The Focal Point Blog // Business Strategy // Cory Williamson // November 19, 2020

Agency Project Managers: From Under Appreciate to Celebrated

I started my career in agency project management more than 10 years ago. Over that time, I progressed from being an individual contributor to a team lead to the head of product operations at Parallax. While I recently moved to the client side, I’ve spent my project management career at agencies ranging from small custom development shops to larger digital consultancies.

💡 The rapid, widespread adoption of agile delivery methodologies, like Scrum and SAFe, has elevated project managers’ roles and clarified how vital PMs are to ensuring a project’s value and success.

As my career advanced, so did the function of project management. The rapid, widespread adoption of agile delivery methodologies, like Scrum and SAFe, has elevated project managers’ roles and clarified how vital PMs are to ensuring a project’s value and success.

Yet, I’ve noticed from firsthand experience and networking with peers that agencies are lagging in recognizing the full value and potential of project management. They often view it as an administrative necessity versus a critical value-adding function. Most aren’t selling agency project management as a capability but instead as overhead. They either tack on a 20% administrative overhead fee to the project scope or let project management time eat into their margins.

Many agencies, particularly those early in their growth, also don’t invest in maturing their project management practices. This lack of investment hinders the business’s ability to leverage project managers as value creators.

Agencies are missing out on significant value creation by not selling project management as a key capability. It’s time to celebrate and elevate the skills of underappreciated project managers. Doing so will benefit the business and empower project managers to reach their full potential.

Make project management a value-creating capability

Evolving project management from an administrative function to one that generates business value requires a shift in perspective and operations. Here’s how you can start leveraging project management to better support your business and employees.

1. Rethink how you position project managers internally.

Client projects aren’t run on assembly lines where you sequentially check one task off after another. Today’s business environment requires you to help clients shift, evolve, and pivot with change. Dynamic projects need skilled, solution-oriented agency project managers who can help clients proactively spot risks, navigate change, and overcome roadblocks.

Unfortunately, many agencies still think of their project managers as task managers who schedule meetings, take notes, and make sure people know what they’re supposed to do. This is a miss for them because project managers can offer so much more — especially when it comes to helping clients mitigate risk and maximize their investment.

To reposition project management’s role in your agency from administrative to strategic, loop project managers in as soon as new opportunities enter the sales pipeline. Challenge them to help you shape proposals and project plans instead of relying on them only to help you execute. When you elevate and empower your project managers, they offer greater value because they can help clients maximize their energy, effort, and time — and mitigate risks before they become a problem.

2. Move beyond the ‘iron triangle’ to account for efficiency.

The “iron triangle” has traditionally associated good project management with delivering on time, on budget, and within scope. Meeting these objectives is now table stakes. A more accurate measure of a project manager’s effectiveness is efficiency. If time, budget, and scope are fixed constraints, how can your project managers maximize efficiency to make those constraints leaner?

Challenge your agency project managers to deliver greater value by setting efficiency objectives for them. If your team operates in an agile model, you might task them with achieving consistent velocity. In Kanban, you could hold them accountable for how many days, on average, it takes to close tickets. There are numerous efficiency metrics sprinkled throughout the entire delivery model that your team could target. Even if project managers aren’t directly responsible for hitting the metrics, they can be responsible for holding their project teams accountable.

3. Challenge PMs to manage each project as a mini business.

Understanding the health of the agency requires you to know how individual accounts and projects are performing. But it’s inefficient and unrealistic to expect agency leaders to know what’s happening at all times across the entire client portfolio. Fortunately, you have project managers who are close to the projects every day. Make it the PM’s job to manage their projects like you would a business.

Give them visibility into critical data in the sales pipeline and how business is tracking against target metrics, like utilization, margin, and revenue. This visibility enables your PMs to report to leadership on project performance, spot concerning trends before it’s too late to fix them, and negotiate early and upfront about resources and project start days. Their involvement in monitoring and reporting business insight gives them the information they need to help set reasonable and realistic expectations with clients. Your team will soon be delivering more work that aligns with what the sales team sold and what clients expect.

4. Weave the value of project management into prospecting.

Many clients seek out agencies because they’re struggling to gain cross-functional consensus or get their internal teams off the ground. They feel stuck, so they hire an agency. Agency project managers play a leading — and sometimes underappreciated role — in these types of client engagements.

Consider the types of projects your agency has taken on where streamlining internal teams was a significant factor in your success. For example, your team might design and build dozens of web applications each year. Are clients seeking you out for this because of your superior development skills or because you’re really good at making these projects a success across complex, cross-functional teams? These insights may help you uncover an entirely new way to target prospective clients, with project management being the leading value.

A pitch may sound like: “Are you struggling to get your team aligned around a new, business-critical web application? We’ve done dozens of these projects and have the project management chops to move your team forward efficiently and effectively.”

5. Create new project management service offerings.

One of the clearest ways to increase your project managers’ value is to build and sell project management service offerings. For example, if your internal team operates using agile methods, you likely have talented agile project managers on staff. Consider whether you can leverage their skill sets to design a unique capability sold independently of your other service offerings.

Developing a project management capability enables an immediate shift from charging a 20% administrative overhead fee to a fixed-cost model that nets a higher margin and positions your team for added value. Project management is the value-added service generating the project’s revenue. You can test out the potential of this new capability by up-selling to existing clients. If you have a client that has seen how well your project managers organize the agency’s internal team, why not offer to help the client align its own teams?

Empower your project managers to succeed

At Parallax, we think project managers are the unsung heroes of agencies. When agencies leverage their project managers’ skills effectively, they can contribute critical business value — the kind of value that agencies should celebrate more often. 

We’re also big fans of agency project managers because they’re the people that maximize Parallax’s effectiveness at agencies. Project managers using Parallax update resource plans weekly, vie for resource needs, keep an eye on project financials, and make sure everyone sticks to the plan. You might say I’m a little biased, but project managers are pretty great. And given the opportunity, they have the potential to make your agency really great.

If you’d like to see how Parallax can help unlock your project managers’ potential, reach out to schedule a demo. We’ll share how Parallax creates a shared perspective of your business — and enables your team to work together to make it its greatest success.