“Expect the best, plan for the worst, and prepare to be surprised at all times.” This famous quote from the American motivational speaker Denis Waitley describes translation project management very succinctly. At STP, 26 project managers, working with 400 clients based all over the world, form the cornerstone of the production and service delivery in our organisation. We spoke to Kathy Walters, who leads one of our project management (PM) teams, and she shared with us her views on five key aspects of project management.

 

Smaller jobs mean shorter delivery times

 

In the translation industry, project management is often transactional. The projects we handle are completed within days, whereas in other fields, like IT or change management, a project is usually understood in terms of months, or even years. There is a clear trend in localisation of job sizes decreasing and orders being placed in a continuous flow of small drops.

Translation service providers are responding to this development by automating their ordering and delivery processes. But the humans managing these processes in client-facing roles are impacted too. Kathy explains: “You want to keep getting faster at almost everything you do: typing, keyboard shortcuts, selecting the most suitable translator and even thinking. The custom-made project management technology at STP helps, but the people who operate the system must also remain sharp and quick-witted.”

Automation and PM talent are vital for coping with quick turnaround times, but so is organisational structure. STP has established an agile workflow that helps PMs to deal with fast turnaround jobs: “At the moment, we have a rota of at least one in-house linguist per language handling ‘small jobs’ only. This allows us to have capacity for urgent requests. We are also analysing new strategies to meet clients’ demands efficiently,” Kathy says.

 

Planning ahead maximises capacity

 

Daily project management tasks at a translation company include quoting for new work, preparing texts for computer-assisted translation, putting together project teams, scheduling tasks, writing project instructions, organising reference material, liaising with clients and translators throughout the translation phase, and carrying out quality control checks before delivery.

To be able to respond quickly to clients even when handling ad hoc requests, Kathy plans translator workloads in advance and proactively manages their capacity, especially in preparation for the main holiday seasons. “We have our project management database where everything is stored so we can easily track ongoing projects, deliveries, but also days off and holidays.”

To many, “planning” is just another buzzword, but research from Common Sense Advisory shows that, due to the unpredictability of translation companies’ sales pipeline, only 4 out of 10 such companies have the capacity to actually plan for the peaks and valleys in their operations, and to forecast the production capacity they need at any given time.

Localisation is usually the last step in the process when a company rolls out a new service or product globally. Many content owners underestimate the time and effort required to achieve quality results when preparing their material for global distribution. Involving the translation service provider earlier in the planning and scheduling process enables the project managers to serve their clients well, and to offer valuable advice about when the client’s preferred linguists are available.

 

Automation boosts productivity

 

The past two decades have seen a number of good translation management systems enter the market to complement the many custom-made platforms that translation companies have developed themselves. These solutions automate file transfers and invoicing, but they also empower project managers in their decision-making.

Resource allocation is one of the areas where automation brings significant time and cost savings. “At STP, we have a central dashboard that displays the availability of all of our translators in real time. It shows the projects they are currently working on for STP, their daily capacity and average working speed, their local public holidays wherever they are in the world, and their days off – all in one view. But it doesn’t end there, translators also have access to their own dashboard and can manually adjust the grid when their work is progressing slower or faster than anticipated.”

A recent market analysis by the UK Association of Translation Companies (ATC) reported that, in a typical language service provider company in the UK, a project manager completed around 300 projects per year. At STP, the number of completed projects per PM at the time was 1,880 – which is 600% more. The numbers can’t, of course, speak of the size and complexity of the projects reported, but even after making an allowance for some diversity, the report demonstrated the potential of a well-oiled, smart-working project management machine.

 

Assertive communication instils confidence

 

STP’s project management team is the hub that connects our clients to our translators, and a large part of their work is to ensure that the right people receive the right information at the right time. Project management consists of constant communication; in chat tools, on the phone, by email or in person. Kathy states: “So much of my job is about people; half of my time is spent talking to clients, translators and my team. When it comes to clients, I always try to see things from their point of view and be empathic and understanding when they are busy or when cultural barriers distort communication. However, it is also important to be assertive. At the end of the day, we are both striving towards the same goal.”

When it comes to communication, quality matters just as much as quantity. To organise projects successfully, STP’s project managers provide guidance and advice, use an empathy-based approach, criticise constructively when necessary, recognise work well done, and maintain professionalism above all. “If you want to motivate your team to achieve great results, you must know them well enough as people to be able to choose the approach that works best for them,” says Kathy. There is a distinct difference between assertiveness and aggression in communication. A good project manager is able to identify issues early on to prevent frustrations building up either in the team or on the client’s side. According to Kathy, the best way to avoid such issues “is to explain myself as much as possible. Often situations are made clearer by just laying down the facts, as the client might not be aware of everything.”

 

Support from peers saves the day

 

Peer-to-peer support comes naturally to project managers working at STP as it develops right from the onboarding phase. As Kathy describes, “each team has a leader who trains newcomers and is there to support them along their journey. When someone joins my team, I shadow them for a couple of weeks and help them figure out how to best use their time and resources.” But teamwork and cooperation do not end there.

 The role of a project manager may involve constant daily communication, yet at times it can feel like a lonely job. The buck needs to stop somewhere, and the project manager is the first one to face critical feedback from clients, or complaints from the project team when something goes wrong. Even the most skilled, customer-focused, team-spirited multitaskers need to recharge.

The most heartfelt encouragement tends to come from colleagues who understand the daily pressure, or from clients who appreciate the work. As Kathy puts it, “we’re always helping each other out. I have been with STP for four years and I am now a team leader, but I still find myself asking questions or second opinions on a daily basis. It is often easier to work out problems by discussing them with peers; they are always keen to offer support and share ideas.”