Freelancer Project Management

Project Management Advice for Productive Freelancing

Tag Archives: Project Communication

Don’t just Duck and Cover: Risk Management for Freelancers

Sometimes, things go wrong with projects. That’s life. If you are taking on a new project you can take one of two approaches when dealing with the risks that might cause your project to veer off track:

1/ Stick your head in the sand, your fingers in your ears, hum loudly and wish for the magic pixies to make them all go away, or

2/ Put together a plan for factors that could derail your project and decide what steps you can take to protect from them.

If you pick the first strategy stop reading now and Google ‘magic pixies will fix my project’ instead. If you think the second would be more appropriate for your project, read on.

Your risk management plan does not have to be fancy. The most important thing is that you are going through the process of identifying risks early on in your project planning and considering contingencies. If you get used to thinking in this way before problems arise, the battle is already half won.

Going through the following simple 4-step process with each new project should help to identify threats, decide how likely they are to occur and create a contingency plan.

Step 1: Brainstorming

Sit down, either alone or with others who will be working on this project (your project team) and take some time to think of all the reasons why your project might run into difficulties. These could be anything from

  • team members who are inexperienced in this kind of project
  • using technology that some of your team might be unfamiliar with
  • bad weather in a project that relies on outdoor work
  • a new client you haven’t worked with before
  • funding difficulties

to other, more unlikely ones such as

  • tornadoes, snowstorms or volcanic ash clouds
  • several of your team all getting sick at once
  • your client going bust

The main thing is to get them all down at this point.

Try to be specific. For example, rather than saying that the task of producing invitations to a launch party might overrun, say that producing invitations to the launch party might overrun because the outside company you are relying on to produce them might not be used to such a large order. It is much easier to come up with contingencies if you are specific.

Step 2: Ranking your risks

If you are feeling overwhelmed with disasters at this point, don’t worry!  The next step is to rank the likelihood of these risks actually happening, putting the most likely at the top.

For example, it might be very likely for a wedding photographer to experience bad weather on the day. The threat of the wedding being cancelled might be much further down on his list, with the risk of a snowstorm in July in Florida would be right down at the bottom.

Step 3: Contingency planning

This is the stage when you can start thinking of what you might do in the event that one of these risk factors starts to affect your project. Now you have ranked your risks you can decide

  • how far down the list you will look to make contingency plans
  • whether you will start that planning now or wait until the event of it actually happening.

You may decide that only the top risk factors are ever likely to happen, so you will only develop a plan for those eventualities.

Example:

Your project is to organise an event to launch a new brand of perfume. You have five people in your project team, one of whom has never worked on a launch event before. The event is in January in Boston.

You risk management strategy might look something like this:

Risk Contingency
The inexperienced staff member might underestimate how long each of their tasks will take, resulting in project delays Set up a thorough reporting schedule so that the team can track their progress against the project plan and report back frequently
Bad weather might cause transport problems on the night of the event Send out transport options with the invitations so that guests are aware of the alternatives
The client has had some funding issues so cash flow could become a problem Agree with client to be paid in stages, at each significant milestone
The catering company might be unable to meet the order Choose a second catering company to supply the drinks
Sickness may affect more than one member of the team resulting in delays to tasks Have other freelancers on standby in case of serious illness

In this instance, the team decide that the first three risks are very likely, so work on actually implementing the contingencies, but that the fourth and fifth are less likely as they have worked with the caterer before with no problems and they consider it unlikely that more than one team member will get seriously ill. They will only deal with those eventualities if they arise, rather than spending time on it now.

Step 4: Communication

It is no good in having a risk management plan if nobody knows about it. Make sure you communicate your plan with the rest of your team, and with other parties such as your client if you think it is necessary. After all, it could be you that is unable to work and your team needs to know what to do!

Photo by Flickr user Zolierdos

The Importance of Celebrating Success

In the previous post I talked about setting objectives that you can measure.  But why do you need to measure your progress?  There are four main reasons for this:

1/ To keep you on track

2/ To communicate your progress

3/ To celebrate your success!

4/ Evaluation

Keeping you on track

Too many projects fail because of inadequate planning and unrealistic expectations.  As a freelancer, missed deadlines can mean that a) you don’t get paid and b) your reputation can be damaged.

But by breaking your project down into smaller chunks and setting deadlines for each individual stage, you can keep an eye on your overall progress.  It doesn’t have to be complicated, just block out the length of time each task in your project should take and set deadlines for each one.  By keeping track of each individual task you can monitor the progress of the overall project and take care of any slippage before it becomes an issue.

Communicating your progress

You may have agreed a reporting schedule with your client but if not, achieving your milestones or objectives can be an excellent prompt for updating your progress.  (For more about communications plans take a look at my recent posts)

Celebrating your success!

The freelancing lifestyle can be tough: we frequently work alone and have to be constantly self-motivated.  It’s easy to get overwhelmed by work and feel that we are swimming against the tide.

This is where celebrating success can be very important for our own self-motivation.  If you wait until you have finished a project to celebrate your success you can become de-motivated in the meantime, especially if your projects are long-term.  This can mean you fall behind and struggle to meet deadlines.  Finishing a project can become an exhausting battle: you may be onto the next one before you have a chance to congratulate yourself on a job well done.

By giving yourself a pat on the back or small reward after each stage of your project you can really improve your motivation and therefore your productivity.

Evaluation: What went well?

Pausing at each milestone or objective can be a great chance to reflect on your work and evaluate what went well in that stage of the project and what could be improved upon.  You don’t need to spend too much time on this, but by getting in the habit of taking the opportunity to reflect on your working practices and problems you may have faced you can improve your work for future projects.

Photo by Flickr user seelensturm

Managing Multiple Projects: Problems and Solutions

Freelancers often work on several projects at once, and working as a freelancer can bring some unique challenges.  But just how do you keep all the balls in the air?

Problem #1: Project updates are taking over your life

Problem: You have three clients who all phone you constantly to get project updates.  They all want assurance that their project is getting top priority but you are spending so much time giving updates you are falling behind.

Solution: You need to put a Communications Plan in place so that they know when to expect progress reports.  Good communication doesn’t necessarily mean frequent communication, it is about making the client feel reassured that the project is on track.

Problem #2: Unbalanced workload

Problem: One of your projects is taking over.  You never seem to have any time to deal with the others and the work is piling up whilst deadlines are looming.

Solution: Time management is key here.  Breaking projects down into tasks and scheduling them in a calendar can help you see what time you have for each project.  If it looks like you really aren’t going to meet your deadlines you need to talk to your clients to decide how to prioritise you time, quality and costs. Discussing problems early on means that you can start creating solutions – don’t wait until after the deadline when it is too late.

Problem #3: Work overload

Problem: You’ve bitten off more than you can chew: you have more work than hours in the day, but you just don’t feel you can turn projects down.

Solution: You need to introduce some project planning to estimate your capacity before you take on more work.  Create project plans for each of your projects and put them together to make a master-plan.  You can use a low-tech approach with a simple wall planner or else try one of the many free or low-cost project planning software packages available.

Now when a client comes to you with a project you can look at your master-plan and see if you have any spare capacity.

N/B Clients are generally much happier to be told that you can’t take on a project outright rather than dealing with missed deadlines or sloppy work later.

Photo by Flickr user Helico

What Makes an Effective Communications Plan?

As a freelancer running a project, you should consider having a communications plan to share the progress of your project with your client and any other stakeholders.

Having a regular reporting schedule means that your client can be assured that they don’t have to waste their own time chasing you up – they know that the information they need will be delivered to them when they need it in the manner that suits them.  They can see when to expect updates.  If you establish a communications plan from the outset they know that you will raise any issues with them before they become problems.  That leaves you to get on with the job.

The key to a good communications plan is that it should deliver the right information at the right time to the right person in the right way.

The right people: people with a stake in the project are called stakeholders.  Freelancers need to identify who are the key stakeholders and how they should be informed of the progress of the project.

The right information: stakeholders closer to the project will need more detail than those not directly involved, who only need the headlines.  They need to know whether the project is on target and of any potential problems that they need to deal with personally.

The right time: Stakeholders closest to the project might need daily updates, whereas those not directly involved might want updates only once a week or once a month, depending on the length of the project and that person’s involvement.

The right way: Phone calls, emails, electronic newsletters and meetings are all ways you might choose to communicate with the project’s stakeholders.  You need to decide which method is appropriate for each level of involvement.

Example:

Lee, a freelance events organiser is hired by an national supermarket chain to plan their annual conference.  The Human Resources department are in charge of planning events and the specific contact there is Cindy.  Cindy, her manager Terry and Laura, the head of HR, all need to be kept updated on the project, as do several of the company’s senior managers.

They don’t all need the same level of detail or regularity of updates.

Cindy needs a brief conversation by telephone each morning to discuss the day-to-day progress and an email at the end of the day giving an update.  Lee shares the project plan with her whenever it is revised so that she can report on progress and budget to her department.  Cindy’s manager, Terry, needs to be copied in on the daily email and should have a quick email at the end of each week to show progress and flag up any concerns.  Laura, the Head of HR is also copied into this.

Lee produces a brief bulletin twice a month to give an overview of the project for Laura and the senior managers.

Lee develops his communication plan with Cindy, as she can identify the key stakeholders and how they should be updated.

Lee’s communication plan looks something like this:

Stakeholder Medium Frequency Information
Cindy Email/phone 

Project plan

Daily 

When updated

Details of costs, schedule, problems, solutions
Terry Email 

Email

Daily 

Weekly

Overview of costs, schedule, problems, solutions
Laura Bulletin (by email) Twice monthly Overview of costs, schedule, high-level problems and solutions
Senior manager Bulletin (by email) Twice monthly Overview of costs, schedule, high-level problems and solutions

As the project progresses other stakeholders become involved and the communications plan is reviewed as necessary.  As a freelancer, you will find that each organisation you work with has different reporting mechanisms and preferred methods of communication.

For more on project communication within your project team, see Project Communication: 10 Top Tips

Project Communications: 10 Top Tips

Good communication within the project team is essential for dealing with issues before they become problems, identifying risks, setting priorities and preventing the timeframe from slipping.

Freelancers are likely to be managing a virtual project team, one that is not located in the same building and often made up of other freelancers.  They may not even be in the same time zone or country.

Freelancers work outside the normal reporting mechanisms of a company – often physically outside the building, as well as outside the organizational structure.  Being outside the normal communication channels can bring challenges for project communication.

10 Top Tips for Effective Communication:

1/ Be sure that the whole team understand the project’s objectives and priorities from the outset.  They will appreciate their role within the team and will be better able to identify problems early on.

2/ Language barriers can be an issue, even within English-speaking countries.  Clarify terms and jargon in the initial stages to ensure that everyone understands what is meant.

3/ If you are sharing project documentation with the team, make sure they are able to open the files.  Use software that everyone is able to download.  You could use a system such as Dropbox to share large files and folders.

4/ You will need to share the project plan as it is updated – be sure all your team members have access to the right software so they can view it.  You may need to spend some time on training to ensure the whole team is comfortable using it.  The Useful Links section of this site has links to free project management applications.

5/ Often, your team members will not be able to physically get together in the same room.  While face-to-face meetings are often viewed as an important part of a successful project team, especially in the initial stages, technology such as Skype and VoIP can enable video conferencing and conference calls as an inexpensive way of arranging team meetings.

6/ Be aware that your project team may very well have other projects on the go other than yours (especially if the team consists of freelancers).  Establishing regular updates from your team can help keep your project on track.

7/ If you are working with a team from other countries, pay attention to cultural differences.  A team member may be not be as overt as you in highlighting problems.  Be sensitive: what are they really saying?

8/ You may need to work harder to boost the morale of your team members if you cannot physically get them in the same room.  Using the phone instead of emailing or holding video calls can help bring some personality to your communication.

9/ Setting up a private forum such as Google Groups can help bridge time zones for discussing non-urgent aspects of the project with the whole team.

10/ Keep reviewing your communications to ensure that they are working effectually.