Thoughts on project management.

Why don’t designers and developers have more power at many companies? The thought arises from the observation that newspapers could be saved if designers had more power.

I think the answer is fairly simple: there is (or rather, there should be) a clear difference between the functional requirements for a project, and the artistic and technological requirements to fulfill those requirements. For example, when designing a newspaper, the functional requirements may be to make the cover eye-catching for important news ‘above the fold’, to make the banner clear, and to make the contents easy to navigate. Technical functional requirements may also include information such as the number or placement of color pages, or the paper size itself, and business functional requirements may include the percentage of pages devoted to advertising.

Of course this should be obvious as hell. But in practice it is not, and I see two reasons why things fail.

First, they fail because the project manager or owner does not have a clear idea of the functional problems he is trying to solve, or doesn’t want to commit to a simple list of problems that he wants to solve. For example, a project manager managing a new software package who doesn’t know the target audience or understand the use cases for his software package is simply going to be unable to figure out what the functional requirements are–and a “swiss army knife” of functional requirements or (worse) a fluid and ever-changing list of core requirements spells disaster, because the manager or owner can never be made happy and the product will never ship.

Second, they fail because project managers or owners envision themselves as designers or developers or software architects, and rather than enumerate a list of core requirements and allow their people to do their jobs with some degree of flexibility, they micromanage the process. For example, I suspect most newspapers don’t allow designers to have power over the design of the newspaper because the newspaper owners think the page layout should be done a certain way or the newspaper should have a certain look. They don’t allow the designer any power, having decided that they (the owner) has more design experience than the designer.

Often, people who fall in the first category (they have no clue of the functional requirements) insert themselves into the process and fall into the second category (micromanaging the process, by second-guessing the hired professionals), simply because separating the functional from the design or development process requires experience. There is a difference between “make the newspapers headlines readable from a distance” and “use Helvetica 36 point type for the headline”–yet most inexperienced project managers are unable to separate the two.

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