• Val Agnew

Project Managing Life


When I look at job descriptions for the title of Project Manager, there are a lot of common threads. PMP certification, handling projects of a particular type, scope, or budget. Sometimes they want the candidate to have specific experience with a particular project management software, of which there are many. All of this makes sense. It's easier to evaluate someone who has these standardized markers that quickly convey particular knowledge or experience. However, I believe being a project manager is more of a mentality than it is a particular list of skills and experiences. Just as everything is a nail to a hammer. Everything is a project to a project manager.


When I look back I realize that I've been project managing my life for ages. I was always the one responsible for organizing plans for school dances. Hiring the limo and making dinner reservations and the like. I moved on to bachelorette parties and extracurricular events in college. Since then I've organized long trips, home projects, and my own wedding, among other smaller things. When I'm faced with something new with a lot of moving parts, I generally open a spreadsheet and start breaking it down.


I brought this mentality to some of my first jobs. At my overnight camp I created a more efficient system for scheduling staff for teaching shifts. In my first internship, planning events for Aveda in London, I combined a bunch of disparate information into a spreadsheet that helped keep people across Europe on the same page. At Groupon, within the first six months of working there, a new position was created for me because I'd offered to help organize information for the team and it was deemed to be an effort worth doing full time. I had developed my project management muscles in every aspect of my life to the point where every job I entered, I immediately saw opportunities for organization and efficiency.



What Makes a Project Manager?

The interesting thing about this innate organizer personality is its source. Some of it can absolutely be attributed to a desire for control and order. But, at least in my case, a large part of it is because my brain is actually all over the place most of the time. I'm a notorious daydreamer and spread myself across many activities and social groups, which ultimately means details are not my strong suit. I believe my reflex to organize is to make up for that. To keep the little things in place where I can find them. If I left them swirling around in my brain, they'd be lost forever.


A Life Example

Right at this moment, my entire basement is torn to pieces. We had water damage from flooding earlier this year and I'd set about organizing the effort to address the situation. I had multiple outfits in to give us quotes. I had to coordinate between different companies, insurance, and the condo association. It appeared that everything was going to work out with some amount of ease until the first floorboards were pulled up. It was clear we were facing a much more extensive problem than we initially thought. Every bit of prior effort was out the window. The budget, the scope of work, the timeline, all scrapped.

As a project manager, when something like this inevitably happens, there is only one thing you can do, adapt. New tabs in the spreadsheet were created to accommodate quotes from other necessary companies and options for newly needed materials. Updates needed to be sent to all interested parties. We needed to find stop-gaps for things like working from home when there are 20 fans running in the house. It was and still is incredibly frustrating. However my instinct was to organize it. My way of dealing with the problem was the overcome it with organization. I would also like to point out that I am not and have never been a contractor. I don't believe that to be an effective project manager, someone needs to know everything about a particular industry. They need to have the instinct to organize. They can learn the details.


A Professional Example

The first time I was asked to produce a short film, I had never done it before. I had taken some classes on the theory and process, but that was it. However, I was entrusted with this project because the creator knew I was an organizer and project manager at heart. Because this wasn't a big film set with a formal crew, I had to learn what procedures and documents would generally be used and then adapt them to the circumstance. Even with all the preparation in the world we still encountered late crew arrivals and sound pollution on set, as well as a few problems only discovered during post-production. In each case, the only choice I had was to adapt to the changing circumstances and move forward. We ended up with a really fun final product and I now had templates for call sheets and shot lists and more that I have brought to other projects.



What Makes a Good Project Manager?

Now we've established how one might develop a project manager's mentality. But how does one become a good project manager? Again, I don't think it's a PMP certification. I don't think it's being an Agile Black Belt or being a Scrum Master. I've taken some basic workshops on these topics and they are basically all just different approaches to the same general idea. It boils down to a desire for more time. I am constantly trying to buy more time. It doesn't even matter why a person desires that time. Half of what I buy back I end up using on YouTube or scrolling Instagram. But my greed for time is what drives me to be as efficient as I possibly can in all things.


A basic principle of economics is that a dollar today is worth more than a dollar tomorrow. I don't believe the same principle applies to time. At least not when it comes to efficiency. If you invest several hours in streamlining a process that is repeated over and over again, you get time back every single time it repeats. If you shave time off the end of a project, you either can take on another project sooner or you can save money as well as time on the current one. No matter what, investment up front pays off more in the end.


A Life Example

As I have searched for jobs both now and in the past, I have created a system for prioritizing applications. I have a rating system for both my interest in a position, it's ratings on Glassdoor, and how much I meet the stated qualifications. I weigh each of these pieces differently, but ultimately I end up with a list of potential jobs in the order in which I should apply to them. I am less likely to spend time on a job that I have no chance of ever getting hired for and I am also going to prioritize jobs I'm actually interested in as well. Given that I am also pursuing entrepreneurial ventures, it is important that I am careful with my time. I am buying time back by not wasting it on futile endeavors or no things I don't even want.


A Professional Example

When working on a political campaign, one of my responsibilities was assisting with fundraising call time. While surrogates can certainly make calls on the candidate's behalf, the candidate themselves is the most effective person to solicit a donation. However, as you might imagine, a political candidate has many many demands on their time. Thus the best way that I could assist my candidate was to help them maximize the results of their call time. I created a similar system to my job hunt doc, where we rated each potential donor based on their estimated donation and likelihood of donating. Using these weighted ratings, we could create a prioritized list and an estimated fundraising amount to work toward. This allowed the candidate to avoid wasting time calling people who were either very unlikely to donate who were going to donate significantly less than others.



What Makes a Desirable Project Manager?

Ok, so you have the PM's mentality. You are efficient and effective. What makes you desirable as a project manager? Communication. This is the part I have always struggled with the most, but it is the most integral to success. No matter what the context, a project of any kind involves many people. The people soliciting the project, working on the project, and those affected by it. Every single one of them needs to have a clear understanding of what's happening and how they are affected at all times. I used to keep things to myself unless I had something that I deemed meaningful to report. This is incredibly frustrating to stakeholders. Not keeping people looped in, even if it means telling them nothing has changed, can lead to loss of support for one's work. There is also an element of change management that benefits from communication. If you can explain what you're doing and why, it is much more likely that people will accept new tasks or new changes to their work and life. I trained myself to be a better communicator by thinking about all the time I'd save in the long run by preventing or reducing foot dragging and confusion up front.


A Life Example

I essentially acted as my own wedding planner. I sourced venues and vendors. I managed the budget. I maintained the timeline. And I liaised between all the interested parties, which ultimately numbered in the hundreds when you included all the guests. Our wedding was as close to perfect as I could imagine. We were surrounded by all the people who we loved. And ultimately it was made possible by open and frequent communication between myself and dozens of people over the course of a year.


A Professional Example

When I took over the iO Comedy Network (RIP), I noted a number of areas that could use streamlining, information organization, and better tracking mechanisms. None of these are the fun part of producing comedic videos, but they helped immensely in allowing everyone involved to spend more time focusing on the fun parts. The challenge was in communicating each change made to a disparate, 200+ person membership. I took great care in creating informational documents and then communicating every single change and its reason to each member with as much personal attention as possible. Ultimately, the changes were implemented with a reasonable amount of ease and I think that can be attributed largely to the open lines of communication between myself and the membership.



Project Management is a Lifestyle

I am not for one second discounting formal experience with the title of Project Manager. However, I do believe that ultimately, being a project manager is a way of living one's life, rather than a job description. Further, I believe that living one's life as a project manager, makes a person more apt and able to apply those skills in professional settings. In recent years I have worked as a film producer, a political campaign manager, and an artistic program manager. In each of these positions I came into a situation, assessed or established the scope, budget, and timeline and executed whatever change or activity needed to be done in the most efficient and effective way possible. I had the mentality already. I just needed to learn the industry.


If you want to be an effective project manager, start living like one. It is one of those jobs you can practice repeatedly in your own life. Once you develop that muscle, you should be able to use it more effectively when you need it in your career. Or if it's just not your thing, I'm here to help. I am always happy to bring my own PM mentality to assist in whatever context you may have need.

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