Coordinating Agency Chaos with Less Stress is Possible: Tips for Agency Project Managers, aka Chaos Coordinators

The formal definition of a project manager is usually something like, ‘an individual responsible for planning, organizing, managing and executing agency projects from beginning to end. They manage deadlines, client objectives, resource management and budgets.

But I’ve never felt that this description fully encompasses the many hats a successful project manager is expected to wear. 

You’re expected to balance a project’s scope, time and costs while keeping both your client and your team happy. You’re trying to meet objective goals by submitting completely subjective deliverables. 

You’re the translator between the client’s needs and expectations and your creative team and vice versa. You’re a project’s knowledge bank, ready to respond to any question thrown at you by your client, creative team or agency leadership.

You are your team’s sword and shield. You fight for their ideas when necessary, push back on unreasonable client requests to protect their time and well-being and shield them from any chaos so they can stay focused on the work they need to do. You may also play therapist if the agency receives negative feedback on their work. You might even need to pull out your cheerleading pompoms to motivate and build your team back up after setbacks.

I often say that project managers should actually be called agency Chaos Coordinators. So how can you coordinate the chaos in your agency without getting lost in it yourself?

Don’t Be That Project Manager.

There are two kinds of bad project managers. The first kind is completely emotionally detached. While project management is about managing timelines, budgets and deliverables, it’s also about managing people and their feelings. If you’re disconnected from the human experience of a project, you can’t make the nuanced decisions needed on a project.

The second kind of bad project manager is so emotionally invested in the project they don’t have the perspective needed to make good decisions or effectively lead their team. Project managers that get too emotionally attached to a project make impulsive decisions when issues arise. They lose sight of the big picture, get overwhelmed by the details and often end up burnt out.

Find A Balance Between Emotional Investment And Attachment

A good agency project manager keeps both the logistical and human elements of a project in perspective. They balance people’s feelings with objective decision-making. The best project managers I work with understand when it’s time to invest emotionally in a project and when to maintain a level of detachment.

Clarify Expectations. Then Come Back To Them Again and Again

The best way to set a project up for success is by clearly setting expectations from the beginning. Let everyone on your team know what they can expect from you and what you expect from them. Find out about any misalignment before things get started. 

Once you’re all on the same page, check in on your agreed-upon expectations regularly to ensure they’re being met. I suggest having an ‘expectation meeting’ every week or dedicating a few minutes at the beginning of a regular meeting to do an expectation check-in. This gives everyone an opportunity to voice concerns or bring up unmet expectations from the week prior.

Aligning everyone’s expectations keeps everyone on the team moving in the same direction as a unit, even when each team member’s contribution to the project is different.

Celebrate–Both the Big and Small Wins

Early on in your project, find out what motivates your team and then leverage that knowledge to celebrate the wins throughout each project and at its completion. 

I personally love hand-written note–I still have some of the notes I’ve received during huge projects because they are so meaningful to me. Maybe your team is motivated by time spent together socializing. Maybe some team members really appreciate being publicly acknowledged. 

So bring donuts in the morning, leave a sticky note with a heartfelt thank you, and shout out a team member who went above and beyond at your next agency standup–do whatever it takes to ensure your team knows you see and appreciate their work.

What To Do If You’re In the Weeds Right NOW

While there’s a lot you can do at a project’s kickoff to avoid chaos in your agency, no matter how experienced you are or how clearly you set expectations and communicate the details of a project, sometimes things just don’t go as planned. Despite our best efforts, we all end in the middle of a sh*t show sometimes. 

Here are some tips to help you get back on track.

1. Remember, we’re not saving lives

Take a moment to remember that, in the end, it’s just marketing. We’re not saving lives. Finding the appropriate level of emotional detachment will give you the perspective you need to make good decisions and get out of the weeds.

2. Go into DO NOT DISTURB mode and take stock

Block time in your calendar during the workday (not after hours, not before hours) to spend some laser-focused time taking stock of where your project is right now. Do everything you need to do to ensure you’re not disrupted. A big “Do Not Disturb” sign on your door helps immensely.

You want to be able to calmly say, “Okay, we’ve spent X% of the budget. We’ve completed X% of the tasks and accomplished these deliverables so far. These are still outstanding.” 

I recommend completing this “stock-taking” activity outside of the agency project management software you use to track the project. Maybe gather all of the dry-erase markers in the office and go wild with a whiteboard. Or, maybe make some magic with sticky notes. I’m personally a big fan of a nice fresh legal pad. Choose whatever feels different enough to shake you out of your feelings of overwhelm and run with it.

3. Find one thing to change right away

Next, filter through all of the challenges you’re facing and find the one thing you can change to make the biggest impact immediately. Think of this one thing as a boulder and everything else as a pebble. Moving the boulder might take some extra effort, but when you toss it in the lake, it’s going to make the biggest splash. 

Get your team together to discuss the ‘boulder’ and how you’re going to move it. Reset expectations and get everyone realigned on the project’s top priorities. The pebbles eventually need to be dealt with, but focusing on a big, quick win that has the most impact might be just what you need to get things back on track.

If you’re managing multiple projects and feel like you’re off the rails, you can use this same exercise. Start with the project that’s causing you the biggest headache and then repeat the process for each project until you feel clear about what really needs to be done.

Get Ahead of the Chaos With Workload Planning

When I was managing multiple projects and noticed my anxiety levels running too high, I knew it was time for my monthly workload planning session with the other project managers I worked with.

We’d start by using the work planning view and Kanban board views on our project management tool to get a clear picture of all projects and the due dates of their key milestones. Then we’d use printed calendars, markers and sticky notes to assess any red flags and anticipate potential issues so we could adjust resources as needed. Workload planning was essential for keeping my cool amidst the chaos of managing multiple projects. 

Pat Yourself On the Back

Remember, a project isn’t possible without your work. Even if you’re not directly responsible for creating its deliverables, you’re essential. So make sure to celebrate your contributions. Congratulate yourself on making magic amidst the mayhem. It’s not easy. 

If you could use some help keeping your projects on track, book a demo to see how Function Point’s All-in-One Agency Management Software can help you manage the chaos in the agency.

Victoria Fouke is the Director of Strategic Partnerships & Customer Advocacy at Function Point.

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