Avoiding the “Pivot” and Other Project Manager Secrets Revealed

This article first appeared on GreenBook Blog.

If you remember the 90’s, you probably remember the Friends episode where Rachel and Chandler help Ross carry a couch up a turning staircase. (If you don’t, go watch it on YouTube. It’s worth it.)

The three sitcom friends struggle to navigate an oversized sofa around the staircase landings toward his upstairs apartment with Ross navigating. His directions quickly turn to panic as he shouts “Pivot! Pivot! PIVOT!” as the thing gets irretrievably stuck.

While it’s good for a laugh on TV, having to pivot when you need to make a change with a market research study is not funny. It can push fielding dates, frustrate clients and impact final deliverable timelines.

Still, “pivoting” is a term you may hear a lot in the market research process. It’s true that sometimes projects need to take sharp turns to get back on track, but that doesn’t always have to be the case.

That’s because the secret weapon for combatting the dreaded Pivot is a great project team, equipped with someone who continually scans the project horizon for trouble spots and communicates about them early and often.

Ingredients for success

Over the years as I’ve worked with many prospects as they have become clients, I’ve noticed a number of qualities that are critical to a project’s success.

Experience matters
Successful project managers have the talent of looking ahead because they have a lot of experience to look back on. They have seen how projects can go off the rails — and they know how to make smaller changes now that avoid future problems. Sometimes it’s as simple as knowing when to on-board partners or as complicated as working through.

Plan from before the start
Before the project is even awarded, it’s critical that a plan is in place and everyone starts out on the same page. Successful projects start out with internal strategy meetings to determine how to best meet the client’s goals, and implement the plan. That way, critical turning points in the process are identified early and strategic solutions can be planned in advance.

Continual communication
Effective project managers know just the right recipe for communicating well with their clients. Regular updates — daily — equip the client with the information they need. You never want the client to have to track down the PM for an update, good or bad. A project manager who facilitates difficult conversations as skillfully as they do good news can help keep clients informed and avoid the problem of running out of time to resolve the issues.

The right match
While regular communication is important the right kind of communication is critical. Pairing clients with a Project Manager that will communicate in the way they receive information takes a project from successful to outstanding.

Critical thinking
On-the-ball project managers carefully watch every aspect of the process to see what is happening as well as what might happen. Then, they are proactive in heading off problems and don’t run from challenging conversations.

Attention to detail
Clients should get a level of detail that’s informative and actionable, instead of just an information dump presented without a solution. The message is “Here’s what we’re seeing and here are some suggestions for dealing it.” Also, to shorten the path to a solution, an effective project manager knows when a phone call is better than an email exchange.

Set expectations
While it’s the responsibility of the sales team to set the right expectations from the beginning, it’s the PM’s role is to manage those expectations, tying everything together with great communications and practical solutions.

The PM continually has their fingers on the pulse of the project. But, after the first project is completed, an internal retrospective with the team is only the start. The next step is to find out from the clients what worked well — or didn’t — from their perspective, as well as what would work better for them in the future.

Level up when needed
It’s a team effort and sometimes bringing in other team members can help move things forward. The Director of Client Services is another valuable resource for clients – a behind-the-scenes supervisor who oversees all projects and is available to jump in when additional support is needed.

Make micro-adjustments
By developing big picture strategies from the start, project managers have a high-level view of the whole process. But, sometimes things change. Sometimes it’s a small change and other times, it may require a complete pivot… or maybe it doesn’t have to. That’s why a great PM leads a reassessment. They’ll work internally with the team to troubleshoot the issues to get the project back on track. With forethought and frequent monitoring, it’s not a crisis just because a change is requested.

Making sure you look good
At the end of the day, the project manager works with the entire project team to make the client’s life easier and make them look as good as possible to their clients. The PM’s role is critical for putting clients in the best light possible and developing a long-term business relationship.

In short, an experienced, watchful, and communicative project manager is a key part of the team and makes the entire process much smoother. That way, clients don’t need to worry about their project getting stuck in field like poor Ross and his sofa. He really had such high hopes when he even drew that sketch to plan everything just right for that new couch. Too bad he didn’t look far enough ahead so he didn’t have to pivot.