whenever I walked into the meeting room. But despite all that…

We had fun

If any one of us hadn’t tried our hardest, this project would have failed. We might not have understood it completely or had experience in this type of research, but we had a genuine drive to create the best work we could.

Project managers need to devote themselves to a project wholeheartedly, and share that enthusiasm with their team.

Have you ever worked on a project without an official project manager? Leave us your thoughts in the comments below.

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