Effective project management is a skill creative start ups need to learn quickly if they are to stand any chance of surviving the first few months and years. Here founder of Thrive, Jerome Iveson, shares eight project management lessons he believes start ups can learn from the big agencies.
Startups exist in an ecosystem of uncertainty
Limited timescales, small budgets, lack of experience and high expectations all add up to an even higher chance of failure. Startups are born and grow in the same wing and a prayer environment that has forged many of the world’s top creative agencies.
Creative and digital agencies can teach startup teams a lot of valuable lessons, providing you appreciate the different attitude both have to time and money. In the words of Lean Startup author, Eric Ries, both are “a human institution designed to deliver a new product or service under conditions of extreme uncertainty.”
Most startups create and ship new products. Agencies deliver and sell services
Both are doing so under conditions of extreme uncertainty, especially in the fragile early days, but fragile in appreciably different ways.
Time is Money
The smartest, toughest, most resilient and innovative startups usually have a fresh pile of money – funding – which they aim to make last a certain number of months or years, depending on burn rates, revenues and profitability. The funding market is still relatively buoyant (some might say “frothy”), giving many startups confidence they could last longer than an initial seed-funded nine months.
Most agencies don’t have that luxury. Many are bootstrapped. Every penny earned is revenue. Every penny not spent on overheads builds a more secure and comfortable future for the company and directors.
Startup founders can learn a lot from agency directors since, without the luxury of a financial runway, time becomes a carefully monetised commodity.
For agencies, time is money, which is a sufficient motivation to get really good at project management pretty quickly.
8 Project Management Lessons From Agencies
1. Sell The Project Vision
Agencies and startups are working within a framework of multiple visions and goals. There should always be the overall vision for the company, which is interwoven with what the company is doing for its customers.
Below that are projects, each with their goals, all contributing to the overall vision. Keep communicating the vision, show your team how their work towards project goals is contributing to the bigger picture.
2. Clearly Define Winning
Do you acknowledge each win?
Working hard for a shared goal is part of the daily grind, but without taking a moment – maybe treating your team (a meal, cash bonus, an early finish) – a win can seem hollow, less satisfying.
You don’t need to party Wolf of Wall Street style for every touchdown, but do take a moment and ensure everyone’s hard work is recognised.
3. Project Leaders: Listen & Understand
How do you make a sale?
People with great sales skills will tell you they listen more than they speak. Communicating value means understanding what the other person finds valuable, then selling according to their expectations.
Leading project managers apply those same methods internally. They listen, take time to understand, and then apply solutions whilst managing stakeholder expectations.
4. Only Give Actionable Feedback
“I don’t know, I just don’t like it,” is not feedback. That’s what you say when looking at an exhibit at the Tate Modern.
Only give specific feedback, so that your team can make achievable changes. When working with stakeholders, extract the detail you need to communicate their feedback effectively. Otherwise, you risk wasting time chasing some vague ideal of perfection.
5. Not Everything is Urgent: Manage Expectations
When everything is urgent, nothing is.
Project managers need to keep the workflow fluid, changing priorities, according to urgency and importance. Learn to recognise the difference. Don’t constantly trip your team up with every new email.
When a customer or stakeholder says, something is urgent find out why, how and whether you can manage expectations or need to take immediate action. Again, it all comes down to listening, then setting achievable goals for your team.
6. Don’t Force It
Sometimes a creative solution is the best.
Creativity takes time. Don’t spend all of it at your desk. You won’t force a creative solution from a tired mind in the evening after a six-day week.
Take a walk. Take a break. Think about something else. Let ideas percolate. A solution almost always presents itself; but not usually when you’re tired and overworked.
7. Keep It Simple, Stupid
The more words it takes to explain a solution, new product or service, the harder it will be to sell.
Try explaining an idea in a Tweet. If you can, then you’ve scored a win everyone can understand.
8. Mistakes Happen, Move On
Mistakes happen. You lose clients, lose the faith of stakeholders, you mess up sometimes.
In the wise words of Don Draper: “Get out of here and move forward. This never happened. It will shock you how much it never happened.”
Go over the gameplay, figure out what went wrong, and then move on.
Startups and agencies have finite time and funds in which early-stage projects can succeed or fail. Learning how to manage time, which is the way both generate more revenue than their costs, is the key to surviving and thriving. Make your mistakes early on, learn from others, seek advice and keep your eyes on the prize.
Can you add to this? If you have started your own agency what lessons have you learnt from big agencies that are invaluable to the start up? Share your thoughts below.
Former graphic designer Jerome Iveson is the Founder and Product Designer at Thrive, the creators behind project management software Team. Having started two companies Jerome understands firsthand the key issues creative start ups face when juggling time and finances, Team has been developed specifically with creative and digital studies in mind, find out more here.