A reader writes:
I'm a PM working on a project as a freelancer, and I'm confused as to where my job starts. When I used to be an employee, there were processes and roles and things went through a workflow. Now that I'm freelancing, I don't really have the same framework, so I don't always know what I'm going to be getting.
So on this project, I was asked for a list of what I needed to get started. I started writing it but then I thought, maybe they think I'm supposed to come up with some of this stuff? Like user stories and success criteria and stuff? The problem is, I'm only PMing the actual development, so it's not like I was there when some of the other stuff was created or approved or discussed. So I kind of feel like I can't say what things should really do. I'm afraid to send this list over because I don't want them to say "uh, that's something you're supposed to do."
How do you know where the line is when you're freelancing and you're not part of the beginning of a project?
I found the same thing when I started freelancing. All of a sudden, the comfort of branded documents and standardized templates were gone from about 75% of the clients I had. Some had other PMs on board so there was at least some understanding of who did what and what is being produced, but the rest? I felt like they brought me in and thought "she's a PM, so this will get done." And I too felt sheepish asking for things that, in the past, I would do myself.
This happened specifically for one of the larger projects I did a little while back. I was so hell-bent on making a good impression by being The Best Freelancer that I didn't push back on the very light documentation I had and just kind of pushed on. We kicked off and none of us, specifically me as the project leader, really knew what we were doing. I described it this way: It was like we were given a box from Ikea for a really complicated piece of furniture, and the bag full of parts, but no instructions. We kind of knew what the finished project was sort of supposed to look like, but we had no idea about any of the details. The project? I mean, we delivered it, but I would not call it one of my successes. In fact, I feel like it succeeded in spite of me, not because of me. (To be fair to myself, it wasn't something I solely should have been responsible for pointing out...but that's another story.)
Anyways, to get to the advice part. What I learned, and what might help you, is that I need to clearly state what I need to succeed. And maybe they'll come back and say "that's something we would expect you to do." That's a huge bummer. But! It is worse to act like you have things under control when you don't. It's way too much of a gamble to think that you can work through something like that. So - I would say to you, go ahead and make the list of things you literally know you need to make this a good project. You could say something like "I can help with some of these things if we are able to talk them through in more detail" or something that shows that yes, you do know you normally would be responsible for this thing, but you don't have enough information to do it currently. Being transparent about it now, at the start, is so much better than finally admitting it midway through.
You can also play one of my favorite games: What's The Worst That Could Happen? So you ask for everything you need, even though some of the stuff is normally something a PM would do. What's the worst that can happen? They say "wow, you are terrible at PM, we no longer think you can really handle this project." How likely is that? And if it's at all likely, is that a project you really want to work on? Either you don't have a handle on the way it works, or they are expecting more than you should be asked to do.
As a freelance PM, you're the captain of your ship. You get to say what you need and what your success looks like. You get to pick which projects you want to work on. Don't get intimidated - just be transparent, communicate well, do your best, and let the chips fall where they may.