4 min read

Working with Project Managers: Q&A with Erin Kissane

"I believe that clear, honest, thoughtful communication—online and otherwise—can make our lives better (and good businesses more profitable). I believe that poor communication wastes time and money, damages relationships, and hinders our ability to think clearly as groups and individuals. I believe we can do better."

With a credo that reads like a project manager's own personal diary, how could I not interview Erin Kissane?

Erin is a brilliant and sometimes pink-haired content strategist who lives in New York. She has worked independently on projects with Happy Cog for years and recently took a position with Brain Traffic where she'll focus on major content strategy projects with many like-minded people. In her work, Erin helps companies and other organizations figure out appropriate online editorial strategies, create great content, and build sustainable publishing workflows. And she's darn good!

Erin's resume reads like one that most web nerds dream about: She was lead editor of A List Apart for 5 years, has edited books, including Designing with Web Standards by Jeffrey Zeldman with Ethan Marcotte, and John Allsopp’s Developing with Web Standards. And...her new book, The Elements of Content Strategy, is being released on March 8. On top of that, she blogs at Incisive.nu. I'm so happy for Erin, and really so selfishly happy for myself because I was able to work with her on a really great project.

Needless to say, I was ecstatic that she accepted my request for this Q&A.

How often do you work on project with a PM? Do your projects run any smoother with a PM involved?

I work with a dedicated PM about half the time. And yes! Sometimes project management work can be spread out across a few other roles, but unless someone is responsible for keeping all those plates (and platters and frisbees and UFOs) in the air, projects tend to bog down and communication troubles arise.

What is the best thing a PM can do for you?

A great PM goes beyond task management, project planning, and client relations to facilitate the interaction of technical, strategic, and creative work. That's incredibly difficult work, and it makes a huge difference to have such a facilitator on the team.

What's the worst thing that has happened to one of your projects as a result of poor, or no project management?

Oh, man. What a hard question. I've seen projects go off the rails because there wasn't someone constantly and consistently managing client expectations. I've also seen them take far too long and go over budget because of what Seth Godin calls "thrashing"—the chaotic process of questioning and re-questioning decisions and core ideas—that happens too late in a project.

What common things happen in your day that can destroy your productivity? Could a PM help to keep you on track?

Fragmentation of time is a big one—distractions and interruptions all lead to working reactively, based on the loudest noise or the latest email to hit my inbox. It's not a strategic way of working, and over time, it can really damage the kind of concentrated examination and problem-solving I need to do.

I work independently, so this is mostly something I have to manage myself, but if I were with a team on-site, a PM could help a whole lot by defending those blocks of unbroken working time that produce the best results (for me, at least).

How do you keep yourself organized?

I use a lot of things. Gmail's Priority Inbox is a godsend, but I also use a whiteboard next to my desk to track the commitments I make over a day, and I use physical binders as well as nested folders with labels on my computer to keep project files together.

How do you communicate best with your team? (phone, email, Basecamp, IM) Why?

I don't really use IM, because it tends to be an interrupter. I like email and Basecamp for different things—private vs. group communication—and regular phone contact is also important. But really, nothing replaces face-to-face meetings, even if they only happen a few times over the life of a project.

Are there any standard documents that you deliver?

My full process, when I use it, includes qualitative and quantitative content audits, with findings, stakeholder interviews, user research (if I can't piggyback on someone else's), and iterative content recommendations that begin with high-level strategies and evolve into detailed tactical guidelines, finishing with a style guide, content templates, and example content.

What sort of background information do you need before you get started?

I'm a research nerd, so I'm happiest when I can see the original RFP or initiating document, the agency's response/proposal (when these things apply), and all research the team has done in the interim. Then I start my own research, which can range from user interviews to academic journals.

Is there a standard time frame you need to work through your milestones?

A whole lot depends on the complexity of the project. Three to six months is reasonable for a small-to-mid-sized project, and nine months to a year or more for really big complex projects. I have dependencies with other work (UX, IA, etc.) when I do content strategy as a part of a larger web design/development project, so that factors in as well.

What are the risks of you falling behind with your work and why?

Hmm. Well, I could delay other project work, leave clients hanging, and bollocks things up for the later phases of a project, as content work needs to be taken into consideration during wireframing, CMS development, and so on. Minor delays aren't usually a huge problem, since the dependencies are relatively soft, but big ones could be quite bad.

Anything else you want to add?

Only that you are a fantastic PM, and that it's always a joy working with you. And you have to print that on your blog! Thanks for inviting me to do this!


Thanks to Erin! I'm always happy to print a compliment about ME. 🙂

Do you work with a content strategist? Is there anything here that Erin and I didn't cover in terms of process and PM? Give me a shout in the comments!