project management tips, project management role, why do we need a project manager, what a project manager does

We’ve talked about the importance of the discovery phase before, and now we’re here to share the role of a project manager during this endeavor.

Your development team plays a crucial role in the process of discovery. They’ll handle digging into the existing technology, researching tools and methodologies that will ultimately be a part of the project, and strategizing the best way for the project to get done. At Zao, we make sure to dig into the client’s short and long term business goals. We lay a solid foundation not just for an immediate technological upgrade, but for our client’s long-term success as well (particularly as their company grows).

You may think your project manager won’t have a major role in discovery, but that’s all wrong! Having a solid PM on your team can help elevate the process, making sure you have all the info you need to catch red flags, scope appropriately, and manage the details.

The basic project management stuff

While your discovery phase may look a bit different than your typical project, it still is a project!

Your project manager can handle tasks for discovery, which can include everything from scheduling meetings, taking and organizing notes from those meetings, setting up relevant project tools, facilitating communication, and managing discovery tasks.

Ideally, a project manager will make your development team’s work a whole lot easier by taking away some of the logistical management and organization. This is especially relevant for a smaller team like ours. If I’m doing my job right, the rest of the Zao team feels like a weight has been lifted off their shoulders. While we still do a vast amount of collaborative work as a team, the idea is that much of the documentation, organization, and task management can be handed off to me, the project manager, which allows our amazing developers to dig into the tasks themselves.

Identifying red flags

A project manager can help note initial red flags that come up during the process of courting a new client, as well as during discovery. While everyone involved in sales and discovery should have an eye out for red flags, a good project manager picks up on communication and logistics red flags.

Louder Than Ten (LTT) provided a crash course in red flags, as well as tools for identifying them, and I’ve found it enormously useful. One of the exercises we worked on in class was actually creating a spreadsheet, listing and organizing the red flags (is it a budget-related red flag or a technical-related red flag?), as well as proposing ways to manage them. At Zao, we’ve adopted this as a part of how we vet new projects, which allows us a clear way to collaborate and reference potential obstacles long before a project starts.

We’ve also integrated it into our discovery process. The spreadsheet serves as a way to start documenting the unknowns in a project from the get-go, which can serve as a guideline for the questions we need to ask and the crucial information we know we need to collect in discovery.

Collating information

Another exercise that LTT walked us through was documenting assumptions and questions in a clear, visual way.

After filling out the red flag spreadsheet, we now use a Breeze board to create columns that document what we think we know, what we don’t know, and any other internal resources that we need centralized. It allows us to physically see what kind of progress we’ve made in discovery as items move from the “unknowns” column to the “knowns” column.

Your project manager can take on the role of setting up that initial Breeze board. After several initial meetings with a client covering the high level basics of their project, your PM can take some time to pull the knowns and unknowns from their meeting notes and their red flag spreadsheet. For us, those cards serve as markers for asking questions, and making sure that no stone is left unturned during the discovery process.

Taking–and handling–the notes

You may have noticed I mentioned “meeting notes” above. It’s a boring task, but an absolutely necessary one.

Taking notes and leading meetings at the same time is tough, so if a project manager (or other administrative assist, depending on your team size and structure) steps in to take notes, it allows the developers to focus on the meeting, getting the information they need from the client and clarifying anything necessary.

We’ve added these to that same Breeze board with our assumptions, so we can reference them easily.

For discovery meetings, my role at Zao has largely been setting up the meetings and taking notes (with occasional support from fellow team members when I was out and/or when I was leading the meeting), as well as saving them to the board and making sure everyone on our team has access to them.

While this may not seem like a huge deal, it can be–especially if you’re collecting a lot of information. We’ve referenced our notes numerous times during the creation of discovery documents, or verifying what we think was said because we can’t exactly remember.

Those notes have served as additional guidelines for specific tasks, follow up questions, notes regarding client preferences (with no need to follow up and go, “So, we can’t quite remember [x] thing…help?”), and more.

Helping re-enforce team boundaries and goals

This isn’t merely a project manager role, really.

All of your team can participate in helping the team maintain strong boundaries, back each other up, and make sure that your company is continuously aligned with your goals and values. Whether your values are family or community, or your goals are planning a rad team retreat or increasing your profit margin (or contributing to open source!), your team, including your project manager, should all contribute to getting you there.

By operating as a unit, rather than a loose grouping of individuals who just happen to be paid by the same company, your discovery phases (as well as your projects and company overall) will run more smoothly. By having an additional person to be the realist in counter to your optimist (or, in turn, be the optimist to your realist!), you can balance out your team and find a better way to cover every angle.

A project manager, in particular, is a great role for your resident realist, as it’s a PM’s job to keep things moving along during discovery (and the project itself). Project managers, in particular, should be boundary mavens. Project managers are Zuul; they are the gatekeepers. They’re the ones to constantly send cheery follow up emails, “checking in!” Slack messages, and reminders to both clients and their own team that if things do not stay on track, both the budget and the timeline will be impacted negatively.

Handling the tough conversations

As an addendum to the above about boundaries, Project Managers in general tend to serve as the buffer between the team and the client when it comes to hard conversations overall. They’re the ones who step in to smooth things over, to explain why certain things are happening the way they are (why this piece of the project is out of scope, why work is stopping when payment hasn’t arrived, why the timeline is extended, etc.).

Every project manager needs a team and a boss that will back them up, because the PM is essentially on the front line with the client. This is especially important in Discovery, when the foundation of the working relationship between agency and client is being built. PMs help create the core of your relationship with your client, and do the basic groundwork required for project success.


Discovery can be stressful, and the success of a project can depend on it. Without a successful discovery, your project may end up wildly over budget, over timeline, or otherwise out of control. While you can absolutely do discovery without a project manager, a PM makes discovery more successful, more simple, and much easier to navigate. Hopefully some of these tasks will help you refine your discovery process, and help your team take on discovery like a boss.

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