June 19, 2015

I am not a control freak

by Chaitanya Rele

Attempting to define what I do has proved to be a difficult task. Because it’s always assumed that if you work at a design firm – you’re a designer who wears chucks, jeans, a black t-shirt, all in a hipster ensemble or you’re a suit in a suit.

It’s long been assumed that the skills of a project manager and designer are not natural allies. Even today we find that the role of a project manager is an emerging position. It is a role that’s shrouded in mystery, often misunderstood and always hard to define and that’s what keeps me interested. It is a role that is challenging, always evolving and creative in more ways than one.

Project management has been referred to in the past as the trifecta of balancing scope, timelines and budget. It would appear then that there has been little invention or new thinking on what a project manager does or what project management is. Project management then seems to be more about the process of doing things and less about the outcome for the client or studio.

So are project managers today just managing deadlines and meetings with no understanding of the client’s brand and its business objectives? Or are they the ones managing production and finances with no real understanding of what the designers want. Or are they the ones to blame when things go awry? Or are they just control freaks?

Traditionally, the project manager’s role begins with a signed contract after which they ensure effective timeline management, delivery on deadline and on budget, coordination between teams and relationship management.

But for me, the role of a project manager has become more diverse, lending itself to more than just gantt charts and excel mayhem. A project manager today is driven not just by the deadlines but rather by the programme in itself. A project manager brings the teams together – being responsible for the leadership of a project from inception to completion by guiding the team, negotiating multiple relationships between the client, consultants, designers, external partners and vendors – functioning as the hub of the project.

More designers and consultants are picking up management skills propelled by the need to have a central cog that steers the programme – ensuring the client’s business objectives and the studio’s outputs are aligned. These ‘programme managers’ are effective because they understand the process, are capable, have the requisite skills to perform the tasks through the course of the programme (like an extra asset), and are able to define and foresee problems along the way – constantly developing solutions that won’t hamper the delivery or timelines.

A good programme manager keeps an eye on the big picture from day one, looking at opportunities to utilise for the client’s business, working with a strategist to develop an effective strategy and with designers to create an amazing idea, but most crucially to ensure that all these aspects are delivered and realised. A good programme manager is always developing new business by strengthening existing relationships and looking for opportunities for collaboration, and often working with a business development colleague to better define a project’s scope and outcome.

A lot of this may sound like a fast-track to becoming the principal at a firm, but a programme manager doesn’t look at it that way. They see the role as an opportunity to be strategic and creative all the time. They believe that design is problem-solving, and that programme management is resolving an additional component which should be approached with the same enthusiasm as the creative process itself.

A programme manager isn’t the one simple answer to a firm’s management issues either. Rather they allow the leadership, consultants and designers to focus with direction and intent, and enable smoother processes and better workflow allowing each speciality to spend time on doing what they do best.

One of my mentors once helped me define this role outside of a job description – “A smart content strategist who’s always looking at the big picture – creating synergy for the client’s business and the studios creative objectives. It’s someone who’s always in control with an obsessive attention to detail, with the right answers to the questions that have not already been asked.”

A version of this article was published in Kyoorius 23.
Thumbnail illustration by Zaneta Antosik

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