As project managers, we thrive in an environment of deadlines and closed projects. We excel at building a timelines, meeting dates and achieving goals. It’s built into our DNA. So what do you do when you have a client that needs your project expertise, but has no deadlines and constantly shifting priorities?

One of my biggest and favorite clients is such a client. A typical project kickoff goes like this:

A project is laid on my desk. My first questions are inevitably:

  • What are you trying to achieve?
  • When do you need this done?

The first question is answered firmly and knowledgeably. The second question is never truly answered.  I get a lot of “as soon as possible”, “make this your top priority”, “it’s not the top priority, but we do need to actively work on it”, or “this is a good project to work on in downtime.”

Clear as mud, yes? Without a date or even a date range, a project manager can flail around endlessly trying to determine what needs to get done when.

The important issues that spawn from never having a deadline and constantly changing priorities are ultimately personal and client dissatisfaction.

Unfinished projects bring personal dissatisfaction to a project manager. Our jobs, our livelihoods, depend on our ability to complete projects for our clients. The limbo feeling of never being finished with a project translates to an inability to do our job, whether or not the “unfinished” factor stems from the client or us.

Unfinished projects can also lead to long-term client dissatisfaction. In the sometimes-tenuous relationship between client and contract project manager, the client often depends on the project manager to finish the project regardless of lack of information.

If in the long-term, no one is happy with an unfinished project, but projects have no clear finish line, how can you win? You could turn down work from the client unless they give you a deadline, but in my experience, ultimatums don’t proliferate good relationships or sales.

The best approach has 3 parts:

Be the Client and the PM:

Be the Client and the PM

At the start of each project, still ask the client if a deadline exists. Just in case it ever does. When it inevitably doesn’t, assume the role of the client. Ask yourself how important the project is. Think about when you might like to see this project close in terms of overall business goals.

Then, return to the role of the PM. Build a timeline, set milestone review meetings and send out the meeting requests weeks in advance, pretending all the while the client set the dates. Give yourself something to work towards.

The only caveat with this method is that you must be plugged into the overall business climate and goals of the client. You have to understand on a deep level what the client needs to succeed.  Without that insight, your dates become arbitrary and the project is no better off than it was before.

Get good PM software:

Get good PM software

As needs shift throughout the project, the client will ignore those dates you set. Review meetings will get pushed back indefinitely as a new project becomes hot and important. PM software will help you keep track of the project and not lose sight of it in the mess of new projects coming across your desk.

Good software can let you move projects from an active phase to an on hold phase so that the project isn’t forgotten over time. It can send you a report of overdue or on-hold projects to keep the older things fresh in your mind. These are tools you can use to remind your client and keep the projects moving forward. Software I recommend:ProWorkflow- affordable, easy to use and offers a unique client access tool and Wrike- affordable, easy to use, highly customizable.

Go with the flow

Go with the flow

Channel the hidden, carefree, roll-with-the-punches person you sometimes wish you could be and set aside your project manager hat. This client is asking you to be flexible and adapt to their constantly changing environment. Don’t be annoyed that the project you’ve spent hours pulling together is no longer important. Just realize that you are there to help the client and your expertise is seeing things through to the end.

Set the project on the backburner along with your PM ego and just go with it. The client will appreciate that you have a thorough understanding of their business and have their best interests in mind. Additionally, when you mindfully continue to work on projects that they may have forgotten; you have a great opportunity to impress the client with your multi-tasking abilities, your patience and your quiet tenacity as you bring each of the neglected projects to a close.