Customer experience is all about making customers feel understood and appreciated, feel listened to and feel heard. At the end of the day, good CX means designing products and experiences that customers love, and make them feel loved in return. And behind every lovable product or experience sits a team of people working together on behalf of the user. The dynamic of this team can make or break a user experience. Not only is it critical that team members collaborate with one another, listen and absorb feedback, and do everything they can to stay focused on the user, but the most successful products will be designed by a team of people who truly love what they do. Designing a lovable product begins with a lovable project. It’s why we place so much emphasis on our user research practice, and it’s why we make it a point to do the same for our clients, their employees and ourselves.

A few years ago, the term minimum lovable product came into vogue. It grew out of the popular product development concept of MVP, or minimum viable product. An MVP is basically the smallest, simplest product you can build that will deliver the most value to the customer. It’s not perfect, but its viable. The idea is that you launch the MVP, get some early adapters, learn from their behavior and iterate on the product from there to make it better. A minimum lovable product–an MLP–operates upon the same premise but raises the stakes. With an MLP, you are still building the simplest possible product to deliver the most value, but rather than the criteria being that the product is viable, the product must be lovable. You are not just aiming for early adopters, but for loyal users.

If we were to apply this same logic of minimum lovable product to a project, we first need to know what it is that makes a project lovable. What is it about working on a project that makes a UX designer, a product manager, or a content strategist love coming to work everyday, and how can project managers, like myself, leverage existing methodologies (and new ones) to foster and grow this love to make every project lovable?

In order to answer this question, I started asking my colleagues what it was that made them fall in love with a project. A few common themes prevailed.

They told me that a project is lovable when:

  • Team members trust one another and have each other’s backs.
  • Everyone on the team feels proud of the work and how it was accomplished.
  • The right problems are being solved, for both the client and the end user.
  • The quality of the work surpasses work done on previous projects.
  • A deep user insight or interesting new learning is uncovered.
  • Everyone laughs and has fun along the way.

Project managers are often consumed by processes, systems, and ensuring a project is staffed with the right roles and people. And while these things are all important to making a project viable, it’s clear from the feedback above that these are not what make a project lovable. A project is lovable when the work is challenging, it solves real-world problems for clients and users, and team members listen to one another, challenge one another, and respect one another. At the end of the day, a truly lovable project is one in which everyone comes away from the project feeling like they learned something new about users and their behavior.

As a Director on the project management team at Cake & Arrow, my job isn’t just about making projects viable, but about creating the conditions in which a project can become lovable. Below are a few of the things we do at Cake & Arrow to help our teams fall in love with a project:

1. Eliminate the guesswork and set expectations.

Before starting a new project it’s important that everyone is on the same page about what the work will entail and how the team can work together to get the best out of each other. To facilitate this, we start every new project by asking each new employee or team member to fill out a questionnaire to set expectations around how people prefer to work and what will make them most successful. This questionnaire includes things like:

  • What principles and/or behaviors do you value highly in a teammate?
  • How do you like to receive feedback?
  • What are you most nervous about on this project?

Answers are then consolidated and shared. The team talks through the responses to ensure everyone is aligned.

Human behavior is not one size fits all. Not everyone approaches things in the same way and we all have our quirks. Having insight into individual preferences and sensitivities upfront changes how we work as a group, encouraging patience and understanding and helping us all be better problem solvers. Being transparent about these types of things from the get-go also helps us address concerns as early on in a project as possible.

2. Let go of what you can’t control.

Generally, people tend to be more into projects when the subject matter is of personal interest to them and when they like everyone they work with–clients included. While these qualities are amazing to come by in a project, the expectation that all team members like everyone they work with and have a deep personal interest in every project is unrealistic. Such considerations are also completely out of our control. One of the keys to making every project lovable is ensuring that loving a project isn’t dependent on factors you can’t control. And in fact, some of our toughest projects have been challenging due to issues with clients or colleagues or because of complex project requirements, but these same projects have also been some of our most lovable. Challenging situations allow us to rally together internally, invest our work with a sense of purpose, and often end up teaching us the most.

At Cake & Arrow, we thrive on doing great work within the constraints of a project. We do our best to find joy and fulfillment in our work by always tying it back to what we are doing for the user. We always try to approach our clients and our customers from a place of empathy and a desire to help them solve their problems–not just because it’s what they hired us to do, but because it’s what we love to do. Grounding our work in the fulfillment we get from bringing value to our clients and their customers helps us enjoy our work and love every project regardless of our personal interest toward the subject matter or interpersonal feelings.

3. Focus on adding value, not volume.

In 2015, I attended the Digital PM Summit. Here, I was introduced to the term “intrapreneur”, a concept which lined up perfectly with one of Cake & Arrow’s core tenants that every employee be an entrepreneur at heart. An intrapreneur is a person inside an organization who takes risks, solves problems, and grows the business. This person embraces what we typically identify as the entrepreneurial spirit. They question the status quo, take initiative with relationships, conversations, ideas, take risks, and experiment to find solutions. They treat the company like it’s their own, they are always looking for ways to improve the quality of their work. An intraprenuer knows how to balance confidence and ego and shares and gives credit often. They have the ability to think and move independently and really take ownership of their own corner of a company.

Embracing such a mentality as a company and as a project manager, empowers our employees to focus on what they love–delivering value rather than volume. I’m all for the dopamine release of checking things off a long list, but not for the sake of it. Everyone–clients, their customers, and our employees–is better served when we put value before volume, impact before activity.

How does this play out in our actual work? When we start projects we always begin with the list of questions we want to answer and then figure out the how within the bounds of each project’s specific limitations (e.g., schedule, budget, resources, technical stack, etc.). In this way, a project is less about activities and deliverables and more about the outcome we’re trying to achieve. We then work backwards from there, scheduling, resourcing etc. with this outcome in mind. This ensures that the value we deliver to the client and their customer always takes precedence over the volume, meanwhile ensuring that the project team is working on something they can feel proud of.

4. Reflect and ask for feedback along the way.

In the same way that we ask clients and their customers to review our proposed solutions along the way, we do the same internally with the projects we work on. We take time to regularly reflect, both personally and as teams on how a project is going. Employees are encouraged to ask for and provide feedback after presentations, and we’re always sharing work-in-progress with one another. In weekly project meetings we have a mini retrospective to discuss what we can learn from the past week to improve the project moving forward. Consistently reflecting allows us to pivot when necessary and stay the course when appropriate.

The same is true for how we actually get the work done once it’s planned. One of the reasons I’ve been at Cake & Arrow for over a decade is because we all have a seat at the table when it comes to shaping process and policy. As we evolve so does how we work and the tools that we use. We’re always trying new ways of doing things and do our best to grant everyone the chance to propose new ways of doing things, encouraging them to think about the benefits to ourselves, our projects, and our clients and their customers. In short, we try to treat every project as we would a prototype or a new product, always testing and iterating to figure out how to make it better.

5. Send love letters.

Recognizing great work is one of the most important things we can do to ensure that team members take pride in their work on a project, and there’s no better place to do this than in public. Everyone loves to be recognized for their efforts. I’ve found that informal praise, such as an email or group Slack message can be just as meaningful, if not more meaningful, than using more formal channels, such as company awards. At Cake & Arrow, we also make it a point to make sure that team members are aware of recognition from the client.

Recognizing others drives loyalty and performance and is a powerful way to keep employees engaged and craving more. It also allows for the perfect opportunity to explain how their efforts connect to the bigger picture and keep the “why” of what we are doing in perspective. At the end of the day, we can feel good and love the work we’re doing when we know that others feel the same.

And while Valentines Day may be a week behind us, love is still in the air. May every project be a lovable project and may you love what you do every single day. <3