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Human-centered Project Management for Agencies

As a project manager working to carry agencies and clients through a process that might be completely new to the clients, I know that a project’s success hinges on the preparation, involvement, empowerment, and trust of every person working on the project—and this includes the client! Embracing a Human-centered Design approach has become pivotal in the design world, but putting people at the heart of your work doesn’t have to stop there. Let’s explore human-centered project management. 

Although project managers are not always viewed as designers or strategists, we bear the responsibility of designing and strategizing the projects for both our clients and our own teams. Our role extends beyond creating a project plan; it involves shaping a thoughtful and impactful journey, carefully constructing each phase to ensure a seamless and gratifying experience for all stakeholders. Unfortunately, project managers typically assume a top-down approach where the project manager acts as the holder of all knowledge, gate-keeper, and sole decision-maker and fails to involve their team or client along the way. 

In my experience, the most successful project managers design and strategize project plans alongside their team and clients and according to the Project Management Institute Report of 2020, “human-centered design” ranked among the top strategies that project managers use to improve project outcomes and stay ahead of the competition. The project managers using design thinking strategies are more likely to meet business goals and to complete projects on time and within budgets, and they are less likely to experience scope creep (aka. adding additional features or functions that is not authorized (i.e., beyond the agreed-upon scope), project failure, or budget loss.

Embracing this ‘human-centered’ mindset allows us to deliver exceptional outcomes and foster lasting relationships. 

Shifting Your Mindset to Embrace Human-centered Project Management

The people of Chiapas, Mexico have a saying, “Queremos un mundo donde quepan muchos mundos,” which translates to: “We want a world where many worlds fit.” In its original context, this saying relates to the difference between marginalized and empowered groups, the latter afforded the privilege of overlooking other worlds—as if their entire world were, or should be, as they see it (Escobar, 2017). To me, this saying is beautiful though beyond its original context—it communicates a deep concern for social justice, equality, and non-hierarchy. 

In the context of my work as a project manager, empowered people in positions of authority are often the project managers, directors, or industry experts. Holding these positions means we can implement a top-down approach with clients and teams, but it can also open the door to championing a more human-centered project landscape by means of acknowledging our personal privilege in the position that we hold. When people in these roles recognize the hierarchies in our organizations, we can use our platforms to advocate for change and actively contribute to fostering inclusivity, diversity, and collaboration. We can make many worlds—the lived experiences of our other colleagues—coexist on equal ground. 

When we take the time to flatten these hierarchies in our roles, a fresh perspective can emerge, and it puts everyone at the heart of project management decisions. This evolving approach views design as a human-centered, interactive, and collaborative process, has its focus on understanding and empathizing with the people we design for. 

The concept of human-centered design emphasizes the importance of truly connecting with the individuals who will use our designs. In our case, individuals who will experience our projects.  By fostering empathy and a deep understanding of their needs, we can create projects that genuinely address their challenges and aspirations. This user-driven approach encourages collaboration, as diverse perspectives and ideas enrich the creative process, leading to more innovative and effective outcomes.

What does a human-centered design project management practice look like you may ask? I’ve been asking myself the same question. Let’s explore my findings together. 

Building Relationships: The Heart of Human-Centered Projects

The first step in your human-centered project is all about people. Building relationships is key. Before diving into the project plan, you must get to know your team. Understand their personal and professional contexts, fostering connections within teams and across agency-client boundaries.

Once you’ve established a foundational relationship, take it a step further. Cultivate deeper connections beyond just small talk. Learn about teammates’ families, backgrounds, and interests. We can on cordial work relationships to understand each other on a human level. By being a good listener and showing genuine curiosity, we can create a two-way street where all roads lead to empathy.

Empathy forms the basis for building trust. Trust naturally develops as people see your competence and genuine interest. In my experience, when others believe you truly hear and understand them, trust flourishes.

This trust goes beyond meeting deadlines; it opens up communication. A safe, judgment-free channel for open dialogue is crucial for maintaining a human-centered project management flow.

Established communication channels enable team members to express their confusion without hesitation. Recognizing knowledge gaps is vital; education on process and terms is a significant aspect of a human-centered project. Vulnerability in asking for clarification signifies trust in you to bridge the gap, which goes both ways: clients need to learn about agency processes, just as agencies need to understand client issues. Regular check-ins, techniques like “rose, bud, thorns” for feedback, and a culture of continuous improvement further this understanding.

Beyond education, open communication channels are the bedrock for probably the most pivotal piece of human-centered project management: Co-creation and iteration. 

The Secret Ingredients: Co-creation and Iteration 

The best laid plans are adaptable, they integrate perspectives, and they can still drive a project home with changes. 

To truly create a human-centered project, you have to make sure that you’re proactively seeking feedback from project partners and you’re co-designing the project with them as the project progresses. 

That means seeking feedback from partners every step of the way or in other words, seeking to understand other worlds outside of our own. Embrace co-creation and iteration by posing questions like:

  • Is our meeting schedule suitable for you?
  • Are communication methods convenient (e.g., Slack vs. email)?
  • Is each project phase terms and process clear to all stakeholders?
  • Where is there risk in the project and what is our contingency plan?

These questions have come in handy several times throughout my role. For example, once a client told me that her team was really busy in the fall and context switching became a challenge for them. She asked if I could add the timeline at the start and end of every presentation, so we did. Another client sought annotated designs and wireframes for absentees’ feedback during meetings, and we did.

It is small things and needs we tend to overlook that are the most important for a great client experience. This is the gold. This is what we build up to.

Seeking feedback and co-creation is just the beginning. Human-centered management validates input and implements changes to uphold trust and transparency. Through ongoing adaptation and iteration, project teams forge optimal strategies.

Remember that patience and empathy are paramount. Clients may be new to this process, necessitating your guidance toward a great delivery.

Conclusion: Being by Design

For me, in human-centered design, we’re striving to build a world where many worlds fit—where many voices are elevated, validated, and empowered. Human-centered project management allows us to work toward those principles through its greater emphasis on collaboration, empathy, and continuous iteration. 

And perhaps, it’s only minute details that change, but again – it’s the small things that go a long way especially to a client new to this process. 

Courtnery Johnston puts it lovely in the DPM Podcast, “My hypothesis of human-centered project management is really about being aware, being present, and being a better human to the humans around you.” When we manage projects with people first, we keep our focus on the important things in life—our values and our relationships. 

Resources to check out 

  • Escobar, Arturo. Designs for the pluriverse: Radical interdependence, autonomy, and the making of worlds. Duke University Press, 2018.
  • Costanza-Chock, Sasha. Design justice: community-led practices to build the worlds we need. MIT Press, 2020.
  • Holmes, Kat. Mismatch: How Inclusion Shapes Design. MIT Press, 2018.

About the Author

Cecilia Portillo

Cecilia Portillo

Ceci brings a decade of cross-disciplinary experience in project management, website and product design, social sciences, systems thinking, and entrepreneurship. She has served impact makers such as the UN World Food Programme, One Drop Foundation, Makivik Foundation, and the Alliance Center amongst others. Her work with indigenous communities in Canada and Mexico have influenced how she approaches project management. Active listening, collaboration, creativity, and reciprocity are values that permeate her daily activities. She holds a BSc in Global Food Security (Systems Thinking) from McGill University.

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