Are you light, medium, or heavy?

Post #6: Justine examines the weighty issue of project management

No one wants to admit to being heavy, and most of us are honest enough to know we’re not light. So when we ask a client (and, in effect, we do, when we first start working with them on an annual report) are you light, medium or heavy, they usually say, after a bit of umming and awing, “Well, I think we’re probably light to medium…?” And that hopeful question mark at the end of their answer can be the start of a very important conversation…

Because this question is at the heart of every annual report project’s budget. The largest variable cost is always project management. Get the estimate wrong and either our client will be very unhappy, because they’ll have a whopping bill at the end that they hadn’t budgeted for, or we’ll be very unhappy because we’ll have done hours of work we can’t charge for. So do we really turn round to our clients and say, sorry – you’re not even medium, I’m afraid, you’re heavy; actually, you’re really heavy? Sometimes, yes – because this is one of the few occasions when it’s best to tell the truth about size!

We try very hard at the start to understand exactly how much project management our client will need, and estimate accordingly. What determines the ‘weight’ of service? It’s all about a client’s internal reporting process. Some clients have a full team and infrastructure in place for their internal process and therefore need very little support from us (we call them ‘light’). Others find it more efficient to ask us to act as an extension of their internal team, and therefore require a very intensive service (they’re ‘heavy’ – in the best sense!). The mediums, as you’ve guessed, are somewhere in between.

The key thing we’ve learnt is that every company has a different process – and often, if people within a company change, their annual report process will change too. So we have to ask all sorts of questions (sometimes a bit delicate) about who does what, how long things take, who’s easy to manage, who meets deadlines, who doesn’t, who likes to be talked to in person, who prefers email – so that we can fit into that process and give the client the support they need, and budget it accurately.

You may be surprised to know that the ‘weight’ of the PM budget is not necessarily determined by the size of the company or the complexity of the project. One of the largest companies we’ve ever worked with required very little project management – and in fact had a smaller project management invoice at the end of their project than another client who’s project was a fraction of the size.

The simple truth is that the more capacity a client’s internal process has already, the lighter the project management service from us will need to be. Project managing an annual report is really one job, split between agency and client. There are some tasks that the agency PM has to do, but where the line between agency and client is drawn depends entirely on the needs of the client – and that’s what we have to work out at the start. This could range from, at the light end, just dealing with one client contact and pushing things along, to, at the heavy end, managing all the internal ‘stakeholders’ of the project on the client’s behalf.

Even for the same company, needs can vary from year to year. Often this is down to a change in the client team: someone leaves for example, or there are more pressing business initiatives which conflict with the time that really should be dedicated to the internal management of a report. That’s when we can step in to plug the gap. For one client, for example, the PM budget tripled one year because we filled a gap in their team, and the following year it went down again as we helped a new person come on board and learn the project. We’ll find out this year if we’re back to the original ‘light’ budget!

In the end – like so many other things in a client/agency relationship – success comes down to trust. The more direct and honest a client is about their internal set-up and the capacity of their own process and stakeholders, the easier it is for us to plan – and budget – the right project for them.

So if we ask, are you light, medium or heavy, do please be honest… When it comes to project management, there’s no shame in being heavy – in fact we’re delighted to take on the weight for you!

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2 comments on “Are you light, medium, or heavy?

  1. Jan Dekker on

    Do you find most of them actually know the answer? How often do you find that your first piece of work is helping the client to see where they sit on the scale?

    Reply
    • Justine Miller
      Justine Miller on

      Hi Jan
      Thanks for your question! Over the years we’ve got better ourselves at judging a project and how much work it’s going to be, but we ask all new clients a series of questions based on the things we know will affect the length of time it’s going to take (we charge by the hour and invoice for hours spent), and then estimate accordingly. We also talk to clients about what aspects of a project we know from experience could make a difference to their budget, to avoid surprises later on. And, of course, once we’ve worked with a client for one year, we can be pretty confident in the nature of the work for the following year!

      Reply

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