Essential Roles When Working On A Website Project With An External Team

Defining clear roles and responsibilities is an often-overlooked element of a successful website project. With complex and technical projects, such as those built on Drupal, the need becomes even greater when key stakeholders may not have a complete understanding of the details of the work being performed.

In this article, we will cover:

  1. The telltale signs and symptoms of improper roles on a website project.
  2. The differences in roles when working on a project with an internal team versus an outside partner.
  3. What each team member needs to be responsible for in order to ensure a speedy and successful project.

Let’s start by being honest—discussing roles and responsibilities can be a real snooze-fest.

So, why dedicate a whole article to it?

Well, let me ask you a question first. Have you ever been a part of a project that showed one or more of the following symptoms?

  • People don’t know what’s going on
  • Things take a long time to get done
  • Things aren’t done correctly or there’s lots of rework
  • The wrong things are being worked on
  • Plans frequently change

If so, you’ve probably been the victim of a project with unclear or improper roles.

When people aren’t clear on who’s responsible for what, balls get dropped, workloads become unevenly distributed, and projects can run in circles. And the sneakiest part about it is project members usually don’t have any clue that roles are at least partially to blame for their problems.

Okay, so you get it. Roles are important.

Let’s add some additional details into the mix (you know, because it’s fun):

  • What happens when you’re working on a website project that’s highly technical, such as many projects built with Drupal, where not everyone can understand the details of everything being built?
  • How do you adapt to working with an outside partner to build and maintain your site, especially when you need to be highly collaborative?
  • And how do you do all this in a way that preserves your sanity throughout the process?

Internal vs. external teams, and how they impact roles

Let’s dig a little deeper into how working with an external team looks, especially when tackling a technical project. Because there are some key differences compared to working with an internal team, these differences need to be understood and accounted for when clarifying project roles.

With that in mind, there are two major needs/differences when working with an external team (such as an agency) on a website project, which can alter responsibilities:

#1: External teams need a clear definition of “why”

Internal project teams often have an immersive knowledge of the organization and its goals or challenges.

Many times, a technical team member (such as a developer) inside an organization doesn’t need as much basic context around a piece of work, because they understand the high-level “why” and how people might use their work. This allows them to run with a particular piece of work in a more self-directed way.

External teams need more background and communication around the “why” of a particular piece of work to achieve the same level of self-direction.

Although it may seem more time-efficient in the beginning to just provide the “what” that needs to be done, it can ultimately cost you more time and money in the long run. The outside partner may need more hand-holding or feedback from you, and you lose the chance for them to apply their expertise to help you prevent unforeseen problems.

#2: External teams need consistent, managed priorities

Internal project teams are usually exclusive to an organization, and you have greater access to them and control over their timing and schedule. This provides a certain level of tolerance for dynamic or fast-paced cultures where priorities, needs, or goals change on a frequent basis.

External teams are not exclusive resources, and have a greater need for high-level priorities that are consistent and managed. While a good partner will be able to adapt to your changing needs, it can create problems if your organization is unable to identify and communicate its 2-3 biggest priorities for the month/quarter, or if targets are consistently moved before the outside team has the opportunity to reach them.

So, we’ve established that 1) defining roles is an important exercise, and 2) they also need to account for some important differences when working with external teams. Now let’s get down to brass tacks and outline what the essential roles look like.

The 4 essential roles you need to understand

A website project team can include many people, but there are four important roles that need to be filled in order to ensure success when working with an external team:

  1. Project owner
  2. Project manager
  3. Account manager
  4. Tech lead

Let’s go over each one in more detail.

#1: The Project Owner

The project owner is a person from the client’s organization who makes and communicates big-picture decisions to the external team. They are responsible for:

  1. Ensuring the external team understands the organization’s goals (the “why”) so they can suggest and build the best solution.
  2. Ensuring the external team understands the high-level business requirements (the “what”) that need to be met.
  3. Communicating the priority of each piece of work, so the external team understands the order in which to work on items.
  4. Serving as the external team’s buffer to the rest of the organization, who may unintentionally communicate conflicting priorities.
  5. Communicating progress back to the rest of their organization.
  6. Serving as the single, authoritative point of contact on behalf of the organization.
  7. Making enough time to fulfill the above responsibilities.

A successful project owner is more than just a mouthpiece for the rest of the organization. The best project owners are empowered to make day-to-day decisions on the direction of the project and the details of what’s being built.

What does life look like without a functioning project owner?

When a project owner drops the ball, it may look like one of the following scenarios:

  • The external team is forced to re-prioritize their own work and make trade-off decisions based the subjective urgency of requests across multiple people in the organization.
  • The project owner routinely has to send work back to the team for revision with additional context on the business requirements or usage of a piece of work.
  • Tasks take a long time to go into development or pass review because the team is waiting on input from the project owner.
  • Tasks are being completed, but the project is not making progress against its high-level goals.

#2: The Project Manager

The project manager is a person from the external team that organizes details around the status, timeline, and budget of the project and individual tasks. They are responsible for:

  1. Helping the project owner clarify task-level requirements for the team.
  2. Managing the project budget and timeline.
  3. Breaking down high-level project goals into discrete tasks.
  4. Communicating the project status to the project owner on a regular basis.
  5. Creating an efficient environment in which the team can perform its work.
  6. Protecting the time and attention of the team so they can get work done.
  7. Helping the project owner understand and make tradeoff decisions (e.g. issue priority or feature complexity) based on the project budget and timeline.

What does life look like without a functioning project manager?

When a project manager drops the ball, it may look like one of the following scenarios:

  • The team picks up a task and has to ask a lot of questions in order to understand the tactical work that needs to be completed.
  • A project or task goes over the agreed-upon budget or timeline without the informed approval of the project owner.
  • The project owner is unclear or unsure of what the team is working on, the status of a particular task, or the project budget/timeline as a whole.
  • The team is unclear of what they should be working on, or the routine tools/processes they should be using to complete their work.

#3: The Account Manager

The account manager is a person from the external team that manages the high-level goals and overall relationship between the two parties. They are responsible for:

  1. Setting the parameters of the relationship: the overall budget, billing model/frequency, contract length, etc.
  2. Helping the project owner set the high-level roadmap and goals for the project.
  3. Helping the project owner understand and communicate the value of the workbeing performed to the team and organization.
  4. Gathering feedback on the overall relationship and suggesting improvements and new ways to work together.

What does life look like without a functioning account manager?

When an account manager drops the ball, it may look like one of the following scenarios:

  • The project manager is unable to do their job because they lack the basic project parameters: the overall budget, how the project is being billed (fixed price, retainer, etc), and timeline.
  • Strategic themes are undefined for the project or external team, and day-to-day tasks are not tied to high-level goals.
  • The project owner doesn’t understand why a particular technical task or piece of work is important to achieving their goals.
  • Chronic issues in the relationship are allowed to persist because feedback from both parties is not routinely collected and addressed.

#4: The Tech Lead

The tech lead is a person from the external team that breaks down tasks into their technical components, architects the software solution, and leads/coordinates the development efforts. They are responsible for:

  1. Breaking down the technical approach for large tasks after high-level requirements have been defined.
  2. Choosing technologies, infrastructure, and architecture for the project.
  3. Leading and mentoring the development team to be more efficient and effective contributors.
  4. Reviewing work and creating technical standards for the project.
  5. Translating technical concepts for non-technical project members.

What does life look like without a functioning tech lead?

When a tech lead drops the ball, it may look like one of the following scenarios:

  • Non-technical team members don’t understand the work being performed.
  • Things take a long time to get into or through development after being specified by the project owner, because they aren’t being adequately broken down by a technical contributor.
  • The delivery rate or quality of the project suffers because appropriate technical standards have not been put into place or upheld.
  • There is a lot of debating, discussion, or politicking around technical implementation with no clear path of authority.

Each of these roles is essential in a successful website project, and without each person pulling their weight, the project can easily become hamstrung or veer off course.

Have you ever been a part of a project missing one of these roles? If so, what did it look like?

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