Leading projects at 18F
Once a project begins, the 18F project team is responsible for its success.
Each team has a project lead who coordinates and represents the project, both to the partner and within 18F.
What does it mean to be responsible for project success?
Here is some of what success includes:
- Delivering on the Statement of Work
- Delivering value to the partner—and defining what that means for your partner
- Building and maintaining relationships with the day-to-day partners while the project is in-flight, as well as key stakeholder and executive relationships
- The quality of deliverables and artifacts
- Establishing a healthy team with positive working relationships
- The strategic direction of the project (including alignment with a portfolio, when relevant)
- Managing work so that team members can be fully billable
- Identifying project and partner needs (for instance, staffing changes, budget changes, potential work)
- Identifying ways we could potentially help the partner more, given more time, in future engagements
In all this, your closest collaborators are 1) your account manager and 2) your project team. They are deeply invested, and will also be asked to account for the project’s success as part of their duties.
What does this mean in practice?
Someone (the partner, 18F leadership, or others) might ask you about how the project is going, and 18F will expect you to have an answer. It does not mean you should do all of these things yourself — the most senior project leads are often those who can speak confidently about how others are owning various aspects of the work.
Rotating tasks among teammates
Teams are more resilient and equitable when administrative tasks like scheduling meetings or taking notes are shared. It can help to proactively set up systems to rotate this work (for example: a schedule for who will send weekly ship emails each week).
How do we decide who leads each project?
Every project needs a lead to be the primary point-person. Which person fills that role should be decided based on project needs and staff available. This happens as part of our normal staffing process, and should follow these steps:
- The Account Manager/Portfolio Director (and/or Chief of Projects) find out from chapter staffing representatives which potential team members are interested in leading.
- If only one person is interested, the AM/PD/CoP is responsible for making sure everyone involved is comfortable with that person leading, based on past skills and experience.
- If no one is interested (or if the interested person doesn’t have the appropriate skills/experience), we need to rework staffing to make sure we have at least one willing-and-able project lead on the team.
- If multiple people are interested:
- Once the team is assigned (in repo), the Portfolio Director (or Chief of Projects) and Account Manager lead a conversation among interested folks about project leadership expectations and options.
- We aim to either leave that meeting with consensus or have follow-up conversations if needed.
- The final decision, if needed, is made by the Portfolio Director (or Chief of Projects).
In most cases, there’s one full-time person who’s willing to lead, they have experience leading, and this is a very very short process. In other cases, our goal is to ensure that everyone on the team has shared expectations about what roles need to be filled, and that the team is part of intentionally navigating these decisions.
Fear not! We don’t expect you to do this alone. We have a lot of documentation and structures set up to provide patterns, templates, and support. In fact, we don’t want you to do it alone; communicating and collaborating about what you’re doing will make your work better and help the rest of 18F learn from it.
Your first lines of support are the folks you have 1:1s with weekly: the project’s account manager and your lead or supervisor. They can help you navigate resources (including guides, guilds, Slack channels, and miscellaneous people who might be able to help), as well as coaching you on hard conversations, client management skills, and strategic direction.
Some things they’ll help you navigate, find, and use:
- If you need documentation, look to the handbook and our guides.
- If you need support in a specific skill set or help with deliverables, get help by using a microrequest.
- If your project is part of a portfolio, the portfolio director and your colleagues in the portfolio can be a great resource.
- If you need advice or coaching, look to the chapters (#product, #design, #acquisition, and #dev as well as our guilds and working groups. Each of them have a corresponding Slack channel you can jump into any time.
What if a project lead is struggling to fulfill the role?
First, we try to support them better. This may include giving them feedback about what is and isn’t working, shifting other staff on the team, taking other things off their plate, or coaching. (Also, all of those things might happen when a project lead is doing great — those are all healthy ways to grow, and okay things to ask for!)
If the project’s success — or partner relationship — are at stake because of the lead’s behavior, experience level, or ability, and the project lead is unwilling to or incapable of changing the situation, we will look at how to restaff the project so that it can be successful.
Who can raise concerns about project leadership?
Everyone who works on a project, or who sees their work, should feel empowered to help the team improve their work. The people who are most likely to identify concerns about the project lead, specifically, are other team members and the account manager.
Here’s what you should do if you are worried that a project lead is not set up for success, or is not steering a project appropriately:
- Talk to the project lead directly about what gaps you’re seeing and how to address them.
- Raise it with the account manager.
If you aren’t sure how to approach those conversations, work with your lead or supervisor to strategize about how to address it. They can also help you decide whether to pull in the project lead’s supervisor. In most cases, the next steps will still be to talk to the project lead directly and raise it with the account manager, but your lead can help you prepare for those conversations.
If the above channels aren’t an option (for instance, if you don’t trust your lead, supervisor, and account manager, if they themselves are the issue, or if they don’t help), make time to talk with one of the following folks, each of whom can help you strategize about how to improve the situation:
- Portfolio director, if you have one
- Chief of Projects
- Chief of Staff
- Director of Account Management chapter