Sometimes We Need Project Managers

Earlier this week, I mentioned that sometimes we need mediators. Sometimes we need project managers too, for similar reasons. The people who get into any creative business—especially those that are driven by passion-first, pay-fourth-or-fifth fields like tabletop roleplaying games—tend to enter it from a creative angle: writing, illustration, layout, editing, etc. That means most of us don’t have training in various arenas of business and production, like accounting, marketing, and (the topic today) project management.

Project management isn’t trivial, people. The folks who do project management for a living—in tabletop, that’s folks like Jessica Price of Paizo and Sean Nittner of Evil Hat Productions—are saviors. They’re mediators, in a sense, except instead of mediating between people[1], they mediate between the creator and the uncaring forces that are time and resources. They play resource management games in real life, and when optimal solutions aren’t available (as is frequently the case), a good project manager is skilled at finding the least nonoptimal one and guiding people to courses of action. A project manager is an advocate for the voiceless forces that are time and resources, but not one who is unsympathetic to you.

Self-project management is a crazy-hard skill to learn, one that involves a lot of practice to master. And since failure there can cost you business and professional relationships[2], learning by failure is continually devastating. My 2010 and 2011 were filled with such failures. Today, with the jobs I take as a freelance writer on top of my self-publishing endeavors (which includes blogging) and my day job, I need to be my own project manager, and it’s hard. Having someone else there to be outside of your head, to help you make a plan when you’re either feeling overwhelmed or missing something obvious, and to advocate for you and for your schedule—well, we all sometimes need that.

Maybe you don’t need a full-time project manager. Maybe you need a few-hours-a-month personal assistant to help you there. Maybe you need to work with a friend and help each other keep on track. (This is something Tim and I do for Backstory Cards, as when the ball is with one person, it’s the other’s to keep him on task and reporting it.) But know that when you’re slipping, when you’re too stressed out because of your workload, find someone to help you manage your schedule. I do that at least once every few months. Even if it’s a one-time thing, you’ll be glad you did it.

An Anecdote: My Big Project Management Failure

There’s this upcoming book called The Paranet Papers, the third book for The Dresden Files Roleplaying Game. Because I was able to mediate and get Dresden back on track, we figured that meant I was qualified to manage projects in general, but we found out the hard way that I wasn’t for a number of reasons. Paranet Papers suffers the Dresden RPG curse of being very late, at you can pin at least six months of that on me.

I was both writing a chapter and managing the project. But I wasn’t meeting my own deadlines as a writer, so I found it hard to have any ground as a project manager to tell other people to meet their deadlines. After a long talk with Fred Hicks, I jokingly-but-seriously fired myself as a writer so that I could just focus on managing the project. (The joke part of it was “And any of you could be next…”, not that I had intention or ability to do so.) A few months later, as the schedule kept slipping, we had to recognize that I wasn’t really doing my job as a project manager, so I handed those reins back to Fred[3]. Stuff did get done during my run, but not enough to justify me being a project manager.

It turns out that was I am good at is book/game development (which has some overlapping roles) and in coming up with a crisis management plan (which a project manager has to be able to do), but I was piss-poor in managing a project that wasn’t On Fire. I was reflecting on this last year, and realized that what I should have done was fire myself as a project manager. Alas, that’s in the past.

– Ryan

Photo, because project managers help us juggle: CC-BY-SA, see Wikimedia page

[1] Though sometimes that, as well.

[2] In this business, that can turn into costing personal relationships.

[3] Sean would come on as Evil Hat’s for-real project manager a couple years later.