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Empathy: a project manager’s secret weapon

Our Brick Factory team recently moved into a new office in the McPherson Square area of Washington, DC.   Our new space was previously occupied by a law firm with an affinity for wood paneling, ship drawings and 80s style carpet.  Thankfully, as part of our lease we were given the opportunity to completely gut the space and rebuild to our exact specification.  This involved a pretty extensive construction project with deadlines, budgets and a team of contractors.  As the client on the project, my job was to oversee the process and to make a million small and large decisions.

I had never been involved in a construction project before and it was quite a trip.  I pretty much felt confused and incompetent the entire time.  I didn’t know speak the language or truly understand the process. I asked many, many stupid questions and had to have things explained to me 2-3 times before I was able to “get it”.  I lived in fear that I would make an expensive mistake.  Despite my extremely shaky performance, the new office turned out great due to the wonderful job done by the team we worked with.

Managing the construction of our new office increased my appreciation for our clients.  Being the client is hard.  By playing the role, I was able to gain a greater understanding of the stress and emotions our clients feel when working with us on web development projects.

At the Brick Factory our clients are smart, busy people who spend their days fighting important policy battles, running successful businesses and/or trying to make the world a better place.  Their jobs are hard and stressful, with deadlines and goals they rely on us to help them meet.   While the web is critical to what they do, building websites is rarely their primary job and not all of them have a deep understanding of the web development process.  

In order to do right by your client, I think one of the most important traits you can have is empathy.  There is a lot of good content on the web about empathy (go watch this video right now), but this definition sums it up pretty well:

The ability to step into the shoes of another person, aiming to understand their feelings and perspectives, and to use that understanding to guide our actions. 

If you think about it, that is a pretty good description of what a project manager does.  If you are able to see the world as your client does, chances are you are going to do a great job for them.  You will have a deep understanding of their needs, and will be able to prevent most problems and resolve the ones that do pop up quickly and amicably.   

While certainly incomplete, to be an empathetic project manager you have to do the following:

  • Understand your client’s background and experience level.  The way you work with a client that is managing their first web development project is going to be fundamentally different from a client with a wealth of experience.  Understand your client’s experience level and adjust your process accordingly.
  • Know how your client likes to work.  Some clients want to be involved in every decision while others want to provide overall direction and let you handle the details. Sometimes it is a mistake to ask for feedback too often. Other times it is a mistake to not ask often enough.  If you understand your client you’ll know what to do.
  • Get to know your client’s company culture.  Is the organization fast paced or laid back?  Who does your client contact report to?  Does your client email you late or night or just during the business day?  Understanding the environment your client is working in will help you provide them with better service.
  • Understand what is keeping your client awake at night.  Is there a big conference they are preparing for?  A vote on a big bill that is fast approaching?  A fundraising number they need to hit?  If you truly understand the client’s pain points you’ll be able to provide better counsel.   
  • Always figure out the “why” behind a request.  As a project manager you have undoubtedly received an out-of-the blue request to move a deadline or to implement a new feature ASAP.  Take the time to understand the context.  This will allow you to distill the request down to its core, providing  you the information you need  to solve the problem.  
  • Actually talk to your client now and then.  A lot of work today is done via emails and collaboration tools such as Basecamp.  Make the time to talk to your client on the phone and/or in person now and then.  You will undoubtedly learn something you wouldn’t have known if you’d stuck exclusively to electronic communication.  This will build connection and understanding.

When you are a project manager at a web development firm, it is very easy to turn into a robot programmed to complete tasks as quickly and efficiently as possible.  But being able to put yourself in the client’s shoes is just as important as efficiency.   Indeed, empathy is often the difference between a great project manager and one that is merely good.

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