Most of us have been there, or will be at some point. That feeling you get with some projects where it’s like you’re stuck on an interstate on a Friday evening, because someone up ahead has a flat tire.
Roadblocks on projects are frustratingly inefficient. You’d love to continue on and get the job done, but some contingent process or communication is not happening.
Some agencies we’ve encountered have expressed frustration at projects which have dragged out for months longer than expected, limiting their ability to take on new projects and causing disproportionate amounts of time to be spent chasing up.
So how can you ensure that your projects are setup to limit the potential for roadblocks? Here’s our guide to keeping projects un-stuck…
#1. Have A Clear Process
Most projects will follow a similar sort of process from ideation through to completion. That is not to say that all should be approached the same way: appropriate project approaches can be as varied as the requirements of individual clients.
However, any successful agency should have a basic overview of what projects look like. Otherwise, how do you clearly communicate expectations to your team? Here is an example from ADX Internet Marketing:
Of course each of these steps will have further actions and milestones. Before starting or assigning any of the client work, sit down and outline a clear project process, including individual milestones and what contingencies milestones may rely upon in order to be completed.
As you lay out your process, prioritize tasks in accordance with which ones contribute the most to the momentum and success of the project. Delegate out to team members according to strengths. If you handle some of the work too, pick the areas where your own strengths lie.
Identify Potential Bottlenecks Early
“If we could first know where we are, and whither we are tending, we could better judge what to do, and how to do it.” – Abraham Lincoln
Bottlenecks tend to occur whenever the next step is contingent on something being completed in the last one. By identifying these potential bottlenecks ahead of time, you are not only able to make them clear to anyone involved in the project, but plan ahead for ways to get around them.
Eric Ries, author of ‘The Lean Startup’ recommends using the “Five Whys” technique for getting through all kinds of problems that you may encounter in business. This technique has its origins in the Toyota plant in the 1950s and basically involves asking a series of five ‘why’ questions for each problem you encounter.
If we take a project-based example:
- Why are we stuck at (this point) of the project?
Person X hasn’t completed task A.
- Why hasn’t person X completed task A?
They need widget B from person Y in order to complete it.
- Why hasn’t person Y completed widget B?
They have 27 other widgets to complete over the same period and not enough time.
- Why does person Y have 27 other widgets to complete?
There is no one else on the team with widget competency.
- Why is there no one else on the team with widget competency?
Because we haven’t recruited anyone else yet.
In this way the “Five Whys” help you to drill down to the real source of bottlenecks. In this case, recruiting more widget makers could have un-stuck the project, so person X wasn’t the immediate problem.
#2. Clearly Define Project Scope
Scope-creep is a frequent cause of bottlenecks in projects. We’ve written about its perils previously and given pointers on how to avoid it. If your scope grows out of control, it becomes difficult to make any real progress on a project because you’re constantly changing gears.
Having a clearly defined, documented project scope is a key factor in avoiding scope-creep and keeping momentum in your projects. The most efficient projects have firmly laid out what is in-scope and what is outside of it. This way, even if you do need to have some flexibility, you have the opportunity to review original agreements and be compensated more for any additions.
#3. Set Standards For Your Team
Managing a team through project work is never an easy task, especially if they are all based remotely, as is the case with many digital agencies these days.
Some people feel it’s more difficult to hold team members accountable when you’re not seeing them every day in an office setting, but this does not need to be the case. In fact, if you want to keep projects on-track, you need to develop standards for your team and hold members accountable if they don’t meet them.
Your standards should include everything from the quality of the work and expectations for any revisions, to the timeliness of delivery. Document your standards and keep them somewhere very visible to your team.
You should also be sure to include standards for what to do if a deliverable is held up. Sometimes there are valid reasons why something can’t be delivered on time, but give your team members a process to follow so that hopefully, you are alerted in advance of the deadline.
#4. Agree Upon A Communication Strategy
This goes for both clients and team members: either could be responsible for roadblocks in the project process. Right from the beginning of your arrangement with the client, agree upon a strategy for communication throughout the project.
Your agreement should include how you will communicate and when. Your needs will vary depending on the size and scope of the project, but sometimes having a set, regular progress meeting is one of the best ways to stay on track.
Always make clear to the client what their role is in the project. If certain things can’t go ahead until you’ve heard from them, be sure that they understand this. Give them simple action steps so that they don’t feel like they have large, daunting tasks to get through.
Use A Good Communication/Project Management Tool
There are many good project management tools out there, and these are a great place to store relevant files, keep your project plan and documentation and communicate internally with your team.
One of the pieces that is often missing is an effective tool for communicating with clients throughout the project. This is where we like ClientFlow: you and the client can have a shared inbox dedicated to their project. This way communications don’t go missing or get buried in overflowing inboxes.
Your role is always to take charge of the project – otherwise you run into the real possibility that the entire thing hinges on the client. In general, clients expect you to take charge anyway so there’s nothing wrong with including contingency measures in your agreement.
For example, you could say something like; “we prefer to receive feedback within three business days of requesting it in order for us to maintain project timelines. If we have not heard back, we may pursue the course of action we feel is best suited to the situation. We will always let you know in this instance so that you have the opportunity to give a quick ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to that action.”
Here is an example from Six Revisions of what you might say to a client when you’re looking at moving ahead with a course of action:
#5. Consider Billing Per Milestone
There are a couple of thoughts behind this: 1) getting a percentage upfront can protect you from those “check is in the mail” customers and 2) paying by the milestone can be a good way of keeping the client invested in the project.
This means that (hopefully!) they’re vitally interested in being responsive when you need something back from them because they have already invested time and funds.
Typically, many agencies ask for 50% upfront, but you could attach agreed fees to each milestone throughout the project too, especially if they represent a large amount of work. This helps to ensure that you don’t end up in the hole if the client suddenly vanishes part way through too.
#6. Know When To Quit
If the hold-up is not with you or your team and the client persists in being the roadblock, sometimes the best course of action can be simply to cut and run. Red flags like persistently missing payments for milestones, chopping and changing ideas so that nothing is ever achieved and being slow or completely absent with feedback can be good reasons to call it quits.
Keep communications professional and give the client fair warning if possible, but don’t allow a situation to continue that is preventing you from moving on to other projects. Not every client is a good fit for you and that’s fine: just don’t let the project continue to drag out. This can be quite demoralizing and demotivating for team members.
The roadblocked project is a common scenario for agencies and anyone else who specializes in project-based work. While you may not be able to avoid roadblocks forever, there are some steps you can take to minimize the chances of them occurring.
Have a good plan in place, identify and deal with the root causes of roadblocks, set clear standards for your team and the client. Try keeping the client invested by regularly updating them and possibly requiring milestone payments.
If all else fails, don’t let one roadblocked project stand in the way of your ability to commit to other work. Know when to walk away and look to the next project.