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From the Trenches

How to Project Manage When You’re Not a Project Manager

Right Source | August 18, 2017
How to Project Manage When You're Not a Project Manager

So you’re not a project manager or traffic manager. You’re a staff associate, or marketing coordinator, or account coordinator, or marketing manager, or some other title that doesn’t have anything to do with project management. Heck, maybe you’re even a member of the creative department.

But through some twist of fate, you’ve been tasked with managing a new project or account. Maybe the usual project manager quit or got sick, or no one else has the bandwidth to handle it. Regardless, you are now in charge of project managing — but you’re not a project manager. What do you do?

First of all, don’t panic. Many jobs include various elements of project management, so you probably know more than you think you do.

Unfortunately, many times you are baptized by fire in project management. Someone needs your help, needs it now, and doesn’t really have time to sit you down and give you tactical tips or the project management primer. Here are five suggestions to help the novice project manager get going if you get thrown into the fire:

Pick your platforms early.
In an ideal world, your team already has their go-to software established before they hand you the reins, but this isn’t always the case. Maybe you use Asana for copy but Trello for design, and maybe Todoist for your personal list. Or perhaps your team’s calendars are spread out across multiple platforms. There’s not really a “right” platform for project management. There are a lot of programs out there that you could use, and many of them are good options. But do yourself a favor and pick one at the beginning and stick with it. Trust me, you don’t want to have to keep multiple project management platforms synced up — this creates a lot more work for you and increases the likelihood that something will slip through the cracks. Set yourself up for success, pick one platform, and get everyone on board.

Take stellar notes.
Since you’re the project manager, people will look to you for answers to a whole host of questions. As a result, you need to take notes and keep a running record of all the conversations that happen around the project: conference calls, team meetings, “do you have a minute?” quick huddles. Your notes can be in a single Google doc, Word doc, Evernote, whatever program works for you. You can share that document directly with your team, or keep the raw version just for yourself. Such rigorous note-taking serves two purposes: 1) It saves you from having to remember everything, and 2) it creates a paper trail for you to fall back on. If there are disputes about who was assigned a particular task, or when a deadline was set, or exactly what the team decided during a meeting, they will look to the project manager (i.e., you) to arbitrate. You don’t want to get caught in the middle of a “he said, she said” battle, or have to make up something on the fly because you don’t actually remember what happened during a particular conference call. If you keep watertight notes, they can save you a lot of trouble over the course of the project.

Be proactive about communication.
If you’ve been involved in the delivery side of project management, you’re probably used to other people coming to you and asking for status updates on your tasks. Maybe you voluntarily gave updates on occasion, but you knew it wasn’t a big deal if you forgot — someone would always reach out and ask about your progress. Well, now you’re officially the one asking for status updates and otherwise facilitating communication with your team. If you’ve never project managed before, it can feel like you’re nagging people — but don’t be reluctant to follow up multiple times if you have to! It is literally your job to know the status of every item at all times, and you gotta do what you gotta do to accomplish that. If you have to nag people for updates because they’re being unresponsive, that’s their problem.

Schedule time to project manage.
Especially if you don’t have a background in project management, it can seem silly to set aside time to specifically focus on it. After all, doesn’t management just sort of…happen as your team proceeds through a project? Unfortunately, project management on the fly isn’t actually management at all. Rather than just reacting to situations as they happen, you need to sit down and proactively plan out your project. Scheduling time to project manage will force you to think through the upcoming steps, and ideally give you the opportunity to head off problems before they develop into major issues. It will also give you a chance to contain your project management tasks within a specific time slot. One “do you have a minute?” meeting can lead to another all too easily — and suddenly you’ve spent your entire day managing this one project.

Empower others on your team.
When you’re first starting out in project management, you might find yourself wanting to babysit (for lack of a better word) your team members to make sure they are doing everything right. After all, you’re new to this, and you want this project to go off without a hitch! But resist the temptation to micromanage your team about every little thing. Your job is to help other people do their jobs — not actually do their jobs for them. Don’t take on unnecessary extra work. Be clear about what your team members need to do (and by when), and they’ll usually rise to the occasion.

No matter your title, project management is an extremely helpful skill to have under your belt; one that can translate across roles, companies, and industries. Even if you’ve never officially managed a project before, you likely already have experience in many of the relevant areas, you just haven’t stopped to think about it. Your job is critical to project success. Wear your project manager hat proudly. The team can’t make it happen without you.

Need some help getting your next big marketing project off the ground? Reach out.

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The Marketing Trenches blog provides thought leadership from actual marketing practitioners, not from professional thought leaders. Designed to help business leaders make more educated marketing decisions, our insights come directly from our experience in the trenches. You can find more from Right Source on Facebook, X (formerly Twitter), and LinkedIn.