A guide for writers, editors and translators

As a freelance writer, editor or translator, you may find yourself becoming part of project team for larger projects, especially if working with software and publishing companies. If not handled thoughtfully from the start of your project involvement, communication and cooperation with project managers and colleagues can be plagued with difficulty. Even experienced project managers can crack under the pressure to deliver on time, on budget and to requirements, and often the demands of senior management are passed on (sometimes lacking time, clarity and forethought) to contractors from overworked PMs trying to meet their performance objectives. Here are some hints to help you make your relationship with project managers and colleagues a little easier:

Make communication a priority, and treat it as a task in its own right

 Typical scenario:

At a project meeting, you discover that your freelance colleagues had a different understanding to you about the deadline for completing a large piece of project work. The timeline is now at risk, deliverables are behind schedule, and everyone involved needs to shift their schedules to work a little faster to make up the time. Conversations about new risks to quality ensue, and communication problems and disagreements follow.

Good project managers will mitigate the risk of this happening by having a communication plan established and socialized before work with contractors begins. If this is done well, for you it means thoughtful and timely communication on your deliverables, with solid documentation to back up change requests and amendments to the project plan and timeline.

In reality not all project managers are PMP royalty or Agile project management demigods, and instead you may find yourself dealing with unclear deadlines, poorly communicated requests, and changes to plans revealed at the eleventh hour. How to handle this? Establish your need for clear communication right from the start. Ask for written confirmation of decisions made in project meetings, and don't be afraid to reply and ask for more clarity if it's lacking. Double check upcoming deadlines, and verify that there has been no change to dates or to the definition of your tasks.

 If your PM is showing signs of fatigue and wobbly communication, be extra vocal in requesting details and information. Keep copies of all emails and meeting minutes, and stay as organized as you can with your project information. In this situation, do not be overly aggressive or showcase the PM's communication shortcomings publicly, unless you don't care about the consequences. Instead earn kudos by facilitating good communication by asking for clarification when needed and offer your input and suggestions for improvement diplomatically; most PMs will be grateful for suggestions and will remember you for future projects if you made extra effort to communicate well. In other words, be a good example. Do all of this proactively rather than reactively.

Politics are stifling

 Typical scenario:

 You are a member of an international project team that has become fraught with disagreements and misunderstandings. The project manager has underestimated the need for cultural sensitivity and has not adapted his communication style for a diverse and multilingual project team, and contractors are left trying to figure out the woods from the trees among themselves. You frequently find yourself being asked loaded questions about what you may know about project issues, and colleagues start to offload their stress and lace it with opinions about why the project team has become uncooperative and inefficient.

This situation can escalate quickly, and is annoyingly common. Rumors of unprofessional conduct will quickly float back to PMs through complaints from other contractors or project staff, and this will likely be very aggravating to a PM who is trying to maintain good PR for a high-profile project. If your name is associated with any unprofessional conversations, you'll quickly be tagged as a “project risk” and your name may appear on internal documents as a project “issue.” PMs know that there is nothing more effective in sucking the air out of a project than petty politics. If you find yourself becoming embroiled in disagreements and dramatics with other project staff, pull yourself out of the situation as quickly as possible and remain a neutral bystander. Resist the temptation to share opinions about other team members or their work, and instead focus on delivering the best work possible. Don't give in to pressure to join discussions that are not relevant to work, and avoid participating in conversation topics that look like they will become political.

Similarly, in this kind of environment, avoid divulging personal information beyond casual small talk. The best possible shield from being pulled into political conversations is ensuring that your behavior is totally professional, all the time. If you establish this from the start, colleagues will be much less likely to have the confidence to try to drag you into project politics. Be careful who you share personal information with before you know your new colleagues a little better, and instead focus on being a great contributor.

Understand project dependencies, and where you fit in

 Typical scenario:

You a part of  a project still in its early phases, and you realize during a project meeting that several project dependencies are unclear. Exactly when will the editor be finished reviewing content and be handing it off? By when do you need to have your content written and ready for review? Your colleagues are silent, and only the project manager is talking. You immediately become worried about the lack of information, and start to wonder if you are the only team member who is unclear about the details, or if you are the only one who has spotted the lack of clarity.

 For projects using traditional waterfall methodology, when a project manager creates a project timeline she will most likely have all tasks, dates, staff and dependencies tracked in an MS project file. As soon as you have access to a copy of the timeline (and you should definitely have access to this or something similar), make sure that you understand exactly what dependencies precede and proceed your project tasks. If there is any haziness around exactly when you need to begin a task, who will be handing off project work to you, and who will be picking up where you left off, ask for clarification as soon as you can.

Writers and editors often face issues with project timelines, and become caught up in cycles of edits, reviews and rewriting due to poor project planning. If you notice issues with the plan, diplomatically explain what you see as a project risk and suggest alternatives if you have the experience to do so. Often project managers will be very grateful for the input, and good project planning usually involves getting verification from your project team that project planning and timelines are realistic and based on correct assumptions. This is your opportunity to show your professionalism and levelheadedness; do not fall prey to the urge to be negatively reactionary without contributing a better plan. Instead add value by suggesting reasonable alternatives.

Communicate new project risks quickly

 Typical scenario:

You and your colleagues have been concerned about the fact that tasks are taking one and a half times longer to complete than estimated in the project timeline, and by the end of the day the team's deliverables will be two full days behind schedule. Since you are still fairly early on in the project, you decide that it's too early to start voicing your concern about the timeline, and it seems like it will be easy to catch up if you all work extra hard over the next few days.

This is the mindset that often causes project delays and missed deadlines. When you see new project risks emerging, do not assume that the project manager is aware of them, or that your colleagues will do the job of communicating them. You will quickly win brownie points and save yourself extra work, stress and headaches if you help find and mitigate project risks early on. Typical issues that put projects at risk are slipping deadlines, lack of definition, issues with the quality of deliverables and growing disagreements. Flag them diplomatically and don't throw yourself into work before you have the clarity you need on what, when, how and where you should be completing your tasks.

In the end, it's all about delivering on time, on budget and to requirements, and leaving a good legacy

Typical scenario:

the project team is invited to hold a project post-mortem. As you make your way to the conference room, you start to wonder what exactly your colleagues and the project manager thinks of your contributions. You think of the times when you could have flagged issues earlier, been more cooperative, and given an extra ten percent of yourself to really make a difference. After surviving a nightmare project, plagued by issues and fraught with disagreements, you wonder exactly where you fit into the picture, in the minds of your colleagues.

So in summary, how do you avoid such doubts, at the end of a project from hell? Beyond your heroic efforts, what will you wish you had done, and what advice will you give to others? To stay professional, avoid conflict, flag mole hills before they become mountains and stay as organized as possible. To understand your responsibilities, your deadlines, and ask for clarity when you don't have it. To diplomatically challenge poor assumptions, and be an example to your colleagues when everyone has their hair on fire. Oh, and to make a note to yourself to research the company's reputation more thoroughly in the future before signing a contract.