“How long is a string?” is the question that pops into my head when a potential client asks how much a website will cost. A string can be any length, maybe it’s four inches, or maybe it’s 40 miles. You won’t find out until you measure. Websites are the same way — to learn how much one costs you have to measure (scope) it. Then you measure along the way to be sure you’re on track. This is just one best practice to follow when you’re learning how to manage a project successfully. We’ve got more tips for you below.
How manage a project successfully — 3 crucial steps for web developers
This article will help you think through a process for keeping projects on time and budget. These are lessons my team and I have learned the hard way:
Create a detailed scope of work.
Have regular check-ins with the client.
Improve your communication.
1. Create a detailed scope of work
A scope of work is an outline of the work you intend to do for someone. It usually includes a description of the work to be done, a timeline and a cost.
The scope of work sets all of the most important expectations for the project. It is critical because each project must have a single source of truth to come back to when things don’t go as planned.
The scope of work must be extraordinarily detailed. It can’t be “build a website.” That will destroy the project. It can’t even be, “build a five-page website.” Why not? Here are a few questions about the “build a five-page website” scope:
- Does each page have its own unique, custom design?
- How long is each page?
- Who is writing the content for each page?
- How much content will go on each page?
- Who is sourcing the photos?
- Is someone doing a photo shoot for the project? If so, who?
- Will the site be mobile-friendly, or have a completely different mobile approach?
- Does the website build include SEO work?
- Where will the website be hosted?
- Does the client have the legal rights to all of the content they are asking you to put on the website?
A good scope of work will answer all of these questions and more.
Here is an outline that might be helpful for thinking through your own scope of work as you learn how to manage a project successfully:
- Project information: Who is the client and who is doing the work?
- Project summary: When will the project start and end? What is the business goal driving the project? What is the expected solution to the business goal? What are the risks of the project (short deadline, unknown complexity)? What are the deadlines (content delivery, site design completion, site launch)? How will each of those things be delivered?
- Project process: Describe your process for doing this project.
- Budget: Lay out a clear budget for the project and break that down into all of its components so the client can understand the full cost and where the money is going.
- Project milestones: What are the milestones along the way that will let you and the client know that the project is running on time and on budget?
- Project governance: How often will you and the client communicate and how? What will happen when the client asks for something that is out of scope?
- Assumptions: In every client project, you are assuming certain things. For example, you are assuming that the client has the rights to their own content and did not steal it from another website. Make sure to list those assumptions in detail.
- Acceptance: There needs to be a page where the client signs the document formally so there can be no question about their acceptance of the agreement.
Related: How to write a web design proposal
2. Have regular check-ins with the client
The worst thing you can do with any project is to start work and not talk to the client until you are done. Even though you have been working hard, because the client can’t see the work, they may assume you have done nothing at all and get increasingly agitated.
It builds their confidence in you and in the work they are paying for. It also allows them to feel good about the investment they are making.
For larger projects, a weekly or bi-weekly check-in is important. Our team at Sideways8 does weekly calls with clients and then follows up on those calls with a weekly report on the work done this week and the work expected to be complete next week.
Doing these calls and reports takes time, but taking that time has greatly reduced our clients’ anxiety around their projects. This frequent communication has also allowed us to make small project adjustments as we are talking more about the project along the way. This way, there are no big surprises.
Project status report outline
When learning how to manage a project successfully, use an outline like this one to stay on track with project status reports:
- Project title: A title to be sure you are both talking about the same project.
- Project vision: This is one sentence describing what you are doing for the project.
- Project health: If the project is hours based, how many hours have been spent to date? How many hours are left in the budget? What percent complete is the project? How many estimated hours until project completion?
- Completed this week/month: A summary of what has been completed since your last project status report.
- To be completed: List out a summary of what should be completed between this report and the next one.
- Issues/roadblocks: List what is keeping you from meeting your deadlines. For example, if the client is not delivering website content on time, list that here.
- Upcoming milestones: List any milestones that you should meet between this report and the next one.
A project status report is important for a few reasons. First, clients don’t read your emails; they scan them and can miss important details. Second, clients can miss details on phone calls as well. They are distracted by email, Slack, the dog, etc. Third, these reports leave a paper trail leading back to the single source of truth, the scope of work.
The reports are how you will know where you are at in the project at any given time and will be your guide when the client comes to you unhappy about something related to the project.
Building a weekly status report might take 30 minutes a week, but the time it will save in communication and headaches will be well worth it.
3. Improve your communication
The last way to be sure projects are on time and on budget is to improve your communication holistically. We often assume that communication is easy, but it’s one of the hardest things we do in business. Taking the time to improve communication will affect your business in every area, but especially in making sure you and your clients are on the same page.
That means making a concerted effort to let your client speak until they are finished, without starting to form your next thought, and certainly without jumping into the conversation too quickly. Many clients are thinking on their feet when talking about a project, so if you don’t let them talk until they are finished, you are likely to miss critical details.
One of the best questions I was ever taught to ask is, “What do you mean by that?” When a client says something vague about a project, ask this question and take notes. Very often the client means something different than what you originally thought.
When talking with the client, make sure to parrot back to them what they said. I love to listen to someone in detail and then ask them if I can repeat back to them what I’m hearing them say. Then, I summarize everything they said and ask if I was correct. Doing this gives them an opportunity to hear their thinking come from someone else and thus assess it in a different way. Often, doing this will lead to better thinking and better solutions overall. At the very least, doing this lets the client know that I’m listening and interested in what they are saying.
You cannot expect to remember all the important details of a conversation. Notes are the only way to be sure you don’t miss something. Also, taking notes by hand helps you listen and comprehend better.
After a meeting (or call) send an email summary of it to the client with your notes, takeaways and tasks (yours and theirs). Doing this adds another touchpoint with the client, building trust. It also shows that you were listening during the meeting and are attentive to their needs. Listing the tasks that you are responsible for and that they are responsible for is also critical so that you are both on the same page. Consider this a mini-scope of work or project update.
Suggested meeting recap email outline
As you dive deeper into how to manage a project successfully, use an outline like this one to recap meeting notes via email:
- Meeting topic: What was the meeting about?
- Important notes: What are the most important notes and things you learned during the meeting?
- Tasks: What tasks are you responsible for and when are they due? What tasks is the client responsible for and when are they due?
- Next steps: What are the next steps in the project overall as a result of this meeting?
Keeping projects on time and on budget is about communication and documentation. If you communicate well and document everything in detail, you will be all set. If you don’t, things will spin out of control quickly. The choice is yours.
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