Episode 174

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Agencies are creative spaces. Especially as owners, we may bristle at the thought of being managed. But as your agency grows, there a definite need for systems and processes that ensure that things get done on time, on budget, and as promised.

I understand that even as the owner I get managed in order to keep tasks and projects on track. As agencies grow and need more structured management of tasks and processes and eventually, a full-time project manager. I did a solocast on the role of the traffic manager, if you’d find that useful.

But on this episode of Build A Better Agency, I have Timothy Johnson as my guest who is a seasoned project manager for hire and a professor of project management at Drake University. Tim also has been known to wear a pink bunny suit for reasons I may or may not be at liberty to discuss.

Bunny suit aside, Tim knows a thing or two about getting down to business. We talk about the needs of project managers, agency owners, and the agency staff. Often project managers feel like the odd person out, especially in the agency world. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Project management is necessary, but it is not an evil. Tim is the perfect guest to help us really understand the ins and outs of project management, and maybe even getting a little excited about upping your PM game.

Tim has successfully led many high-end projects and programs, serving as both a project management consultant as well as a business analyst consultant across the U.S. He is the author of Race Through the Forest and other project management books. Timothy believes in delivering value, completing the deliverable, seizing the accomplishment, and getting out.

 

 

What You Will Learn in This Episode:

  • Working under the triple constraints: on time, on budget, and delivered as promised
  • Components of a S.H.A.R.P. report
  • How Agile is so useful in scaling the management to the size of the project
  • The communication and other skills to look for in a good project manager
  • How creating quick wins can create buy-in around new process frameworks
  • Why you should avoid the phrases “we need” or “we have a lack of”
  • How to ask for project management to share stories in the interview
  • Why agency owners need to hire people who can manage them
  • How to define the specific requirements of what done looks like
  • How to give project managers time to find their way in a new agency setting

The Golden Nuggets:

“Ask the ‘why’ question so you are sure you are solving the right problem.” – @carpefactum Click To Tweet “Project management is more of a transformation. It's not about putting tasks on something. You're changing the very fabric of how the organization works. It’s about understanding how those cultural changes work.” – @carpefactum Click To Tweet

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Ways to Contact Tim Johnson:

Speaker 1:

It doesn’t matter what kind of agency you run; traditional, digital, media buying, web dev, PR, whatever your focus, you still need to run a profitable business. That’s why Agency Management Institute started the Build a Better Agency Podcast a few years ago. We help agencies just like yours grow and scale your business, attract and retain the best talent, make more money and keep more of what you make. Bringing his 25 plus years of experience as both an agency owner and agency consultant, please welcome your host, Drew McLellan.

Drew McLellan:

Welcome to another episode of Build a Better Agency. Today’s topic is a topic that I converse with agency owners and leaders about almost every day. And usually, the agency leaders’ teeth are gritted a bit, so they are grinding their jaw as we have this conversation. And the reality is that as our agencies grow, our need for systems and processes evolves and changes. So when you’re 10 people or less, or 15 people or less, you can get by with a lot of tribal knowledge, with a lot of silos where everybody does things their own way, but at a certain point in time, and for most of you, it’s around 20 or 25 employees, that laissez-faire model doesn’t work anymore, and you really do need to get everybody working in the same ways inside the same system or process. And you need someone to champion that system or process.

This often comes at the same time that you add a project management system. So it might be a baked in system in Workamajig or eSilentPARTNER, or it might be Function Point that plugs into QuickBooks, or it might be something standalone like Asana or one of those kind of tools. But the reality is agency people are not really wired to embrace this forced standardization that these kind of systems and processes encourage us to do. We are comfortable doing it our own way. Or oftentimes when I’m working with an agency to implement something like this, what I hear is, “You know what? I think this is a great idea. We should have a project management system, and we should have a standard way of working.”

Unfortunately, my client, “That’s not going to work for. So I think it is a great thing for you all to do, but I’m going to need to have a pass on that because something about the way I work or who I work with or whatever it is, that’s just not going to work for me. So more power to you people for embracing the system or power or the process, but I’m not going to be able to do that.” And often, the greatest offender in this role is the agency owner.

So how do you find someone who strong enough and has the right skills, both hard skills and soft skills, to really lead an agency into this new methodology where everyone is working the same as opposed to everybody doing it their own way? Which works out great when you’re a small shop, but when you’re a larger shop, all of a sudden balls get dropped and things fall through the cracks. And so you really do have to standardize the way you work. Your clients typically are a little larger and they demand a little more accountability and want to have a better idea of where things are at.

Oftentimes at this size agency, account execs are being held to tighter expectations around managing profitability, so you really need to know how many hours have been spent on a job. And all of that lends itself to and leads an agency to A, adopting a project management system, and more importantly, hiring a project manager or a traffic manager who is overseeing that new system or process and getting everybody to comply, which is no small task.

So I knew that this is a pain point for many of you. Fortunately, I knew the right guy to walk us through best practices around all of this. So Tim Johnson has been a project manager, typically an IT project manager for probably 25 or 30 years. He is basically a project manager for hire, so he signs long-term contracts, two, three, sometimes four-year contracts with different businesses and goes in as an embedded employee and gets either a specific project off the ground or an initiative, or maybe a new system or process built in. He also is an author of several books, one on project management, which we’re going to talk about, I’m sure, in the conversation, and also, we’ll have links to all of his books in the show notes.

And he also is an adjunct professor at Drake University. So he teaches both undergrad and MBA students everything from some business basics, but also specifically project management. So he knows his stuff. Tim and I have known each other for a long time. He happens to live in Des Moines, Iowa, where I live as well. And so we’ve known each other probably, gosh, a couple of decades now. And I think Tim brings a fresh spirit and attitude to the whole idea of project management. I think you’re going to really enjoy the conversation. I think you’re going to learn a ton about what it takes to be a good project manager and what it takes to support someone in that role in your organization. So let’s jump into the conversation because I have a lot of questions.

So, Tim, welcome to the show. Thanks for joining us.

Tim Johnson:

Thank you, Drew.

Drew McLellan:

So a project manager, that’s a nebulous title. I think, especially in the agency world, that sometimes those are people who are responsible for other people getting work done. In some cases in agency life, they are really a junior account executive who does all of the admin and the more tedious tasks tied to projects or client work. So for our context, what I want to do is first I want you to define what you think a project manager is, and then let’s agree on a definition with inside the agency space so that everybody is tracking with us and we’re all on the same page. So how would you define what a project manager is?

Tim Johnson:

Well, I think before you define what a project manager is, you really have to define what a project is [inaudible 00:06:43] to back that up. And a project is really any initiative as a set, beginning and end, that leads to a unique outcome. So in the agency world, it might be a new campaign, it might be something as simple as a new mailer. In my realm, in the IT world, it usually results in any project system, any upgrade, new processes, whatever. So, but there’s some deliverable at the end that you’re saying, “Aha, done.”

Drew McLellan:

Great. So you’re right. In an agency world, it’s the list of jobs that you have open for a client that at some point you’re going to close and bill, and there’s going to be a deliverable on the end of that project, a [crosstalk 00:07:30]-

Tim Johnson:

Exactly, yes. So then the project manager is the one ultimately accountable for making sure that all of that gets done. Reaching done is the key point here. So as a project manager, I have to write status reports, meetings, progress, resolve issues, those kinds of things.

Drew McLellan:

And for you in your world, are your measurements… So if someone decides whether or not you have succeeded or failed, is that based on on-time and on-budget pretty much?

Tim Johnson:

Yeah. It’s the triple constraint. “Yeah, did you do it within the budget? Did you do it within the time? And did you deliver what you said you were going to deliver?”

Drew McLellan:

So I think one of the challenges for agencies is that they, for a while, when they’re smaller, everybody project manages their own work. So most account people in a small agency, so let’s call that 10 to 15, maybe even 20 people or smaller, they self project manage. And then at some point they feel like they… And by the way, the way they are tracking their jobs might be an Excel spreadsheet or a Google Doc, but there’s no project management software, there’s no, like they’re not using Asana or anything like that. And there’s not a person who oversees all of the jobs. Everyone’s responsible for their little island.

But at a certain point in time. And it’s usually right after some colossal ball gets dropped and a deadline is missed or a client fires an agency for one of those kinds of reasons, the agency realizes that the next step in their evolution is to have someone who oversees how work flows through the agency and how to make sure everything does get… “Did we deliver what we said we would deliver?” So as you call them, the triple constraints. “Did we deliver what we were supposed to deliver? And did we do it on time and on budget?”

And so oftentimes in an agency setting, what happens, and I think one of the reasons why this is such a pain point for agencies is the agencies are not just adding their first project manager, but the project manager is tasked. Usually their first job is, “Pick a project management software or tool, and develop the process by which you’re going to herd all these feral cats through who are used to doing it on their own and make them do it your way.”

And what I tell an agency when they’re about to do this is understand that there are going to be death threats against this project. People are going to want to tackle them in the parking lot and smother them with a pillow at some point in the process. And if they live through those difficult days, you will come out on the other end and you will be more organized and you’ll have all of these benefits. Is that true to form or is that just agency life?

Tim Johnson:

Project managers are pretty well despised universally. We’re-

Drew McLellan:

Hopefully there are no aspiring project managers listening to the podcast.

Tim Johnson:

If as long as you have a strong sense of self and can handle intense criticism, and by intense criticism is the death threats you mentioned, then you should be fine. They call project management the accidental profession because very, very few people say, “Well, I want to be a project manager when I grow up.” It’s more or what you said. There’s a pain point and someone says, “You, you’re it. You were out wandering in the woods, you touched raw meat and we caught you in the net. You’re a project manager. Congratulations.”

Drew McLellan:

Right. A lot of times I think one of the mistakes agencies make is that’s like the entry level position they put a kid in, and the kid doesn’t have the fortitude to stand up to a bunch of older adults who are being mean to them and saying, “Yes, I think your system is great for everyone else, but I’m not doing it.”

Tim Johnson:

Yeah. And really that’s a struggle that all project managers deal with. In IT project management, we’re always having to struggle against the functional tasks that get done day in and day out. And especially in IT, there’s always something that’s bombing out or a crisis or what have you. And then you throw on all of these project tasks. I had discussions with my clients even this morning of, “Hey, you said you’d have this list for me two weeks ago. Where is it?” And they’re busy putting out other fires. And so-

Drew McLellan:

Yeah, it’s not that somebody wants to not comply. It’s just that there’s too much on their plate, and oftentimes what you’re asking them to do isn’t on fire.

Tim Johnson:

And realistically, what I’ve learned after doing this for a couple of decades is I’ve actually started taking lessons from your playbook in the marketing and branding and advertising. I need to add a certain value with my communication, so I have to brand my message for the people on my team to make them want to follow me. It’s like hiding with spinach in the Velveeta. I’m not going to say, “You will follow me,” and leave it at that. I have to do things that make them say, “Oh, Tim’s on the up and up. He’s getting things done. I want to help him.” And so that means making sure I’m not absorbing huge amounts of their time in meetings.

I am a huge fan of the very, very, very short meeting. And a lot of people on my project teams, I’m currently managing about seven different initiatives, and the people on my teams are always like, “You get us out, you schedule us for a half hour, but you usually have us out and under 10 to 15 minutes.” I’m very, very aware of other people’s times. So that’s one of the ways I add value. I make sure that the people who didn’t make the meetings have very concise yet clear meeting minutes they can read if they can’t make it.

And then when I’m doing status, just the very straightforward information that they need to know. I’m very consistent with my status reports. In my first book that I wrote, Race Through the Forest, which was on project management, I actually talk about the five components that should be in a good status report. And I use the acronym SHARP for that. The first section’s statistics. Who’s managing the project? Who’s the champion of it if that’s a role that they have in the agency? What’s the budget? What’s the timeline? And then a color status, red, yellow, green, which I outlined in that book as well. So all of those kinds of things I outline in that stat section.

The highlight section, what are the upcoming milestones? Anything in the next three to six months is fair game, but what are those big dates that we’re pushing for? The A in SHARP is accomplishments. What did we do since the last status report? The R then is risks. What are the things that could potentially derail us as we’re working on this? Someone’s not getting back to us, we don’t have this information, we thought we would have it now, a vendor is hedging us, whatever it may be. But those things that are, those issues that are creeping up making you get nervous. And then finally, projections, the P in SHARP. What are we going to do before we report status again? So what do we project will get done next time?

Drew McLellan:

You can see how in an agency, a project might take six months, but it also might be due tomorrow. So you can see how if you had those lined up for the bigger projects, especially the risks, I think a lot of times we get caught off guard. Why, I don’t know, because the same stuff happens over and over. But we’re so confident that it’s going to work perfectly this time and then we’re stunned when the client takes too long to review something, or as you said, a vendor holds us out or whatever it may be. So I can totally see why those five components and reviewing them would keep everybody on track a little bit better.

Tim Johnson:

Yeah. And you mentioned the shorter projects, the ones where it’s dumped on your desk and it’s due tomorrow or due next week. And in those kinds of cases, you really have to scale your project management. You can’t throw all that rigor at someone. And that’s where like Agile teams use tools like [inaudible 00:16:39] boards, where it might just be a case of, “I’m moving the sticky note across a bulletin board, but that’s all the reporting you’re going to get.” You have to make sure that you’re always applying the right amount of rigor for the size of the project.

Drew McLellan:

I think that’s a pain point for a lot of agencies. The project managers come in, and again, in fairness to them, they often walk in and there is no process, or every single person in the agency has their own process and they’ve been tasked with, “Create a process and then herd everyone into using the process.” But what comes out of that sometimes is a rigidity and a, “We are going to do this by the book no matter how big the project is or how fast the turnaround is,” which is really impractical at the end of the day. Because again, if it’s a Monday and a client calls and needs something by Wednesday, we’re not going to have three status meetings and as you said, all the rigor that comes with something else. So it really does… Whatever process you develop, it sounds like it really does have to be able to evolve or ebb and flow depending on what you’re pushing through it. Right?

Tim Johnson:

Exactly. And I mentioned Agile earlier, and that’s one of the reasons why Agile has become so popular, is it really is able to differentiate between those two types of projects. The things where you have longer deliverables, you have more time, you break those down into manageable chunks and you manage it through the scrum process, which is closer to a waterfall project management is, but you’re doing things in very short sprints. With the things you mentioned where someone calls on a Monday, they want it on a Wednesday, that’s where you might use more of a Kanban approach of just how progress works. You’re reacting to something, you need to get it out the door, you’re not going to be probably even write one single status report, maybe to say, “Hey, we did this.” It’s like driving through a small town in Iowa, blink and you miss it.

Drew McLellan:

Right, right, right. You used a phrase I’m not familiar with, Kanban.

Tim Johnson:

That’s just a Japanese term. It simply is just [crosstalk 00:19:06]-

Drew McLellan:

Spell it?

Tim Johnson:

K-A-N-B-A-N. And really, again, it’s just more of the approach of, “We’re not going to apply a lot of rigor to this. We’re going to do the bare minimum just to get through the ad.” And it’s for those reactionary things, “Hey, this is wrong, we need to fix it.” Or, “Gee, can you draft this up by Wednesday?” That kind of thing.

Drew McLellan:

Okay. So I know that you’ve been doing this work for much of your career. As you look at other people who again, either get drafted or are drawn to that idea of being a project manager, a lot of the people listening to the podcast are hiring their first project manager and they’re not sure what to look for because in many cases they’ve never been in an agency that had a project manager. And in some cases, by the way in agency world, we call these people traffic managers. So they’re opening jobs inside a system and tracking the work through it. What are the skillsets first? And then we’ll talk about personality traits. But what are the skillsets that they should be interviewing for and looking for and testing for?

Tim Johnson:

First and foremost, communication skills. They tell us, an IT project management, 90% of what we do is communication. And that is so true. If you do not have those people skills, it doesn’t matter how well you can run Microsoft Project or any of the other tools that are out there, you’re going to fall flat on your face. And I’ve seen project managers who just severely lack the communication skills. And so that is above all. If I could rank the top three, it would be communication, communication, and by the way, communication. You really, really need to have that.

The second one, I would say have… and then this is a tie, organization and common sense. Project management is not rocket science. I hate to break it to people. If you can break down tasks into smaller tasks and organize and sequence them, you’ll be fine regardless of… That’s why I’ve seen people manage things very successfully using Excel. But you have to have that mindset of breaking things down, organizing it, sequencing it, and using that common sense skills. So really, of all the skills, communication, organization and common sense, if they rank high on those three things, they’re probably going to do okay.

Drew McLellan:

And then in terms of personality, because I do think even the nuance of communication is the best project managers are people who are able to create relationships with the people they work with to get them to want to do stuff they don’t necessarily want to do.

Tim Johnson:

Yes. I would say along with that communication aspect, a certain level of charisma.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. Or empathy or persuasiveness.

Tim Johnson:

Yes. All of those soft skills will come into play. There are times where I’ve… It’s funny, I’ve gotten a lot better at this project management stuff since I started parenting teenagers.

Drew McLellan:

Same skillsets, yes.

Tim Johnson:

Yes. And so my wife and I have recognized that there are things that one daughter will listen to one of us about but they won’t listen to the other one. And so it becomes a Cyrano de Bergerac thing. You know, “I need daughter number two to come to this conclusion. You’re better at talking to her about these things.” And I’ll be like, “Look, I know your mom’s being irrational about this. Here’s [crosstalk 00:23:09]-”

Drew McLellan:

“I’m going to throw mom under the bus.”

Tim Johnson:

Oh, completely. “But here’s the reason why you might want to consider it.” And they’re like, “Oh, okay. That makes sense.” And you do the same thing in the role of a project manager. You’re like, “Yes, I know this process really is painful to do. And in this case, here’s why I really need you to do this.” So it gets to the empathy points that you’re talking about, but it really shows them that you’re not just doing rigor for rigor sake. It’s not just a, “Hey, what new template can I make you fill out?” We joke a lot in in my arena about Virgin sacrifice. So, “How bad is it? How many do we have to throw into the volcano to get this done?” And so yeah, the-

Drew McLellan:

I think acknowledging that you’re asking them to do something that’s either new or burdensome or difficult, or maybe they don’t see the upside of doing it and acknowledging that probably is a critical skill.

Tim Johnson:

Yeah. One of the other things though, as a new project manager or a traffic manager, as you call them coming in, one of the things I would tell, and I’ve been in situations where project management has been a brand new discipline. One of the things I always get the executives to do is think about what project would be an easy win. Find one where it’s pretty well-defined deliverable. It just needs that added push to get over the finish line. And people start talking, if it’s a project that’s failed three times just because it hasn’t gotten traction and you’re able to push over using that methodology or that process framework that you’ve created and people see that, “Wow, they actually got that done. That wasn’t as painful as we thought.” And then everyone’s like, “Oh hey, maybe that can apply here.”

Drew McLellan:

I think you’re right. I think having some quick wins so they can see the upside of it. Because that’s what I warn them, I’m like, “This is a little like having a baby. You’re going to hate this and this person for six to nine months, and then all of a sudden you build these new habits, the system is tweaked out. Now we know what works and what doesn’t work.” And you get on the other side of that and all of a sudden it does start saving you time or save your bacon when it comes to mistakes or whatever it is. And all of a sudden it’s like, “Oh, this person actually is on my team. I get it.” But I think it takes awhile for a team to absorb this new discipline and this new person in essence telling them what to do as opposed to them deciding what they want to do it.

Tim Johnson:

Yeah, exactly. And I think one of the other things, I realized in the agency world, a lot of it is driven by the clients. But really, at the start of that project, asking that why question. I cannot emphasize that enough, because if you go into it solving the wrong problem, and I always challenge people, when they come up with their statement of why we’re doing this project, to avoid the phrases ‘we need’ or ‘we have a lack of.’ Because if you are starting your problem statement with those two, well, let’s say I ask that of a project executive, they might come back with, “Well, we need a new computer system. What’s the solution for that?” “A new computer system, duh.”

But if you start using that rule of the five whys and are really digging down, “Why are we doing this and why do we need a new computer system?” “Well, nobody’s using the existing computer systems.” “Aha. Why is nobody using existing computer system?” “Well, because all the directions came to us in Swahili.” “Aha.” And so and why not [crosstalk 00:27:26]-

Drew McLellan:

Right. We need manuals in English.

Tim Johnson:

Yes. And so asking those why questions upfront, and I really, really push those, the why thing upfront. And another thing I found that really is helpful, and this scares a lot of people because it’s very counterintuitive to doing a project, is really embracing the word no. And that’s actually a current workshop I’ve been putting together to deliver in the near future, is that word is just beautiful and it’s so underused. And in projects, I’ve had to deliver those really tough messages of, “No, we’re not going to do that. That does not help us get it done.” So if you answered that why question really well, it gets a lot easier to do the no response.

Drew McLellan:

Right, right. The boundaries are better defined.

Tim Johnson:

Exactly. And I tell all of my students, I tell all of my clients that the only two vocabulary words, if you’re only allowed to use two words in all of project management, why and no are going to be your best friends.

Drew McLellan:

Good point. So one of the things I observe about good project managers, and certainly I have been managed for much of my career by other people inside shops that I’ve worked in and my own shop. I recognize I’m being manage. But I think a good project manager also has a pretty good understanding of human psychology and they get that some people need to be nagged and other people need to be… Like I had a project manager who would come in and she would always, I’d hear her yelling at somebody next door to me. You know, “Got to get this done. You’ve missed your deadline.” And sure enough, that person would get it done. And then she’d come into my office and know that if she would have talk