Skip to main content

So you’re a project manager. You’ve landed a great job at a digital advertising agency (or maybe you’re in the digital arm of your corporation’s marketing team, or you’re working on projects for a non-profit, or you’re working on website projects for an educational institution) and you’re all set for your first project! 

You're pumped and you've got that project management plan in your head and now it’s time to show everyone what you’re made of. Now’s also the time that many project managers start to wonder what—exactly—to do first.

Project managers typically keep projects on the right track, interacting both with the internal team and the client on everyone's deliverables. We are the sponges that absorb impact from all sides and make sure the project keeps moving forward steadily. So what now? Don’t worry—we’ve got you covered. Read about what you REALLY need to do in order to shine!

What Does A Project Manager Do?

A project manager’s responsibilities have changed a lot in the last 5-10 years. In the past, project managers were tasked with simply executing directives. We had to fight to show our worth, and we often didn’t get a seat at the strategy table.

Today, the project manager job description has a much wider purview, one that includes a lot more strategy and leadership—which is great not only for a PM’s growing skillset but for their paycheck. Salaries for project manager roles have been increasing as they take on more project leadership (and as they reach the enterprise level).

But with that wider purview comes a lot more expectation on how to do the project manager job, often without the benefit of step-by-step instructions. Here is how to ensure that you hit the ground running and go above and beyond the typical PM role.

Key Project Manager Responsibilities & Duties

If you look at any job description for a project manager, you’ll find some similar things: keep the project on time, organized, and on budget. You do those things by logging requirements, creating timelines, checking up on deliverables, and segmenting out and tracking the budget. 

You also know you have to motivate the team, plan for the unexpected, and make sure everything flows.

But what is going to separate you from the pack is how you do each of these things—what you should REALLY be doing. So let’s go over these by tactic:

1. Log Requirements

Create requirements for the project either in a project requirements document or in user stories.

We do this by taking the basics from the Statement of Work (SOW) or from client notes and putting them together to show all the must-haves, details, and pertinent information that any stakeholder or project team member would need to understand to successfully collaborate if they were to be working on that project. This is the “blueprint” of the project.

What You Should Really Be Doing:

You definitely need to be keeping track of what it’s going to take to complete the project you’ve been assigned. But you also need to understand the overall business needs of the project. You want to be able to write your requirements and user stories so that they not only fulfill the project scope, but fulfill the actual need for the project. 

The best way to ensure you understand the project strategy is to be included in project discovery and in determining the project plan, but not every project manager is able to do this. The next best thing is to immerse yourself in the output of discovery and to ask strategic questions about the end product.

Once you have a really good grasp of the project strategy, you can then answer most questions that will come up during the course of the project. You need to be able to run that interference—provide strategic guidance that helps a project continue forward without waiting for additional input for items that don’t require a customer decision. 

When I started doing this for my projects, I went from being the project manager to being The Project Manager—and the projects I managed afterwards became more and more strategic.

Sign up for our emails and be the first to see helpful how-tos, insider tips and tricks, and a collection of templates and tools.

  • Hidden
  • No spam, just quality content. Your inbox is safe with us. For more details, review our Privacy Policy. We're protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

2. Keep The Project Organized

Creating a folder structure for documents and assets.

It's one of the responsibilities of a project manager to keep all the information pertaining to the project in a single place that everyone has access to, so that stakeholders and project teams can find the information they need easily. Usually, this lives either on a shared drive, a Google Drive, Dropbox, or some other way that the team at large can find assets and information, such as a digital asset management software.

What You Should Really Be Doing:

While categorizing and creating meaningful folder structures are a definite need, you also need to be checking to make sure that everything created or provided for a project is in the best order possible so that when it’s needed, it is ready to go. This is where project management software may come in handy.

This might mean making sure that the graphic assets are the right file type and structure, that any copy that’s being provided is free of additional formatting that can interfere with CSS rules, or ensuring that any other entity’s code is packaged correctly. 

Doing this at the beginning of the project is the best way to ensure you don’t lose time or money later on trying to fix something you can prevent, and helps you with stay within the project schedule.

I once managed a project that required transferring upwards of 400 PDF files to a new document tree on a website. I thought that it was as easy as just cataloging them and making sure they were ready for our developers to add, but I took some additional time and opened some to take a closer look. 

When I did, I realized that there were 3 different branding iterations for the documents. Because I caught it early, the client had time to address it and provide properly branded PDFs well before we needed to add them to the site. That would have been caught in QA at the end of the project—giving very little time for the client to fix the issue before launch date, potentially affecting the project budget for the additional time spent fixing it.

3. Create A Timeline

Listing out all tasks and plotting them in a timeline, calendar, or sprint cycle.

Having time management skills is essential to being a good project manager, one of the first things we have to ask ourselves is “what has to happen right now, and what has to happen next, in order for this project to launch on time?” 

How you create this really depends on the project schedule. If it is immovable, you would create a timeline from that immovable end date backwards. If it is flexible, you would create a timeline starting from the present time, and working out until a suitable launch date.

What You Should Really Be Doing:

This is the time to start thinking about contingencies. Yes, you have to create your usual timeline—whether that’s on a calendar, a Gantt, or a sprint plan. But it’s also the perfect time to start thinking about where things might go wrong and what you’ll do about it if that happens. 

If you’re working on a waterfall project and you’re building your timeline with items basically happening in a serial format, start looking for places where, if you had to, you could do some parallel work.

Start looking at what would be an MVP (Minimum Viable Product) if you have a project with an immovable end date. That means figuring out what, at a minimum, would work to get a project done on time. You want a few options that you’ve thought out well ahead of time, when you’re level headed and not under the immense pressure that usually surrounds timeline crises.

One of my favorite options to keep at the ready is the “Phase 2”. It’s a good way to get to an MVP without actually using the word “minimum”, since that sometimes induces panic in some stakeholders. I figure out what we can do as our initial launch, and what could be launched soon after to fulfill the project scope

Whatever tactics you choose, just ensure you’ve identified where in your timeline you’d be able to execute them. These don’t have to be shared with your client, or even your team. They are mainly for you to have “in your back pocket” should something happen.

4. Track Budget

Ensuring that the project is not in danger of costing more than expected.

It’s usually the most basic question for team leadership: do we have enough money to do this project? Most times, budgets are fixed by the time the project manager takes over, so the process is to take that budget and spread it out over the timeline you’ve created and track the requirements you’ve laid out. The numbers have to work, or the project budget is in danger and the project could end up costing more than it is bringing in.

What You Should Really Be Doing:

This is your first and best shot to ensure you have enough budget to get the job done. The more a project progresses, the harder it will be to reasonably bring up budget issues (unless there are obvious out-of-scope requests).

Once you feel comfortable that you have the right amount of budget, one of your key responsibilities is slicing the overall budget into hour buckets both by role and by task. Your budget doesn’t just track the spending on a project, it sets boundaries for each person on your project team. 

Together with your requirements or user stories, it gives your team the guidelines they need to succeed. It’s not enough to just tell someone what you need and when you need it, you need to tell them how many hours they have to do it. After all, if you have to get something done in 3 days, taking 16 hours to do it is much different than taking 4 hours. 

I make sure to give my team directives for tasks that have “calendar time” as well as “hours budget”. Not only does that give them parameters to be successful, it helps them to choose the best way to complete a task.

If a developer knows she has 3 hours to complete a task instead of 6, she might decide to use an existing plug-in. That’s invaluable information to have upfront before work even begins.

5. Motivate The Team

Ensuring the team has what they need to be successful.

Creating all of the documentation and timelines and budgets is great, but your project team (and your clients) are going to need guidance to continue moving the project forward. It’s not enough to aim for project success—once those items are in place, you have to make sure things keep happening according to plan, and everyone has what they need for the task at hand.

What You Should Really Be Doing:

Making sure the team has the correct wireframes or asset library is definitely important. What’s going to make you a fantastic motivator—and a successful PM—is to know your team. Every one of us has something that really makes us tick. Some people are deadline-driven. Some people hate to talk on the phone. Some people need a lot of praise to keep moving forward. 

To be a successful project manager, your job is not to squash these quirks, it’s to work with these quirks to get the best out of your team. The first step is to get to know what these little idiosyncrasies are. As time and workload permits, make the effort to get to know everyone on a more personal level. 

As they become more comfortable with you, start probing about what it is that makes them work well, and what usually makes it harder for them to produce quality output. Write these things down for yourself, and then as your project progresses, use that knowledge to upgrade your communication skills or methodologies to suit your team.

I’ve worked for quite a few pharmaceutical advertising agencies, which I think are probably the most brutal in terms of demanding, unpredictable projects. It is exceedingly hard to keep yourself motivated with some of the improbable deadlines and inexplicable red tape necessary to get a good pharma ad campaign off the ground, let alone keep your team motivated. 

It was difficult to carve out time, but I managed to get to know my lead dev, and I found out that he hates being interrupted in person at his desk when he’s working, and he loooooooves candy. 

The interruptions weren’t always something I had the luxury of avoiding, so what I did instead was to knock softly, and immediately ask if it was a good time to talk. If it wasn’t, I would say “I’ll follow up with you to figure out when we can talk, as long as it’s today.” I’d also slide over a Kit-Kat bar. I’d drop off a few Hershey’s Kisses randomly, not when I needed to discuss something. 

Our working relationship quickly cemented, and I feel like I was able to bring out the best in him. It was all about knowing what made him tick. The short of it is you have to know how each person on your software development team needs to be approached and this is not something that needs years of experience!

6. Problem Solving

Guiding the team through problems that may arise throughout the development stages.

Problems are the unwelcome but inevitable traps and puzzles that keep our projects from moving forward according to plan. They’re team morale-busters. They’re the seeds of scope creep and uncomfortable escalations. They’re probably best avoided.

Unless you’re a project manager, that is. 

As a project manager, your job is to run towards the problems and get them addressed in a timely manner so that they don’t knock your budget and schedule off the rails. 

What You Should Really Be Doing:

Yes, sometimes your job is to run towards a fire, but resist the urge to play the hero. You can’t solve every problem. In fact, you probably shouldn’t. But what you can do is provide your team with the trust and the safe space for creative and critical problem-solving. 

Use your knowledge of your team, their technical skills, and the way they work, and combine it with your end-to-end perspective of the project and its objectives. Set up a war room (even if it’s a virtual one), gather your people, gather your snacks, and work through the problem in a constructive way.

Remember that emotions are contagious. Be authentic about the way you’re feeling, but teach yourself to manage your stress and maintain your focus. It’s unlikely that anyone is going to come up with a clever solution with someone breathing down their neck or barking at them. 

And don’t be afraid to be the curious non-technical SME in the room. Ask questions that look at the problem and its possible solutions from a different angle. Pick apart the components of the problem and stay on the lookout for technical problems that can be solved through business conversations. Keep your management team updated and provide the appropriate level of insulation for your team so that they can concentrate without unnecessary distractions.

Every problem is an opportunity to demonstrate your servant leadership skills to your team and help build strong bonds between your team members. Problem solving is a skill that requires practice, and the more you hone that skill with your team, the easier problem solving will become throughout and beyond your project. 

7. Manage Risk

Predicting possible risks and coming up with contingency plans to save as much time and resources as possible.

When you can avoid a problem, it’s usually better to do exactly that. As a project manager, it’s expected that you are constantly looking ahead to help the team identify, analyze, prioritize, plan, assign, monitor, and respond to risks. By doing that, you can reduce, transfer, and sometimes even mitigate the impact of those risks should they come to fruition.

What You Should Really Be Doing:

Alright, but what does that really mean? You can bring the team together every day for a few hours of formal risk planning, but that’s probably going to slow your project down to a snail’s pace and frustrate your team.

Instead, you should be baking these conversations into your day-to-day interactions with the team. Cordon off a bit of time at every team meeting to discuss risks, and make sure everyone knows what it means if they’re assigned to that risk. In less formal situations, ask the question: “if something were to go wrong, what might that be?”

Then on the other side, you should be using this lens to manage expectations with your clients, your stakeholders, and your leadership team. Use day-to-day communications like status reports to turn the fear of uncertainty into a willingness to accept that projects do not go perfectly to plan. Reframe your value as the person who can help the team navigate the storm instead of trying to pretend that it’s never going to rain. 

For a good project manager, the practice of risk management is not about having a crystal ball. It’s about having the right conversations with the right experts to understand uncertainty, discuss how that uncertainty could negatively impact the project, suss out the likelihood of uncertain events transpiring, and create a response plan if they do transpire. 

Actually, I’ll tell you a secret: it’s just about being prepared. 

 8. Manage Change

Setting your project up to enable sustained and sticky change so that the project objectives are realized in the expected timeframe.

Delivering the project and setting it up for successful adoption are not necessarily one and the same. While you’re working to keep your project within the constraints of scope, timeline, and budget, you also need to be considering how the output of your project will be handed over and put into use. 

What You Should Really Be Doing:

On some larger transformation initiatives, change management can be a project in and of itself. If that’s the case for you, you should be reaching out and building relationships with the team managing that change so that the information they are relaying to staff is accurate, timely, and useful. 

Whether they are an outside consultant or the program manager, include them as a stakeholder as early on in the project as possible, and create a process and cadence in your communication plan for how you share this information with them to align with their communication milestones. And, more importantly, figure out ways that you can help each other so that you both succeed. 

But sometimes you find yourself on a project where stakeholders seem genuinely oblivious—or even averse—to change management considerations. I’ve seen many projects throughout my career where a website, or an app, or a CRM system are just gathering dust on the proverbial shelf with no one using them. 

Sometimes it’s because the intended users weren’t trained properly. Sometimes it’s because staff didn’t understand the reason for change and were clinging to their old tools. Sometimes it’s because the requirements didn’t reflect the needs of the end-user. 

No matter where you are in your project, I’d recommend dialing in your spidey-sense around change management. If your instinct tells you that the humans who will benefit from your project won’t be equipped to receive and use it when the project completes, listen to that instinct and act on it quickly. 

Use your strong relationship with your client or your executive sponsor and approach them about any adoption risks. Ask about what the plan is to make sure they realize the benefits of the project and how they actually see a return on their investment. If they are adamant that nothing beyond the current project scope is needed to ensure adoption, get it in writing. 

But in an ideal world, the trust you’ve built with your client and your ability to look beyond the project will influence the appropriate actions to plan and execute a change management strategy.

That might include you, and it might not, and that’s fine. The important part is that you’ve thought that part of your project through and acted to increase the odds of your project successfully meeting its objectives.

Project Manager Training

Being a project management professional isn't easy, and taking on the challenge with an excitement for overcoming challenges will give you a head start towards project success. But your attitude and drive going into things may not be enough on their own.

Luckily, updating and upgrading your project management skills is made easier through the reams of education and training options for our craft. Gaining and maintaining a PMP certification from the globally-recognized Project Management Institute (PMI) can be a great start. Additionally, if you’re using an agile approach, you can train to be a certified scrum master.

And if you want to go deeper and make sure you know what you should REALLY be doing at every key moment of a project's life cycle, you should consider our digital-specific certificate program, Mastering Digital Project Management.

Unlike other courses, it’s all about hands-on, scenario-based learning that hones your instinct, judgment, and leadership skills so that you know how to defuse an escalating situation and when to break out the candy incentives for your team. 

And it’s also done as a class: you’ll be working through the program alongside dozens of your peers and a dedicated course facilitator who has years of experience in the field so you can ask questions, dive into deep philosophical discussions, and compare notes on how the others in your class tackle project management challenges in a digital world. 

To learn more, head over to our training page.

What Do You Think?

I am always on the prowl for tips and tricks on what I should be doing when I manage projects, so if you have anything for me to ponder, make sure to comment below! Let's talk about project performance, milestones, how to collaborate better, soft skills, time management, and your favorite problem-solving skills!

By Patrice Embry

Patrice Embry of Project Menagerie is a freelance digital project manager and Certified Scrum Master. After 25 years in the field, she has been fortunate to work for agencies, corporations, and everything in between. Her clients have spanned far and wide across verticals: pharmaceutical, finance, construction, ecommerce, race cars, you name it. Her client roster includes LeBron James, ExxonMobil, Merck HCP Education, Lundbeck Pharma, ACLU, Anti-Defamation League, GS1, SEI Investments, Hamline University, and many more.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

1 Comment

  • Awesome posting! It's true that many PMs just think it's about documenting. The future of being a digital PM involves getting hands dirty!