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Structured Flexibility: How Project Managers Bend but Don’t Break

As agency account executives, we’re accountable for the health and completion of our projects. At its foundation, this means delivering the agreed-upon product, campaign or deliverable on time and on budget (the two most sacred phrases in an account exec’s lexicon).

We have to keep every part of the machine greased and moving — monitoring schedules, task requirements, teammate workloads, and as the project unfolds, ensuring that our creative teams have the insight and resources needed to produce a high-quality product that meets the client’s vision.

Tending to all of these moving targets while responding to roadblocks and setbacks whenever they arise requires an account executive to remain dedicated to immediate and long-term goals, while remaining flexible in his or her approach to accomplish them.

Introducing Structured Flexibility

Structured flexibility is a shared commitment to have a plan and process, but remain flexible in order to reallocate resources, modify timelines, revisit strategy or accommodate a change in direction.

After all, we’re all human.

Sometimes tasks take longer to complete than expected. We hit technical obstacles. And sure, there times when “life happens” — but idfive builds the “life factor” into our project plans from the beginning. It’s not 100% foolproof, but it’s close.

For example, let’s say a project we estimated included design and development of eight to 10 web templates, but after completing discovery and finishing the information architecture, we realize we need 12. Whereas traditional project planning avoids altering resources or tactics, a flexible plan allows the account executive to make adjustments, when necessary, for the benefit of the product.

That means not only setting aside a contingency budget, but also working with the client to prioritize tasks with the prior understanding that less critical needs, tasks, goals, or features may get postponed, scaled back, or removed from the scope if the unexpected happens.

Implementing Structured Flexibility

Structured flexibility is not simple or easy to implement. It requires discipline and buy-in from the full team, including the client. Here are a few tips for applying the approach at your organization.

  • Introduce it early, and mention it often. Don’t wait to introduce the approach to your team. Discuss it with clients and stakeholders at the project kickoff meeting (or sooner). We often mention it during the proposal phase of a new project, reminding everyone that there’s room for flexibility.
  • Start with an ideal breakdown per project phase. Take your best shot at estimating budgets and timelines for each task. Start with what feels right, and confirm or adjust when the task approaches based on how your team has completed previous tasks.
  • Assess tasks regularly (for both risks and opportunities). Structured flexibility isn’t a “set it and forget it” mentality. Speak to teammates during each phase of a task or milestone to ensure you’re estimating and assigning work responsibly. Ensure time is spent efficiently, and be thorough in communicating requirements to your team.
  • Acknowledge when flexibility may be helpful (or required), and get ahead as soon as possible. As a PM, try predicting several weeks out if you’ll need more or less time. Can the budget afford additional work hours without having to issue a change order? For example, can you reallocate hours from a future task, like quality control or graphic design, to accommodate the wireframing of an extra page template? If so, what will you do to make it back up?
  • Keep it transparent. At the end of the day, account executives and project managers are responsible for their clients’ investments. Be honest with your team and your client about how, when, and where time is being spent. This will build and maintain trust across the board. Remember this: there’s no flexibility when it comes to trust.

Structured Flexibility: A Win-Win

The benefits of structured flexibility extend to the agency and the client, making it a win-win.

For the agency, it allows us to spend less time at the beginning of the project because we’re not trying to qualify the unknown. The process is flexible enough so the client can request changes without going over budget or missing milestones. Decisions can be made quickly and with confidence on both sides. And most important: it establishes a sense of confidence and trust between team members and the client.

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