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When the heat is on, Katie Breen isn’t afraid to stay in the kitchen. “Marketing project management” isn’t a mouth-watering phrase for most people, but the subject matter is hard to resist for Katie.
That’s because she works at Green Chef, the only foodie-driven meal kit delivery provider. With a team of world-class chefs cooking up new products weekly, Katie is a marketing sous-chef, assembling key ingredients and bringing beautiful creative assets to life.
It takes a lot of teamwork to get one of Green Chef’s meal kits to your doorstep. That’s why Katie is our Manager-X Award winner for Cross-Team Collaboration: She juggles work across multiple teams to make sure everything is ready to ship.
She does it with a sense of humor and work ethic her team describes as “undercover Type-A,” invisibly working behind the scenes to get everything done. We recently spoke with Katie about how she manages to thrive in this highly-personalized, on-demand industry.
How did you feel when you found out you’re a Wrike Manager-X Award winner?
I felt excited! It gave me the warm-and-fuzzies to be nominated by my team and recognized for my hard work. I’ve been here since August, and right off the bat I put in a lot of work to get different project management processes off the ground. I think I’ve made a difference here, so it’s nice to have that affirmed.
You’ve won the award for Cross-Team Collaboration. Tell me about how you approach cross-team collaboration and how you make sure teams work smoothly together?
Empathy is everything in project management. I think the best method for facilitating cross-team collaboration has been getting involved in the various teams I’m coordinating, and getting a deep understanding of what they’re working on, why they’re prioritizing it, and how they feel about it.
That helps me communicate across teams, because I can say, “The design team can’t meet the timeline you requested,” for example, and I’m able to suggest a more realistic timeline and give context for it. Communicating with each team is really the key to understanding capacity and priorities. If you don’t have the emotional intelligence to really understand your teams, your skill as a project manager is going to be limited.
What’s the team structure like at Green Chef, and how do teams work together to achieve success?
We’re in two different time zones, with an office in Sunnyvale, CA, and another in Boulder, CO. Our design and growth teams are in Sunnyvale, and in Boulder we have the brand team, culinary team, and photo/video team.
A lot of things need to move between these offices: The culinary team needs to design recipes, the photo teams takes pictures of the meals, and the design team needs those photos to create assets for marketing.
Because we’re in different offices, a lot of the work I do is consolidating team priorities, translating them into easily accessible action items, and making sure all the timelines are met. I make sure all the details are ironed out so we’re not missing any critical pieces of communication.
Who comes up with the ideas for the meals?
It’s the culinary team. We’re a food-driven company, and our chefs are amazing. We have a lot of specialty meal plans, and amazing vegan chefs and amazing keto chefs. Luckily, the the food is very beautiful, so we’re able to take what the culinary team has made and have a great time running with it.
How do you use Wrike to make sure all these teams are in sync?
Work is largely initiated via Wrike’s request forms. I’ve made customized request forms so that if you are requesting an image for example, the person who receives the request has all the information they need to complete it.
If I went to one of our photographers and said, “Hey, I need a photo of this dish,” she would ask the questions, “What dimensions do you need? What angle do you need? What kind of lighting?” Basically, I worked with the people who actually receive these requests to create custom request forms so all the answers they need are already there the minute they receive the request.
From the point the request is submitted, we have a system where the request is automatically converted into the appropriate project template for the type of work requested. It’s assigned to a certain folder and to certain team members who help decide if and when the project can move forward.
As the work is going along, I have everything defined in Wrike into the various steps and deadlines for each kind of project. I can chime in and ask, “Hey, what is the status of this?” We use status tags a lot, and we also have special folders set up for sprints to make chunking and prioritizing their work really easy.
I’m told you bring a lot of humor to project management. Do you think that’s important for teams?
Yes! I think I’ve always abided by the philosophy that you should take your work seriously but not yourself seriously. And in project management, you’re basically asking people to get things done.
If you don’t go about it with a sense of humor, you’re not going to last very long in project management because things often don’t go to plan. It’s no one’s fault, but things come up, and things need to get reshuffled. If you’re not able to laugh when absurd things happen or when things go wrong, you’re not going to live a very happy life in project management.
Also, when asking people to adopt new processes, humor is important because you’re asking someone to take time away from their work and their normal way of doing things to learn an entirely new system. It takes commitment from them, and it’s not always convenient for them or at the top of their priority list.
So I think if you’re at least making it fun, it doesn’t feel like so much of a pain and helps people have an open mind about it. Project management doesn’t need to be boring.
Green Chef is a great example of a brand that’s thriving in the on-demand economy. What’s the secret to a brand thriving and delivering consistency at scale?
For me it’s putting processes in place that allow my colleagues to focus on the quality of their work and not the logistics or planning. Strong processes mean the difference between managing true projects and managing minute details.
When someone knows where to go to download the file they need, or to ask for review of their work, or to ask a question, it makes the whole organization more efficient. It’s especially true with creative teams who prefer putting their energy into being creative. You want to eliminate as much mental burden for everyone as possible so they can use their energy for the work that needs to get done.
A large part of doing this successfully is taking the time to really learn about the way people do their best work. This way, when you’re putting new processes into place and asking people to change the way they are used to doing things, you’ve consulted the people who the new process will actually affect and designed it to ensure it will make their lives better.
No one wants to follow a process that is going to make their lives harder, so actually listening to what people need is the key to putting systems into place that will work in the long term.
What’s the most rewarding part of your job?
I love when I’m able to make things come together quickly that would be difficult to accomplish if I weren’t there to manage the details. For example, a couple of weeks ago we had a very urgent request come through that needed to involve the design team, the warehouse, copywriters, designers, email.
Because I am the cog that works with and connects all of those people, and I know who does what and when things need to happen for various channels, I was able to say, “Hey, I’ve got this,” and took the baton to make sure it got done quickly. It makes me feel really good to see the impact of my work, and to know I can make other teams’ jobs easier and hopefully more fun, and to help the company meet its goals.
What’s the best advice you can give to people who manage complex, multi-team workflows?
Don’t be afraid to step back and dive deep into how things work with a team. You need to be able to ask, “What are the obstacles you face, and where do things break down?” Then you can have a deep understanding of the pain points before you begin to design new processes and enforce them. Empathy is the number one skill of any good project manager.