Project Management: Reflections on our #IronViz Project

by Matthew Armstrong

Last Friday concluded our first group project, for which I was assigned the Project Manager role.
Instead of the usual Client Project, we were tasked with creating and submitting our #IronViz submissions in just a couple of days, making it a very atypical project. Usually we would meet with the client to discuss their expectations and requirements, which would guide our initial brainstorming process and help us scope the project. While it was liberating to have the creative license to find and pursue our own insights, this did make knowing where to start significantly more difficult.
It also made the role of Project Management very different. For a start, I was expected to create my own submission, whereas typically the PM takes a backseat role in the technical process. This required me to balance completing my Viz with keeping track with and helping the others with their submissions. Moreover, the nature of the project meant that in the end we would be publishing a Viz in our own name, which would ultimately reflect our personal brand, meaning I wanted to give everyone the final says on each iteration of their Viz. Of course, I tried to give as much advice and feedback as possible (and encourage the others to do the same), but my leadership role meant acting more as an enabler of everyone’s ideas.

Considering these oddities, this blog is probably not representative of a typical Project Management experience, but regardless, I’d like to share some of what I learned from it:

  • Have a plan and stick to it – this piece of advice was given to us by Carl before we had started the project, and turned out to be very useful. We knew that we only had 2 days (plus any personal time) to spend on the project, with quite a lot to get done. Having a rough plan of where I expected us to be at each day made gauging whether we were ahead or behind much easier, and meant I was in a much better position when deciding how to allocate my own time.
  • Have a back-up plan and don’t be afraid to use it – ideas don’t always work out. Sometimes you over-scope your projects, sometimes your idea leaves you nowhere, and sometimes your idea just isn’t plausible. My original idea for my Viz was horrifically over-scoped, messy and eventually ill-fated, leaving me with only a day to essentially start over. This would’ve been calamitous had I not had a back-up plan. As it turns out, I’m actually happier with the how the back-up went than I would’ve been had my original worked out!
  • Regularly check up on how people are doing – people (myself included) have a frustrating tendency to not always say when something’s going wrong, or they need help. As a project manager, this can be fatal. You may assume that everyone is on track for the deadline, only to find out last minute that some in the team are miles behind, leaving you with a manic rush, and scuppering your beautifully scheduled plan. Regularly checking in with the team means your always aware of the status of each component, and allows you to plan accordingly.
  • Don’t act stressed, even if you are – stress is contagious. If the person who has the plan is stressed, it’s only rational to be stressed yourself. Moreover, the more stressed you are, the less rational you become, which can only mean trouble. Thankfully, our project went mostly stress-free, but in the moments when things did get stressful, I made a conscious effort to remain calm and collected.
  • Be ruthless with time management/ beware the rabbit-hole – when you’re first exploring your options during a project, or tweaking your final project, it can be easy to ignore time constraints in search of improvement. But this can easily derail your schedule and make you have to rush jobs down the line. I think I managed this fairly well up until the last day. On the final day, the plan had been to let the team make the finishing touches in the first 2 hours of the day, and then to practice our presentation in the remaining hour. However, the team were still iterating and tinkering 2.5 hours into the day, giving us insufficient time to practice our presentation. Although our presentation was by no means bad, it wasn’t as polished as I had hoped, due to the lack of time management.

Overall, I’d say I’ve come out of the week with a positive experience. And sure, when you ask people about their PM experiences, they’re likely to recount the horror stories. But no one has been too scarred by the experience, and they’ve always come out with is something to learn from.

Hopefully, this will give you a few tips and tricks to help make your next PM experience a bit less daunting, and a bit more successful.

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