Features March/April 2021

Parlez-vous PM? How Learning the Language of Project Management Can Enhance Your Tech Comm Toolkit

By Vivian Aschwanden, PMP

Equip yourself with the same tools used by project management professionals to get control of your projects and provide better value to your clients.

Let’s start things off with a quiz. Think of your current day-to-day and consider these questions:

  • Do you find yourself scrambling to get it all done?
  • Do new requirements and surprises inevitably make their way into the middle of your project, throwing the schedule out the window?
  • Do you inherit unrealistic expectations from management along with overly optimistic schedules?
  • Is your team so crunched for time and resources that you actually snort when someone asks what quality assurance processes are in place?
  • Is it anyone’s guess what your clients need or want, who the actual decision makers are, or even who will be using the product or the content you are creating?

If you’re pursing your lips grimly and nodding along in the affirmative to any of these questions, you are not alone. I’ve been there, lived that—until I discovered a pathway to making my tech comm projects (and my life) less chaotic.

Still Swimming in the Same Pool

My path to enlightenment may be familiar to others.

I began as a lone technical writer in a small startup 23 years ago. Although not everything was perfect, my schedule was my own, and all the information I needed about the client, product, and user was at my fingertips.

Fast forward 10 years: I’ve moved on from startups and have spent several years as part of information development teams charged with documenting many products. Projects are more complex, run simultaneously, and are staffed by larger teams with (slightly) bigger budgets. And the chaos and stress have grown in tandem, along with client demands. I can literally check ‘yes” to every question in the quiz above.

In these environments, I was:

  • Spending more and more time in Excel and various mind-mapping tools
  • Sketching (and resketching) schedules and work activities for myself and my teammates and trying to figure out when we could deliver things, how many writers we needed to accomplish the work, what items we could descope to make everything fit, what risks we needed to keep an eye on, how much peer review and testing time we could fit in alongside SME reviews, etc.

At some point I realized that I was wearing the hat of project manager as much as the hat of an information developer. I also recognized that there must be better, more efficient ways to get things under control. I just didn’t know which—more learning was required.

I convinced my managers to send me back to school part-time, and got myself a masters certificate in project management. It was a turning point in my career. There was so much good stuff that we could apply to our tech comm projects! All the project management knowledge areas I was learning about could be directly applied to our work—scope management, time management, cost management, quality management, risk management, communication management—the list goes on. Oh, the places we could go, the plans we could create, the processes we could apply! Workshops and lunch-and-learns soon followed on managing time, risk, and quality, along with techniques for better estimating, identifying troubled projects, and overall project planning. There was so much to share, so much we could be doing differently!

Eventually I found my way out of the actual writing part of my job and began wearing a PM hat full-time on software teams within the company. The transition was easy, as the necessary skills and toolkit were the same and totally transferable—I was simply swimming in a different lane of the same pool.

Big, Beautiful Body of Knowledge

Have you found yourself in this rut before: Doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results? Before I attended project management training, this was my truth. Without the know-how, it’s hard to break the turmoil and stress inherent in many tech comm projects. Enter the Project Management Institute (PMI). For me, PMI was the organization that opened my mind to the possibility that tech comm projects, heck any project, could have different results.

PMI, like STC, is a leading membership association. It supports and advocates for the project management profession. They set professional standards, conduct research, provide access to information and resources, and provide networking opportunities. They also have The Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK).

First written in 1983, the PMBOK is composed by PMI volunteers and industry leaders and reflects the most current industry knowledge and practices for the profession. For those studying to become a certified project management professional (PMP), it is their sacred writ. It’s where I first heard of the five PM processes and 10 PM knowledge areas (see Bernard Aschwanden’s article, “Put Me in, Coach, I Can Help Manage This ‘Tech Comm’ Project!” in this issue for details), and where I first saw the possibilities for improving the lives of technical communicators and the satisfaction level of their stakeholders and clients.

Hindsight is Always 20/20

In retrospect, if I knew then what I know now, perhaps I would not have considered the hours I spent scheduling the team’s work activities to be a distraction from my “real work.” Instead, maybe I would have taken my schedule to management, and more convincingly expressed our need for additional people the following quarter because I had done some resource forecasting against it.

Or perhaps I would have put more time into:

  • Gathering lessons learned with the team (so we could bring challenges to management and find solutions which would make our lives easier—like developing processes to create more efficiencies and allow more time for quality assurance activities)
  • Working with the PM during the planning phase (instead of just inheriting a schedule)
  • Learning project management tools (to not only help my own projects, but to better support the bigger project I was a part of and contribute more value).

In hindsight, I wish I had spent less time with my nose to the page, and more time looking up at the bigger project picture.

It All Comes Down to Value

The planning you do for your own work is very likely what the PM is doing for the entire project.

  • Agreeing on what is needed, then figuring out what must be done to satisfy those needs
  • Creating the parts of the plan needed to ensure success (determine budget, scope, schedule, risks, best ways to communicate with stakeholders, who the resources are that will work on the project, what will be done to assure quality, etc)
  • Managing the “doing” of the work: monitoring it, controlling changes to it, ensuring appropriate support is provided, following processes, and communicating progress
  • Delivering the finished work, getting sign-off, and reviewing lessons-learned so you can do better next time.

There is a reason why PMs follow the same best practices, similarly structure their projects, move through the same project phases, and create and apply plans from the same knowledge areas. When done well, it works. And this is where client value comes in.

Clients value project deliverables that:

  • Stay within budget
  • Deliver on time
  • Fulfill their requirements
  • Work as expected without bugs or surprises

These value measures for clients should sound familiar—they are the same things that form the foundation of a good project plan. Controls and plans for budget, time, scope, and quality are key factors in successful project plans. If you do nothing else, make these the key factors in your own project plans, and find ways to build value into your deliverables.

Every Project is a Content Project

In recent years, I have come full circle in many ways, finding myself managing projects at a company whose lifeblood is content. Here, all our projects focus on solving content challenges. Whether it’s improving a client’s productivity and performance through content transformation; improving the usability, accessibility, readability of client content; developing and applying content and reuse strategies; training clients how to write better; or rolling out a CCMS or publishing system, we do it all. Bliss! Finally, a place to merge my tech comm background with my project management interests and training.

I have found that no matter what type of project I manage or its size, the same project management principles apply. And no matter who the client is, they value the same thing. Only now, every project is a content project.

Recognizing Value

In the marketing collateral, information packages, and proposals my company provides to potential clients, we tell customers about our project management methodology. This is information that clients value.

For example, when we say that we run our projects using Agile principles, there is an implication about how we plan, structure, and execute our projects. And I can tell you that this type of admission has proven to be an important differentiator when competing for client work. Clients are keenly interested in how a project is run, in how it is planned and executed. They want to understand what communications might look like, what type of meeting cadence to expect, how much upfront planning to expect, how expanded scope or change in requirements might be handled. These are not minor details for some clients—they form a big part in their decision-making process when selecting a vendor. They understand that good project management is necessary for success.

Take it to heart that clients pay attention to how projects are managed, no matter the size or scale. Consider this the next time you begin a new assignment, and what you can contribute to the overall project towards delivering client value.

Everything’s a Project (When You’re Part of the Team)

According to PMI.org, the definition of a project is temporary work that is unique in nature, with “a defined beginning and end in time, and therefore defined in scope and resources.” This definition most certainly applies to many tech comm activities: they have scheduled start and end times, scope, resources, and are usually unique. They are actual projects. And you should treat them with the same planning care as a PM does for the encompassing project you are a part of.

By approaching your tech comm assignments as “projects” and applying proven project management techniques to them, you can gain better control of your team’s work and provide better value to your clients.

Take Action Now

If you are happy in your current role as a tech comm wizard, and the time, inclination, or opportunity is not there to immerse yourself in the world of project management, there are still things you can do now to make your life, and the lives of your team members, better when it comes to project work.

  • Get to know your project manager. Many subscribe to the role of servant leadership, and truly want to work with you to help you and your team succeed. They are here to help you; they want to help you. That is their job.
  • Find ways to insert your plans into the larger project plan. Don’t quietly accept a plan from someone else if you’ve not been invited to provide input into it.
  • Find out what your PM needs for their plans—what risks should they know about that could upset the overall project plan? What resource, skill, or tool gaps have you identified which they help find solutions to? What support do you need to improve the quality of your deliverables? Provide your PM the details they need to plan better, set more realistic expectations with the customer, and set you (and the whole team) up for success.

If you can, start now to learn about project management best practices and principles which you can apply to your tech comm projects. With the right tools and language, you can not only get the help you need from your PM, but you can apply their insights to your own projects. In doing so, you can address and mitigate many of your project challenges and start creating client value.

VIVIAN ASCHWANDEN, PMP (vivian@precisioncontent.com) is a Senior Program Manager and Director of PMO at Precision Content Authoring Solutions, Inc. She began her career as a technical writer over 20 years ago and started her move into project management in 2009. She has worked for a variety of companies over this time, from small startups to large multinational corporations, and is elated to have finally found her tribe. When not tending to the needs of her Irish wolfhound or goldendoodle, you can find her working from her home in Algoma Mills, Ontario, Canada.

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