I once likened running a startup to walking along the edge of a sword while carrying a bag of bricks. The last few months have been a whirlwind of hiring, team meetings, coding, moving furniture, missed deadlines, and white-boarding sessions.
I often drift into a torrential sea of the tasks and communication. Small todos get lost easily, smashed into bits by their larger counterparts. Worries are laden in my mind... What if we don't finish that module in time? Is it at risk? Is the entire project at risk? What if the client doesn't pay on time? Is my team as productive as they could be? Why hasn't that code been checked in? When am I going to write that document? Where did all the time in the day go?!
Yes... I'm certain now... it takes a certain degree of madness to coordinate projects.
My partial exit from the role of programmer has given me tremendous insight into the arduousness that is project management. It was so straight-forward before, the project manager gives you a task, you do it. Got a bullet-list of todos? Great - I'm on it! The flip-side just isn't as simple...
So far, it seems organizing the project means you need a solid understanding of not only the gritty details, but also the client and team expectations. Timing, scope, resources, capabilities, motivation, vacations, and yes - company politics - all need to be accounted for before you even write that first task description. It's seems almost certain you'll miss something.
So, in the deep, dark, rabbit hole of project madness... err, management, what's shown to be the glimmer of sanity? The shining jewels in the night? When I think about it, three gems come to mind:
Process - Team - Tools
One thing I love about being in a start-up is that modifying a business process is as simple and easy as informing the team. There's no committees or meetings to hold for weeks on-end. There's no one to shut you down or hold you back. Think there's a better way to do something? OK let's do it. Everyone get on the same page and move forward.
Just recently, one of our projects for a YouTube entertainer had been struggling, we'd been spinning our wheels on top of a new CMS and social media integration, and we realized that the current process we had in place wasn't providing a good direction. The team and I sat down in front of the whiteboard and marked out exactly what was going wrong. We talked about the process and spoke honestly about where we were struggling.
The discussion about our struggles with the existing process led to real, valuable business insight about how we could improve our workflow. We re-arranged the bits and pieces into something that resolved the struggles we were facing, specifically removing the incongruities, needless repetition, and lack of direction. What was once chaos became clarity.
We now have a stronger business process with elements that will likely last for many, many projects to come.
The process is the road you traverse while pulling your wagon of projects. Is it jagged, bumpy, and falling apart? Or is it well-constructed and clear?
The previous year was arduous. I was trying to grow and develop a team from scratch. That meant job ads, interviews, and lots of trial-and-error.
Finding the right team-members is not the easiest - especially when you're a start-up that has grandiose dreams where every person you hire has the same self-motivation, drive, and professional demeanor as yourself.
The right team seems to be made of a members that are relatively self-motivated, and want to be part of the brand experience your company is selling. They are experts in their field and know their work genre like the back of their hand. More than anything, they need to be professionals.
Professionals have ethics. Professionals are always learning. Professionals deliver quality. Professionals adapt.
It's not enough for somebody to have knowledge, the individual must be able to execute and act on that knowledge. They need to have a fundamental drive to gain a greater wisdom of their trade, not stand idly by while their peers innovate beyond them.
When your team member receives criticism of their work, are they able to take it in stride and either learn or collaborate? Or do they sulk in anger or fight you? Criticism is a key factor to professional growth, and newcomers and amateurs will be inexperienced in how to deal with it. Can you coach them to better handle criticism?
As the project coordinator, it's not enough to organize tasks, you need to organize your people - give them the tools and information to succeed. Those who refuse to be professionals will fall away, and you'll be left with those that make up the right team.
When you have the right team, you worry less. Your team communicates and works together to create solutions. Your entire business becomes energized with excitement for the future, and you get a little more sleep at night.
Append Media's first tool was Trello. If you've never heard of it, it's a digital KanBan board that let's you organize cards into tracks/columns corresponding to a process. It's a great tool, but it's a bit simplistic.
From the get-go the team didn't leverage the tool as much as I'd hoped. When asked for feedback, some of them found it cumbersome, or too cluttered. I realized, when it came to large projects, the tool just didn't help. It just added time to the our process and it wasn't liked by the team.
In such a case there are really two choices: innovate or replace.
Unfortunately, we have essentially no control over how Trello works, our developers can't update the user interface with new features, so we chose to replace the tool.
Finding the right tool takes time. It takes time because you need to really evaluate options by defining your requirements in detail. It's best to start with the basics:
- Who's going to use it?
- What are they going to use it for?
- Where is it going to be used?
Based on your answers, look for at least 3 options. Then, and this is the most important step, evaluate them. Dive into each tool and see how it feels.
- Can it do what you want it too?
- Is it user friendly?
- Is it flexible enough to grow with your organization?
Some of the tools on the market are very expensive, so if you choose them, be as sure as you can that your organization will actually be able to leverage it. Imagine where it will be 3 years from now, loaded with company information - will you be able to maintain it, or will it have become a disorganized nightmare?
The last question you should ask yourself is "Will your technical team be able to leverage and build off of it if needed?" This question is often overlooked but drives one of the most important aspects of tooling in a modern business. This isn't the olden days where paper memos are being passed around, your business will want to leverage the data that it pours into this new tool. If it's locked down and inaccessible, you may find yourself in complete vendor lock-in within just a month or two.
Consider again, these three aspects: Process, Team, & Tools. They all swim together. Building a good process requires a good team and good tools. Hiring the right team members takes an established process and tools to find them. Choosing the right tools means they fit and can grow with your process and makes sense to your team.
All three are essential components that should go into your business decisions, at least, they are with us at Append Media. As we improve each of these, it's making each day a little more... sane.
From the Author: Christopher Eaton
I hope this write up helps you! These three aspects of business operation have been so critical in our bare-metal start-up. Their importance wasn't always so apparent to me in the early days, but as we've grown, each is something I find myself thinking about every day. Thanks for reading!