Operational Excellence

The Creative Project Client: Friend or Foe?

by Brad Egeland, June 23, 2014

This one always gets me. You know the phrase…”If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” Black and white, this or that, help or hindrance. I don’t really buy into it…there is nearly always an in between. And with project clients – albeit as a creative management project or a simple consulting engagement or whatever – I think it is the same. The client is nearly always a help as well as nearly always being some sort of hindrance. How can they be both? Easy. Just look back on some recent project engagements you’ve led or been involved in.

If the client is helping…aka, a friend…then that’s great. As long as that help is in the form of real help as opposed to the kind of help some project clients bestow upon the project manager in the form of micro-managing, extreme budget oversight, or even installing their own project manager on their side who sometimes tends to be a figurehead who gets in the way. True help, like decision-making, task engagement, knocking down barriers, efficient handling of issues and questions…those are very much appreciated.

If the client is hindering…aka, a foe…then you have a bit if an issue to deal with. You need to do two things…recognize it, and turn it around. Let’s consider a few common ways the project clients work – knowingly or unknowingly – against the project manager and team on engagements causing issues or slowing down the forward progress of the project.

Micro-managing. Some project clients think they are helping when they have their hands in everything. Often, they are not. They hired the project manager and team for the project, let them run the project. Extreme oversight by anyone – even the project manager – on a project can work to demoralize a team, slow down progress, cause productivity to dip. Micro-managing can also work against the confidence of the ones doing the actual work and run up project costs as too much time and effort may end up being spent on activities that others should complete quickly when they aren’t being questioned or watched so closely. It’s all about trusting the ability of those doing the work. And unless they have proven to be less than competent, there is no need for micro managing. If they aren’t competent, then there are better ways to handle it – like replacing the resource.

Adding more project management. I have never been involved in a project that went well with two opposing project managers running the engagement. At best the client side project manager just re-iterates what the delivery project manager says and does…meaning the cost to the client in terms of project management oversight has doubled with no added benefit. At worst, the two project managers butt heads on issues and slow down the project, causing missed deadlines, budget overruns and re-work resulting in late delivery and lowered client satisfaction. These issues can be resolved by properly setting expectations at project kickoff time – and it takes an experienced project manager leading the way on the delivery side to handle the situation diligently, delicately and appropriately without upsetting the project sponsor.

Disengaged client. The third major hindrance that the project client can bestow upon the project manager is being uninvolved or unavailable…or as I like to call it – disengaged. You would think this would be a good thing – and it can be a nice reprieve from extreme oversight. However, that project client is needed to make decisions from time to time. They are needed for creative decisions like “is this the proper way to run the ad campaign?” or “what type of automated marketing did you want built into the final solution?” or “does this website meet the look and feel you were hoping for?” If the client isn’t available to give approvals – sometimes short and swift approvals – along the way, forward progress can be greatly impeded. And sometimes the decisions are even bigger – meaning it can be a showstopper to not have immediate access to the project client. To keep them engaged, the project manager needs to set expectations from the beginning for weekly client involvement in status meetings, ongoing client assignments to various project tasks that they remain accountable for, and periodic client review and approval of deliverables and key tasks.


The project client is a necessary piece to the overall project success puzzle. How we manage that client can often determine whether they will be a help or a hindrance. “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” The enemies term is too strong for the client…they are not our enemies (unless they are trying to be…and some seem to do that very well), but they can be on opposite sides of the fence at times. But we need them and the best way to keep them involved and helping our cause is to use them – wisely and frequently.

New Call-to-action

Subscribe to the Workamajig blog