The larger the project, the more likely a freelancer is to get overwhelmed. If you don't do a good job of organizing a large project, you might even miss your deadline. A lost deadline could mean losing your client and maybe even your reputation.
There's a better way. Project management principles help you organize your big projects so that they run smoothly.
First, let's define project management. According to the Association for Project Management,
Project management is the application of processes, methods, knowledge, skills and experience to achieve the project objectives.
Most freelancers understand why knowledge, skills, and experience are important to completing their projects. But some balk at the idea of using processes and methods. Creative freelancers sometimes feel that too much structure takes away from their creativity.
Freelancers should welcome processes and methodology. Rather than stifling creativity, they allow you to do more. For most of us, more work done means more income. That's a good thing. Plus, having good project management skills enables you to tackle larger freelancer projects. With project management skills, you can manage other freelance professionals and take on more work.
Larger projects tend to pay more. If you can handle large projects, you'll be worth more to your clients. You'll also be more likely to attract repeat business. In fact, project managers are in demand for corporate and government projects. According to a survey from Payscale.com, the median pay for a project manager in the US in August of 2015 ranged from $65,062 to $85,971.
In this tutorial, I give you a quick overview on project management. I start by comparing the Agile and Traditional methods. Next, I provide practical methods that you can apply to your own freelance projects.
It's important to understand that project management is a huge field. There are many different project management methodologies, some of which are patented. Here are just a few of the different methodologies out there:
- Agile methods
- Lean (an Agile method)
- Scrum (an Agile method)
- Six Sigma
- Waterfall methods (also called Traditional)
- PRINCE2 (popular in the UK)
Each of these methodologies has variations and sub-methodologies. Don't let the names of all these methods confuse you. Corporate project managers need to understand them well. As a freelancer you'll probably only use one of two methods: Agile or Waterfall (also called Traditional).
Corporate project managers also use some very specific terms. TechRepublic has published a great list of project management terms you can refer to if you run across a term you're unfamiliar with. For this tutorial, we'll focus on two definitions that you may not know:
...the way you describe the boundaries of the project; it defines what the project will deliver and what it will not deliver...
...any tangible outcome that is produced by the project...
Other terms are self-explanatory or defined within this the tutorial.
One of the first decisions you'll make as a freelance project manager is whether to use an Agile or Traditional project management process. This section compares the two types of project management processes. It will help you decide which method works best for your project.
Choosing an Agile Process
Agile project management is based on the twelve principles of the Agile Manifesto. It is often used for software development projects. Here are some characteristics of projects well-suited to Agile project management:
- The project deliverable is not well-defined or is likely to change.
- The project has multiple or phased deliverables.
- The project has a set number of resources.
- The customer is available throughout the process.
- The schedule is very flexible.
An example of a good Agile project is the roll out of a new software app. The app will be released in phases. The features of the first phase are well-known. The features of the last phase are not well-defined and may change over time. The customer also wants frequent brainstorming meetings.
To learn more about the Agile project process, check out the following free tutorials from Tuts+:
- A Designer’s Introduction to "Agile" Methodology
- The Lean, Agile Way to Build Your First Product
- The Principles of Agile Development
Agile is a great methodology for many projects. But some projects are better managed under a more Traditional process.
Choosing a Traditional Process
In this tutorial, I focus on how Traditional (or Waterfall) project management helps you to manage a freelance project.
Although Agile is popular, there are times when a Traditional process makes more sense. Here are the characteristics of a project well-suited to Traditional project management:
- The scope of the project is well-defined and not likely to change.
- The project has a single deliverable.
- Resources for the project can be adjusted.
- The customer's involvement in the project is limited after the scope is agreed upon.
- The deadline or delivery date is set and firm.
- The client requires Traditional project management.
An example of a Traditional project is the roll out of an e-commerce site for a company with only a handful of products. It doesn't make sense to roll the project out in phases because the end result is known and unlikely to change. The customer gives you the requirements, but wants you to handle it from there. In fact, the client's availability during the project will be limited.
Traditional Project Management
This section identifies the five phases of a project under a Traditional project management process. Different methodologies use different terms, but what happens in each phase is similar.
Roli Pathak, writing at PM project-management.com, offers a good description of Traditional project phases:
I'll explain how you can apply each phase to your project in the next section. For now, let's look at the advantages and disadvantages of Traditional project management.
Advantages of the Traditional Process
- Traditional project management allows team to work with less client oversight.
- There are fewer changes to the project.
- Traditional project management includes a well-defined scope.
Disadvantages of the Traditional Process
- It's difficult to process changes.
- The client is less involved.
Now that you have an overview of project management, you're ready to use it.
Using Project Management
You can apply a Traditional project management process to your freelancing project. I've adapted the Traditional project management phases for freelancers. Here are the five phases of project management again and a description of what happens during each phase for you, the freelancer:
- Get Requirements (Initiate). The client expresses an interest in doing a project with you. Check that you have the basic resources (including subcontractors) to do the project. Ask for a detailed scope of the project. Also confirm that your understanding of the scope is correct with the client.
- Plan. Estimate the amount of effort the project requires and schedule the work. Break the project into smaller parts (often called a work breakdown structure) to create a manageable plan. Set your internal goals and make sure that your plan meets the client's goals. Get a signed contract or agreement from the client and collect the initial payment.
- Development (Execute). You (and any freelancers you've hired) do the main tasks of the project. If you're a web developer, this is where you build web pages. If you're a writer, this is where you create the rough draft.
- Review/Testing (Control). During the course of the project, compare your progress to the plan. If you fall behind, take steps to ensure that you get back to the scheduled plan. Check your work during this phase to make sure there are no errors and that it meets the project scope. If you have a team, review each others' work. If not, look over your own work carefully. Skipping this phase could result in an unhappy client and lots of rework. For large projects you may need an independent subject matter expert for review or testing.
- Conclusion/Maintenance (Close). Turn the project over to the client. Bill for the rest of the project fees. If the project requires ongoing support and maintenance, make arrangements for handling those (for an extra charge). As a freelancer, it's a good idea to ask for more work at this point.
As you progress through the project management steps, you'll need tools to help you. For small to mid-size projects, create custom project spreadsheets using tools like Google Sheets (free) or Microsoft Excel. For larger projects you may need a more complex tool like Microsoft Project or Jira.
If you've followed the project management process, you've probably avoided many common project problems.
Avoiding Project Management Pitfalls
For larger projects, the project management process helps you avoid common freelancing pitfalls. Here are seven problems freelancers often face and an explanation of how the project management process helps with each:
- Not understanding what the client wants. In the project management process the client agrees to the requirements (also known as scope) during the first phase. The scope becomes part of the contract.
- Underestimating the time for the project. With project management, your estimate is more accurate because you base it on a more detailed scope.
- Undercharging for the project. You are less likely to undercharge for the project because you have a more accurate estimate.
- Falling behind on tasks and ultimately delivering late. With a project management process you always know how your progress compares to the schedule.
- Turning in a project with problems. Project management requires you to test (or control) your work. You are less likely to turn in a project with mistakes.
- Misunderstandings after the project is complete. Since the scope is clearly defined from the beginning, the client knows exactly what you agreed to do.
- Not getting repeat business from the client. As part of the final phase, ask the client if you can handle their support or maintenance needs.
After the Project
Even after your freelance project is complete, you are not done. The best project managers analyze their project successes and failures. You should do the same.
Here are some questions when your project ends:
- Was the client happy? If not, why not? (You may have to ask.)
- Did the project stay on schedule? If not, at what point did it go off schedule? What caused it to go off schedule?
- Were the time estimates accurate for each task? If they were not, how much more time was needed?
- What did you learn from this project? What do you wish you had done differently?
- Based on this project, do you need to invest in more tools or training?
Record your answers to these questions and keep them in a safe place. Go over your answers with your project team members. Look at your answers before you start your next freelance project to avoid making the same mistakes on a new project.
After a successful project, ask your client to give you a recommendation while your work is still fresh in their minds. Corporate project managers usually skip this step, but it's vital for freelance project managers.
Here are some Tuts+ tutorials that will help you ask for client testimonials:
- When The Project Is Over - Gathering Testimonials
- The 5-Step Approach to Gathering and Using Client Testimonials
This tutorial covers a complex subject, Traditional project management, and makes it accessible to freelancers. It is not intended to be an exhaustive resource on project management. Nor does it advocate Traditional project management methodology for all freelance projects.
Project management is an area where experience and opinions differ. Some key points to remember are that you should plan and organize your freelance projects and that there are proven methods to help you do that.
Also, being able to manage freelance projects increases your value as a freelancer and makes you more marketable.
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