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How to manage agency projects for profitable results (featuring Galen Low)

Galen Low, co-founder of The Digital Project Manager, joined Chip on this episode to talk about how agencies can improve their project management skills to improve the results that they produce for clients while also contributing to the agency's bottom line.

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Many agency employees find themselves feeling overworked today. A combination of a shortage of available talent coupled with increasing client demand can make for a difficult time getting projects done on-time and on-budget.

Galen Low, co-founder of The Digital Project Manager, joined Chip on this episode to talk about how agencies can improve their project management skills to improve the results that they produce for clients while also contributing to the agency’s bottom line.

Galen offers practical advice for the processes, software, and staffing needed to produce the desired results. He offers concrete examples of what he has seen work — as well as what hasn’t — in a wide range of agency environments.

Key takeaways

Galen Low: “You can drag people, kicking and screaming into a big project management tool that they fundamentally aren’t willing to engage with. And that’s sort of like, over-engineering. That’s like giving me a Ferrari.”

Chip Griffin: “Document your processes. Not what your processes ought to be. Document what you’re actually doing today to get your projects done, because that’s the fundamental starting point for figuring out all of the other solutions that you need.”

Galen Low: “The best project management tool is the one that solves your problem, but you have to understand your requirements first and what you’re expecting of it. Choosing software is a project in and of itself.”

Chip Griffin: “That is how agencies end up thriving because they get really good at being able to set client expectations and being able to price correctly so that they can deliver what the client needs, while still generating a profit for the agency. And so a project manager plays a role in all of these things. It’s not just about the deadlines.”


The Digital Project Manager information:

Galen Low’s contact information:

The following is a computer-generated transcript. Please listen to the audio to confirm accuracy.

Chip Griffin: Hello, and welcome to another episode of Chats with Chip. I’m your host Chip Griffin, the founder of SAGA, the Small Agency Growth Alliance. And I am delighted to have with me Galen Low, the co-founder of The Digital Project Manager. Welcome to the show.

Galen Low: Hey Chip. Thanks for having me on the show. It’s a real pleasure.

Chip Griffin: It is great to have you here. We’re going to be talking about – well, project management. I mean, what else would we be talking about given your role? And it’s an important topic for small agencies, but before we start diving into it, why don’t we take a moment for you to share a little bit about yourself and where folks can find you.

Galen Low: Okay. Yeah. Awesome. No, that’s great. As you mentioned, I’m the co-founder of a little community called The Digital Project Manager. And me personally, I’ve got a background in client services and business development within digital agencies. And I’ve been doing that since about 2009, which puts me at about over a decade of doing this.

I’ve worked at like small boutique agencies, but I’ve also worked at larger consultancies. And a lot of my experience has revolved around human centered, digital transformations in government and healthcare and in retail. And also just for folks listening or watching, I’ve also been an account manager. I’ve been a project manager. I’ve been a client services director. I’ve been a manager of project managers. I’ve also been in various business development and growth roles. So hopefully I can provide some perspective today around project management, but not just about project management, as much as I’d like to nerd out about project management. Let’s, let’s zoom it out a little bit, and have a healthy conversation.

Chip Griffin: Well, and I think that’s so important that, that we not think about project management in isolation. It really does fit into the overall puzzle of not just client service and service delivery, but it also plays a role in business development and pricing and overall management strategy.

So you really need to be thinking about it in those broader terms, if you’re going to do it right within your agency. So when we think about project management, you know, how would you separate project management from all of the other things that your account teams are doing? I mean, how is it? Is this just my task list? Is this, something more detailed in Asana? Is it a bigger picture concept? I mean, talk to me how you look at project management.

Galen Low: Honestly, this is a tricky question for a lot of agencies, because in a way, especially in client services, almost everything is a project. What happens is in a lot of agencies, there’s an account manager running these projects, which might be marketing campaigns, which might be, you know, brochure websites, which might be print ads, radio ads, you know, film and television stuff.

I consider a project to be something where a collaboration of humans needs to be managed to achieve a shared goal, which is pretty broad. That’s pretty broad. It’s got a start and a finish. But it’s got an outcome that everyone’s driving towards. So in a way, a lot of what happens in an agency is actually a project. It’s like, listen, we need to get this ad out. We need to get this promo for black Friday out. We need to get certain things just put together. Multi-channel, personalized re-targeted ads, so that we can achieve our goal. And our goal is going to be a business objective. It’s going to be about delivering value for our clients, and in so doing, it’s going to be about increasing revenue. It’s going to be about increasing operational efficiency. It’s about, enabling them to do something that they don’t have the in-house capability to do so that they can scale and grow their business. So I think all of those things in mind, a lot of the time we are talking about projects in the agency context.

Where I think the line is drawn – you raised a really good point. Like when is this just a to-do list? And when is this something that’s in a project management software, like Asana at scale. And for me, the answer is, honestly, it depends where you’re going as an agency. You might start as a shared to-do list. I know many, many organizations that are running projects off of Todoist.

You know, the paid version of Todoist. Everyone just has eyes on it. Basecamp, for example, as well, right, where it’s kind of like we are to do list driven. That’s the way we work. We don’t want to get bogged down with methodology and process and learning a new piece of software. But then I think when you start to scale up, you start to think about projects and to your point earlier, how they contribute towards growth.

And I mean, agency growth at this stage, right? Because we’re talking about things like how healthy are our projects? What does this portfolio look like with this client? Are we making money? Are things on time so that we can operationally get the next project in? So it can start on time with that other client. And then you start needing to zoom out a little bit, because then you start needing that perspective of what’s going on with all my projects at once.

And that’s something you can’t really do, when you just have a to-do list that folks are sharing or like that, you know, Google sheet that everybody just logs into and that’s where they do their work. You can do that. Absolutely. You can manage projects like that all day long. And honestly, I’ve seen very large projects managed that way successfully. Where I think the breaking point is, is when you want to zoom out and say, listen, these are projects that are actually initiatives to help us grow. Every project can be viewed as an initiative to help your agency grow. And that’s going to be, you know, scaling up your capabilities. You know, you have that project where suddenly you need to hire that contractor who has that skill that you don’t have in house, but then you’re also adopting and embracing that skillset in your organization to allow you to do more. Then you need to run it profitably. Then you need to run it on time because we’re just going to keep coming in. Your pipeline is probably there. And if you’re doing a great job, just making people aware of your organization, and the quality of the work that they do then you probably have a pretty healthy pipeline and then you start running into scheduling and scale issues.

Right. And it’s like, how do we have that bigger picture? How can we operate as – how can we run every project like a growth initiative, I guess I would say, I think that’s a bit of a different perspective.

Chip Griffin: So you’ve brought up a number of things that I want to drill deeper on. So the, and I think the first thing that I want to focus on is you were talking about how some folks, you know, can just use Google sheets or that sort of thing.

And even for complex projects. And I, and I think when I’ve worked with agencies, a lot of them go in one of two different diametrically opposed directions with project management. The first is there really is none. It’s just like, you know, we’re just, everybody kind of does their own thing. They were exchanging some emails and someone remembers to flag something.

And so it’s very disorganized. Then there’s the other extreme that they’ve gone out and they’ve gotten this high-end software package. They’ve put in all sorts of dates and dependencies and they’re generating Gantt charts and all sorts of things. But it, it breaks down very quickly because you know, it requires a lot of care and feeding to actually make a system like that work.

So how do you think about the level of complexity that you need to do this well. How do you find that sweet spot so that you’re not completely disorganized nor overdoing it?

Galen Low: I mean, it’s about having a good, honest look about your processes, how mature they are and how process driven your organizational culture is.

Because to your point, you know, you can drag people, kicking and screaming into like a big project management tool that they fundamentally do not – not that they don’t know how to use it, but aren’t willing to engage with. Right. And that’s sort of like, over-engineering, that’s like, that’s like giving me a Ferrari.

I’ll be like, that’s cool. But I’m like, I dunno if I’m there yet. Right. I don’t know if I feel comfortable going get my groceries in my Ferrari. So I think really just understanding the culture and being really honest about what you need to do with it today, but then also have a mindset of what do I need to do with it in the future?

Because there are ways for example, to,take a piece of software, – I’m going to geek out on software for a little bit, but then we’ll get back to project management – but you can take a piece of software and you can make those decisions from a process angle, right. Process and policy. I know they’re like the scary P words, but what I mean is you have to know how you’re going to want to use it right away. And that might not be everything it’s not like, okay, well now everybody needs to create a Gantt chart for something that used to just be in email threads. Start as a to-do list or start in a system where communication can happen. I know somebody who just rolled out a rather a rather large project management system, but all they’re using it for right now is discovery with the client. They’ve chosen to only segment a certain portion of their projects. Test it out because the gap they’re trying to fill immediately is conversations, locked in inboxes and lack of visibility on communication. And what they’re trying to do is by enhancing that communication, they’re empowering their team to do more of this management so that their project managers can be doing more. Not just chasing down emails and following up and making sure that somebody had seen that email from somebody else who may have forwarded it down a chain. Less of that, and more like strategy.

More of that perspective of frankly, an account manager to be like, what is the bigger picture? How can I zoom out a little bit here and understand what we’re trying to achieve rather than get lost in the minutiae?

Chip Griffin: Well, and I think that I love that you say you need to think about what you’re trying to achieve because too often, I see these things driven by some process that they’ve read about or seen someone else use, as opposed to saying, okay, What problem am I really trying to solve for in my own agency business and, and how can I use tools or processes or policies to get me there. And I know I’m sure that one of the questions you get all the time is one that I get as well, which is what’s the best project management tool. What’s the best software out there. What should I be using? How do you answer that question?

Galen Low: I mean, it’s the one that solves your problem, but you have to understand your requirements first and what you’re expecting of it. I mean, a tool, you know, as we always say, and maybe is sort of a common thing to say, but maybe not fully understood is, you know, a tool is only as good as its users. But what we really mean is we need vision. We need direction. Like it needs to be – choosing software is a project in and of itself. Right. And even that mindset of understanding goals and understanding how it gets rolled out, understanding who’s involved, right? Your stakeholders like, is your UX team going to love it? If it’s, you know, not a part of the way that they work? How many things need to change in order for us to shoehorn into this tool?

Or maybe we are looking for a tool that works the way we work and goes in the direction that we want to go, because there’s no shortage of tools. I will tell you that. There’s definitely hundreds and hundreds of project management tools claiming to do everything. Some of them trying very hard to do everything.

It’s not just marketing speak. They’re trying to do all things and be all things for all people. It makes sense as a product. But at the same time, you need to understand you need to know you and you know where you’re going as an agency and what you’re trying to achieve. So you don’t get lost in all of that, you know, in a pond of just the feature comparisons.

Chip Griffin: Right. And you said something important there, which is if your user experience team hates it, they’re not going to use it right. And so therefore, you know, to me, the answer is typically it’s whatever you’re going to use consistently. You and your team, if you’re using the software or whatever tool it is.

I mean, it can be a napkin. I mean, you can do good project management on a napkin. I wouldn’t encourage it. It’s not how I would do it, but if you use it consistently, it could probably get the job done for you. You need to have something that you and your team are going to use consistently in order to make it work.

And I also think that it’s important that you talked about how selecting the project management software is a project in itself, and this gets overlooked a lot because I see a lot of agencies who hop from one project management tool to another, you know, they’ve heard about some cool new thing or they’re a frustrated with their existing platform.

And so they go to another one. And, and so much of that I think is driven by what you talked about earlier, which is not specifying the requirements upfront and letting that drive your decision, making it gets driven because you saw a cool demo video or a sales rep gave you a nice demo, or your buddy told you, oh, this is fantastic.

You should use this. And it really not only does that waste a lot of time. People misunderstand the amount of time it takes to switch from one platform to another. So I’ve even seen people switch because it’s cheaper. Well, okay. But that $20 a month you’re saving on your subscription gets completely blown away by the switching cost to train your team and move all the data.

I mean, it’s just it’s bonkers. So it really needs to be something where the tool is servicing you and not the other way around.

Galen Low: Yeah, this is not a switching your mobile phone provider, which, you know, in the telecom business is a huge thing. People just jump back and forth, get the whatever free pizza coupon for setting up as a new customer. Jump back, you know, their phone still rings. Fine. From a change management perspective, there’s nothing doing. Right. Nothing to be done. When you’re changing the tool that your team uses every day and your tool is – your team is guess what? Very cross-functional. They all do different things. They all work different ways.

Like that’s a huge, there’s a huge matrix of considerations there that you need to take into account. Otherwise, to your point, it’s going to be much more expensive than you thought on paper.

Chip Griffin: Right. Now, if software is not going to solve your problem, then what must be going to solve it is hiring a full-time project manager.

Right. If I hire a full-time project manager and bring them into my agency, that’s going to solve all my project management problems, right?

Galen Low: I mean, yes and no. And I think we, I get asked this a lot. Right. And when people come to me, they probably come to you as well. I’m looking to hire a project manager, who have you got? I need someone pretty senior. They need to set everything up and figure out the whole project management thing here. And what I tell organizations, especially agencies, is that that’s probably not your first step. Probably your first step is you need to do a bit of planning and again, understand that your current situation, the way people work and where this individual is going to fit within your operating model, within your org chart. What are the processes that you need to articulate and identify maybe even just document so that this person isn’t coming in and starting from ground zero.

Chip Griffin: That’s a great idea. I mean, I want to stop you there because I think that the first step for all of these things is exactly what you just said.

Document your processes. Not necessarily what your processes ought to be or something like that. Just document what you’re actually doing today to get your projects done, because that’s the fundamental starting point for figuring out all of the other solutions that you need.

Galen Low: Absolutely. Bring in your team. And I think, you know, the joy – what I find sometimes, especially in smaller agencies, I find there’s a hesitation to engage the team. And I’m like, why? Because you’re at a size where you can engage a team. Right. And when you’re at 500 people, like you’re not going to ask for 500 opinions, that’s fine.

But when you are 15, 20 people, just have a session, maybe a couple sessions with some of the teams and figuring out what people need, where the pain points are in your current processes, you know, where are your limitations of scale? What are even just those things that like, it’s good, but it would be even better if, and have that list and draw that picture and paint that picture.

And frankly, if you do that due diligence, you will probably be able to bring in – maybe start at a project coordinator level, right? Or a junior project manager. Someone’s going to come in and understand what needs to get done. Probably have a lot of recommendations for how things could be done better, probably will come in and help streamline some of the communication and some of the collaboration.

But not starting from zero. Cause when you have someone, when you ask someone to come in and design your project management processes and create the project management office or whatever you decided to call it, that’s expensive. That’s an expensive resource that you’re asking to come in and fundamentally make core changes to your business. Because there was nothing there to begin with, which frankly could also alter the direction of your, of your organization. It can change the culture of your organization. You need to know what that vision is and what the culture is and how that influences the way your teams work. So that, that is not only captured, but also sustained through change because that is what makes your agency you.

Chip Griffin: And your emphasis on engaging your team in the process is absolutely critical because it will give you great information and insights and ideas that will probably help you to improve the process, make better selections for tools, better to find the job description of a project manager or coordinator that you end up hiring. But the other thing is it, it starts to get their buy-in. And if you, if you do things in a top-down way, where you say, look, I don’t want to waste my team’s time evaluating all this stuff, I’ll take it on.

I’ll figure out the solution and I’ll give it to them. They’re more likely to resist. It’s just human nature. If someone feels like something is being forced on them without their input, they’re not going to use it to its full potential, at least as quickly. And so you’ve got to involve the team for all of those reasons.

Galen Low: Absolutely. And I’m going to circle back on something you said earlier, and I’m probably gonna say something that might be unpopular in my, in my circles. But we’re talking about hiring a project manager and we’re saying, okay, well, listen, get your house in order and develop those processes and policies before you bring in a project manager.

But then also there’s a world where, you were saying, you know, sometimes there isn’t just this project mindset, right? It’s just like emails going back and forth and work getting done. And it feels like business as usual. And I would say the interim step might actually be, especially if you’re in an agency where, like most of these, most of the client work is driven by an account manager.

I would say invest the time to up-skill your account managers in project management. Not to say that suddenly project management becomes their job, not to say that they suddenly have to be, you know, making Gantt charts and looking at burndown charts in your project management software, not just that. But adopting that project mindset and understanding what are those core, best practices, but not even best practices.

It’s the instincts. It’s the judgment. And it’s that leadership and a willingness to engage with the project and the project work in order to steer it to a conclusion that delivers value for the client that also delivers value for the agency. And frankly also delivers value for the team that they’re all feeling good about the work, and they felt like it was organized and no one had to stay at the office all weekend. No one had to sleep under their desk during that project. All of that elevates, right. All that elevates the culture of your agency. And it’s not really necessarily that heavy of a lift. I would say the biggest challenge for agencies who are trying to upskill their team and give their team some training and project management is just finding the time.

 It goes two different ways. There’s the, okay, well, we haven’t got the time. We’ve got so much client work on the go. Maybe so-and-so can just go and watch a YouTube video or like read a book and come back and do a lunch and learn. And it’s not necessarily the wrong idea. I think it’s a step in the right direction, but it doesn’t give the shape of how like end to end project management or project mindsets, we’ll be able to embed into your processes and uplift your organization. It might be like how to create a project plan. Great. Maybe they’re a little bit more organized about planning, but all the work still gets done as emails and other, everything else stays the same.

I think it’s just an end-to-end sensibility of let’s think of these things as projects. Let’s think of this as a collaboration that needs to get managed. Let’s think of it as something that is actually uplifting the quality of life for our employees and is helping our agency grow so that we can continue to have this culture that we love right.

Where it feels like we’re all, you know, a well jelling team. It feels like we are individuals who really care about the work and care about our clients and you want that to stay. And so maybe the first move is actually just to get, and I said account managers, I would say broadly speaking, I would say project management is a skill.

It’s an in-demand skill. It is a craft in my world. It is a discipline and you can go deep. You can go very deep in project management and that’s why it is a craft, but it’s also a sensibility and a skillset. So if you can give your account managers or you can give your a dev lead, or if you can give your UX lead, if you can give your business analyst some sensibility around projects, then you can really start turning the corner in terms of getting everyone to adopt this mindset, have some of these skills, share some of these skills. And maybe your business doesn’t change structurally right away. It doesn’t have to mean big wholesale change. We need to create a project management team and we have to figure out where this works in our org chart.

Maybe it’s just increasing the sensibility of your current team to think of things as projects and to understand what are those core things that make projects go well. And how do we fix projects when they go off the rails? Because it is a lot about just leadership, communication. It’s about managing expectations.

It’s about being strategic, and it’s about problem solving. And those are things that anyone on your team should feel empowered to want to be able to learn and do in order to help their job, help them do their jobs, but also help the organization.

Chip Griffin: You used the word mindset a few times in there. And I think that’s an important thing to consider.

This is not just about having a checklist that keeps projects on time, on, you know, meeting deadlines, making sure things don’t fall through the cracks. It really is a broader mindset that has additional value. So why don’t you talk a little bit about what the real value is of project management to the agency beyond just actually getting the work done.

Galen Low: Absolutely. And I’ll come at it obliquely. And I’ll say that, you know what, there are plenty of textbooks. And as someone who has a PMP myself, I know that there is the, you know, project management body of knowledge that you can rely on for tools and processes, you know, and all of those best practices and all those skills you want to have in your tool belt.

But I find that a lot of people exit those programs and, you know, they’ve got their certifications. But they’re not sure exactly when to use those tools. Like do I use it on every project? That’s what project managers do. I have to use all these tools every time. I need to have a project charter, I need to have a RACI matrix.

You know, I need to do all of these things. And I would say the, the answer is no, what you need is the sensibility to understand what the right tool is for the right situation and the right project. And that comes down to a bit of instinct I think. And that’s where the mindset for me comes in. The mindset comes into the fact that listen, it’s not about being able to do a thing.

It’s about being able to see and wrap your head around something bigger than just day-to-day work, because it is a project. It is something that’s organized. It is something that may be temporary, but you know, your chips are on the table in terms of like driving an outcome. And then I would come back to your question, I would say, okay, well, what is the value of that mindset for an agency?

And I think some of it, frankly, is going to be measurability. And I would almost start there. We’re talking about things like capturing the way you work or talking about things like, you know, qualitatively, what do people on the team think is working or what do they think could be better? And then I would almost say, okay, we’ll take a project mindset because it’s maybe not just business as usual work.

And let’s think about how we can get some data around it and it can be simple. It can just be like, listen, like let’s just set a budget. We’re not experts at estimating. Maybe this is something we’ve never done before because it’s digital and digital technology is always changing, but let’s just set a budget and see where we land.

Nobody gets fired if we go over, if we go under then that’s great. But maybe we didn’t leverage the budget as well as we could. Let’s just take something and measure it. And then when you have a project mindset, you can go cool. It started, it had a goal. We measured stuff and it ended. Now let’s look at it.

Let’s look at all of the projects we just ran. And then you start getting some data about how you can run your business more efficiently. Because, I mean, if every project goes over budget, you know, don’t close your doors, like try and fix it, right? It’s like now you have data and you can make this – you’ve been running probably fine.

Probably every project has been going over budget since the moment you began your organization, since that inception point. But now you have the ability to kind of think about how you fix it and then your changes are incremental. So I would almost think of it as like a unit, because it’s this temporary endeavor and you’re not looking at it as something that is a business as usual task.

You can then take these units and measure them and be like, okay, well, What if we could do that in less time? Or what if we hired this other person to take on this area? Because when we did our retrospective on the project, someone was like, well, I had to learn SEO to like, take this project on. You’re like, oh, well maybe instead of doing that or, you know, kudos to you for learning SEO, maybe now you’re our SEO person.

Or maybe we should look to bring on that talent to bring on that skillset into our teams on a per project basis. Right. We don’t have to necessarily staff them full-time and maybe that will help us run efficiently. But then also you’re looking at processes, right? You’re like, cool. And again, data is just that conversation starter.

It’s about, okay, again, right. We just put our finger in the air and we said probably 120 hours. And when we got to 140 hours and then the conversation is why? Let’s look at it. Let’s have a look and let’s have a conversation about how things could go better. How might we actually come in at 120 hours?

How might we hit our deadlines so that we feel confident to take on the next client project, right as that one closes, without stretching ourselves or without having to pause anything or without having to disappoint anybody.

Chip Griffin: And that’s vital to the agency success, by the way, your focus on getting insights and using retrospectives to improve your estimating, both in terms of finances, as well as deadlines, making adjustments.

I mean, that is how agencies end up thriving because they get really good at being able to set client expectations and being able to price correctly so that they can deliver what the client needs, while still generating a profit for the agency. And so a project manager plays a role in all of these things.

It’s not just about the deadlines.

Galen Low: Absolutely. No. And, I would even argue that some of the conversations I have is like, okay, project manager comes in and they work in the background. They’re, you know, checking all the boxes, making sure that everyone’s doing what they’re supposed to be doing when they’re supposed to be doing it.

But then there’s also this inflection point where you might be able to get to a point where, as you are running your project, you actually have someone who’s maybe a bit more in the foreground showing leadership in the process, right? So your client is like, listen, I’m paying you because frankly, I don’t want to do this myself, or I don’t have the in-house capability. You were around. Somebody said you were good. We’ve worked with you before. Whatever the reason we’ve decided to work with you. But then there’s this kind of like, it’s that trust with your client and the client’s agency relationship is always a bit tricky. But what I find the most, what I find happens the most in terms of expectations management, is that sometimes a client will like just mistrust or doesn’t think the agency has a process, right?

You might come off as looking like you don’t have a process. Sometimes it’s because you don’t have a process, sometimes it’s because you haven’t clearly defined it to your clients. And I think a good use of a project manager role, even in an account manager context, is someone who can come in and be client facing and just give the rundown on like, here’s the way we work.

You hired us because we’re experts at what we do. We’re priced this way because we’re experts at what we do. And we can, we can, we built our reputation on the fact that not only are we talented and have these skills and have the ideas to, you know, make all your marketing goals happen, but we have a way of delivering that and we are intentional about it.

So, you know, trust us, we are your guides through this and it’s not just, oh, this thing is due, or here’s a risk or, or we’re off plan. It’s about, listen. When we follow our process on our plan, we deliver amazing work. And that’s what we’re known for. As soon as we go off that plan, that’s where uncertainty, that’s where everyone starts to waver.

Anyone would start to waver and then you can lead with your process. You can lead with their project management. You can say, this is the way we work. This is what’s going to make us successful. And as a result, this is what’s going to make you successful. And leave that so that your client, isn’t just kind of in the dark, like hoping things go well, while things are happening in the background.

Chip Griffin: And as we start to get ready to wind down our time together, talk a little bit about the intersection between project management and resource planning, if you could. Because this is really important, particularly for small agencies that do have smaller teams, but they do have different functions potentially within them.

Maybe you’ve got writing teams, whether they’re internal or external, SEO, designers, all those kinds of things. And I frequently see agencies run into bottlenecks where in order to complete two different projects they need help from the same team at the same time. So how do you look at that intersection between project management and resource planning for the agency?

Galen Low: I mean in a perfect world, you have a resource manager or a traffic manager or somebody who’s kind of central overseeing that, but that’s usually, maybe not every agency is at that point. We used to have just like, throwdowns. All the project managers get together in a room and fight for resources, which was messy and probably not what I would recommend.

Chip Griffin: Probably fun to watch!

Galen Low: Very fun to watch. And you know, it got everyone’s blood boiling on a Friday or whatever. But I think there’s probably, I mean, there were – I should actually say that that could work as long as you have two things. And I would say one, a way of just understanding people’s workload and yes, there’s tons of resource management tools out there and that’s fine.

But also just knowing that, you know, from a standpoint of like a, like a designer, let’s say,how many times can they context switch throughout the day? Because what I find is like, oh, let’s all share. You know, they’ll work on this project from nine to 11, then they’ll work on the other project from 11 to one. And then from one to three they’ll work on this, but it doesn’t work that way. Right. I think understanding the way people work and figuring out a block of time that makes sense. Like don’t resource down to the quarter hour. Like you’re probably not giving folks enough time to switch their cognitive focus to the next project.

So it’s kind of understanding the way people work, what you can reasonably expect from your team working across different projects. And that might mean, actually, we just need this person full-time for this project. Nobody else bug them. We need them, we need them. We need them locked in order to achieve that goal.

And then I’d say it’s about understanding, again, the data question, like if you’re not tracking time at your agency – probably most agencies are, a lot of us work time and materials, but not everybody. If you don’t have data on how much time people are spending on things and a way to kind of aggregate that data by category of task, you might not know how long it takes for someone to do a thing.

And the worst thing you could do is stand in a room – even if it’s a room full of project managers, butting heads. The worst thing you can do is just assume that you know, how long it takes for someone to do a thing. And you keep estimating that way. You keep resourcing that way and everything keeps crashing and falling off the rails.

And unless you ask yourself why and get the actual data, you will continue to make that mistake where projects go long and over budget, because actually you thought that this design thing took 40 hours, but actually it consistently takes 60. And you won’t know that unless you have the data. I think we could swing back to tools.

Honestly, I’ve seen agencies run again off of a Google sheet. You structure it that way, you get all your resources listed out and you have the, again mindset as an organization. Maybe it’s an ops person. Maybe it’s just a team of project managers, maybe it’s a team of account managers, that get together and go, okay, let’s look at this.

Not as, not as like, oh, you know, I need you in for four weeks, probably between like May and June, like it’s just that finger in the air stuff that usually means you haven’t thought about it in enough depth and don’t have enough data to make that decision. But as soon as you start numerically guesstimating it and looking at that data and then having something to compare to and with reality, then you start going, okay. We can really, we can really tighten the screws on the way that we run projects. We can build in some contingencies and buffers. We understand how people work, context switching, and probably, you know, exhaustion and going from one project to another project. But if we factor those things in, we have reliability and accuracy so that we can say, all right, well, I can reasonably say with some data that we’ll end on this date and then we can probably get them moved on to another project. And again, just keeping that utilization, but by utilization also, keeping your team engaged and interested and doing interesting work.

Chip Griffin: Well, this has been an interesting conversation. I think you’ve provided a lot of practical advice and a lot of things for agency leaders to think about.

If someone is interested in learning more about you or taking advantage of the resources that The Digital Project Manager has, where should they go?

Galen Low: Check us out on the web, the dpm.com. Also check us out on Instagram. We have a lot of fun there. The digital PM, on Instagram as well. Our website is full of free resources.

We’ve got our own podcast as well. Also we do project manager training. So shameless plug, if you want it to get your cross-functional team skilled up on digital project management, we’re a great place to start. And we’ve also got a great members community about a thousand digital professionals at all levels sharing knowledge, supporting one another, helping make sure that we feel confident and skilled and connected about this whole managing digital projects thing, whatever that means to you.

Chip Griffin: Excellent. I would encourage folks to check out those resources. I’ve been a long time listener to the podcast and other resources that you put out.

It’s great stuff. And I think a lot of agency leaders would get tremendous value from it. So go check that out. Thank you again to my guest today, Galen Low, the co-founder of The Digital Project Manager. Thank you all for listening. And I look forward to having you all back for a future episode of Chats with Chip.

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