Sink Or SwimAs a freelancer, I fall into the project manager role quite often. I need to manage not only myself, but my time, my deadlines and my clients. My getting paid (and maintaining a good working relationship) sometimes rides on the outcome of a client’s project and whether it meets its deadlines. While I have little to no control over their development and deployment processes, and I’m not a project manager by title, I still have a stake in the success or failure to ship a product on time.

An involuntary and reluctant project manager is born.

Most jobs require some amount of project management, even freelance jobs. When the stakes of a project’s outcome includes your livelihood and likelihood of future work, you will undoubtedly respond as I have done: sink or swim.

Treading Water: Signs You Need to Start Swimming

I was once hired for an ongoing freelance postiion with a small but fast-growing company. Interestingly enough, they made productivity software for managing projects. My job was simply to write the user documentation and help systems for various parts of the software suite. This demanded that I stay on top of my targets and deadlines, track my time, and liaise with internal developers and product managers to complete my admittedly small part of the final software product.

When I finished my first piece of documentation, roadblocks started popping up everywhere at work:

  • There was no structure to implementing my work or getting the final approval for its inclusion in the software
  • A major staffing crisis with outsourced programmers in another country
  • The acting product development manager was also the business development manager, trying to juggle too many responsibilities at once

I recognized quickly that I was treading water (in fact, my client’s whole team was), and despite the fact that it was completely outside the scope of my role, I took on some of the tasks a project manager would handle. The process needed to move forward again.

Learning to Swim: Managing Projects When You Are Not A PM

The dearth of communication and coordination taking place in my office undermined the potential success of the entire product launch. All the parties were capable, dedicated people but they did not have the bandwidth to follow through and coordinate with each other. I needed to take matters into my own hands. Here were just some of my self-assigned tasks:

  • Relieve pressure from key actors to help them be more effective at their main responsibilities. To do this, I acted as a liaison between the frazzled biz dev-sometime-product-manager and the local software development team to ensure that the most up-to-date information about program and system changes were conveyed to all the appropriate individuals. This cut the need for long, time-eating meetings among people who needed to devote their time elsewhere. You can also alleviate this sort of problem in LiquidPlanner with our online collaboration tools.
  • Identifying problems and bottlenecks and finding a solution. In this case, I was far enough removed from the day-to-day workings and office politics to see simple processes and fixes that could alleviate or eliminate a major problem. Being too close to a situation makes it easy to overlook even basic missing factors, such as clear communication between the right stakeholders. A good project manager, even an involuntary one, can step in and see past these blind spots.

In the end, the component of the software we were working on shipped on time, even if there were fixes that needed to take place after the fact. However, by stepping in where I saw a need, I helped to facilitate this outcome. You might find yourself in this position, as companies downsize and employees are increasingly asked to contribute more. Using your communication and organization skills while also recognizing that you are now indeed a project manager will serve you well in the long run.

The Reluctant Project Manager was last modified: June 28th, 2013 by Erika Wolfe