Spinning risk into gold

Issue 5 of 5: How healthy agencies handle risk and rein in scope creep

This is the final edition to our five-part newsletter series on how empowered PMs turn scope creep and risk into gold.

Issue 1: How healthy agencies handle risk and rein in scope creep
Issue 2: Is your agency reactive or proactive?
[Issue 3: How PMs spin risk into gold] (/newsletter/how-PMs-spin-risk-into-gold)
Issue 4: Yanking off scope creep's cloak of mystery
Issue 5: A note about the future (your PMs can see it)

These last few weeks we’ve talked about reactive versus proactive agency types, how great PMs recognize and handle risks and red flags, how scope creep is yet another opportunity to get realignment, and how you can empower your project managers to support the health of your business.

This week, we’re talking about the common trip wires PMs stumble on as they grow and how Louder Than Ten has trained juniors, mid-levels, and senior-level project leaders to be more strategic and proactive folks who can not only run smoother projects, but can design healthier project systems that smooth out your cashflow and make your revenue more predictable, too.

Here’s a secret: a good project leader is your crystal ball

Project managers should report on vital leading indicators that show you not only how your agency is doing, but how likely you are to have a healthy project portfolio, how many hires you’ll need this quarter, how much revenue is forecasted, how happy your teammates really are, and how many are eyeing the door. They are so close to all the moving people and project parts, the money that changes hands, the latest trends and project strategies, and the expectations your clients and team volley around—they are invaluable staff members.

They help future-proof your company.

A warning left unheard is no warning at all

But here’s the thing. If your agency doesn’t operate from a place of empowerment and trust, you might tend to ignore these glorious PM early warning systems. You might misuse or abandon your project managers, giving them in-the-weeds tasks with impossible timelines when PMs hold the secret to helping your business thrive.

From our series, we know that:

  • Agencies that encourage PMs to see outside the golden triangle of scope, and, are more profitable and their teams are happier.
  • Nobody emerges from the womb with a natural knack for spotting risks, red flags, and scope creep—PMs learn in the trenches (painful) or through training (room to practice and play).
  • Risks, red flags, and scope creep aren’t scary, bad things—they’re inevitable and we can turn a scary outcome into a healthy one by having open conversations with our clients (especially those tough ones about money and expectations).
  • It’s not normal or sustainable for an agency to constantly be chasing projects and wondering if they’re going to be okay—it’s actually a sign that an agency is reactive (and probably flailing uncontrollably).
  • Running a proactive agency takes more upfront and ongoing work, but it’s the key to keeping your staff and clients happy.
  • Reactivity doesn’t have to be a death sentence—any reactive agency can become proactive. The most important decisions are to involve PMs in big-picture strategy, give them access to the books, and train them to interpret the levers and dials of your business functions.
  • Good PMs spot risks and red flags and try to prevent them. Great PMs use them to transform relationships—as well as your business.
  • Scope creep isn’t half as sneaky as its “bad boy” image—you can turn it into gold when you spot it, plan for it, and teach your team what to watch for.
  • Your lovable PMs are capable of showing projects who’s boss and impressing the hell out of your clients, managers, and teammates (they just need a little guidance and a whole lot of trust).

Your PMs may not know the trip wires

You might be wondering how your own PM folks are doing. Well, I commonly see PMs falling into a few major traps as they attempt to navigate their world. Most project leaders in digital tend to fall into this line of work (rather than go to school for it), so it’s no surprise that empathic, intuitive folks who are good communicators are often drawn to the role. But so are tactical thinkers and dogmatic ones. These are the common traps we help PMs navigate through in training. Do any of these hit?

Trap 1: Nice-at-all costs

These project managers say yes to everything and everyone, often throwing their teammates under the bus when they agree to unnecessary feature requests. Because they try to accommodate client requests and aren’t always good at setting and keeping boundaries, clients walk all over them, stretch out projects, and create project drag that eats into your cash. PMs who do this need support to know that they can be kind and firm, use scripts and a direct tone to create safety in client relationships, and can say no to unreasonable requests without feeling bad or hurting the team.

Trap 2: Tools over systems

These PMs get stuck thinking that a project management tool can fix all their problems and constantly introduce new tools when they should be focusing on system level tracking and reporting. Good PMs know the important project systems that help them monitor leading metrics like minimum engagement fees (all projects have a minimal price requirement in order to be approved), booked and recurring monthly and quarterly revenue, and assigned project team capacity that help them predict the health of upcoming cashflow. This is not an Asana or Jira shortcoming. There is no perfect tool to rule them all. This is an issue of not seeing nor understanding the big picture and it is completely fixable.

Trap 3: Rigid rule-followers

These project managers get stuck in the tactical micromanagement role. They can deliver projects by monitoring the flow of work and task-level minutia, but don’t realize when to apply flexibility to their processes. Instead of creating rigidity and a vice like grip around their projects, they should make sure the team is cared for, clients have the feedback loop they need about the health of their project, and their managers have actionable ways to support them. They often try to cover too many bases and do the work for other people because it’s ‘faster and easier’ which further breaks the project lifecycle systems loop and slows things down.

Trap 4: Everyone’s-against-me

These PMs get stuck in feelings of despair (I mean, no wonder, when they get treated like Cassandras all the time), and believe nobody will support them or rally to help get projects to the finish line. They become cynical, burnt out, and blame their team or managers when things go wrong instead of creating soft places to do the important psychological safety building that’s required to align on project and team goals. This toxic behaviour will seep into your client relationships, cause massive turnover, and create a reactive environment where your project leads might go rogue and undermine the actual delivery process because they feel so hopeless and isolated.

There are loads more, but I think you’re starting to get the picture. Traps are everywhere. These poor PMs need a lot of insight and support to do their jobs right. And we’ve helped hundreds of them since 2017 thrive in big and little agencies all over the world.

Training your PM is believing in your business

If managers want their PMs to know how to make their agency healthy, they need to provide training. This kind of business intuition is nurtured and unleashed when PMs feel safe to explore, can grow in their responsibilities, and are given opportunities to practice in a supportive environment. They are not inherent abilities, despite what many folks think. I often meet people who worked with a ‘bad PM’ and that coloured their vision on what project management is all about, and I’ll bet you anything that PM wasn’t given proper training or coaching. That makes me sad because it didn’t have to be this way. PMs of all experience levels need to unlearn bad habits picked up in the trenches under fire. We give them a safe way to do that.

We’ll give you back the hope and energy had when you started and we’ll breathe life back into your PMs and their processes. Find out what certified Louder Than Ten PMs and their teams get excited about. Then read about our grads’ experiences.

Change happens when we’re all pulling together, uniting for the same purpose, and fighting for the same things. We just happen to be really good at training folks how to make that happen.

That’s it for this series. But check out our resources or reach out if you want to talk to me about your agency or PM situation. What are the top two things on your mind as summer winds down? Let me know at rachel@louderthanten.com. I answer every email.

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