What makes a good Digital Project Manager? – Friday 18 March

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Project Managers, let’s set the scene – You’ve just been introduced to someone for the first time at an event, they ask you what you do and you answer, “I’m a Project Manager”, only to find them scurrying their eyebrows as they reply “right, but what exactly do you do?”

Sound familiar?

Over the years, I’ve found even people who know me well still struggle with the concept at times. They assume I’m an Account Manager with a slightly different title. Other’s think that I “tell people what to do”. These responses are usually from non industry friends or family, but even within the industry there can be a bit of confusion about what our role is exactly.

This topic was prevalent as ever at DPM:UK – an annual conference held in Manchester that Sophie and I attended back in January this year. The conference brings together Project Managers working in the digital industry from all over the UK.

There’s loads of opportunities in the UK to listen to inspirational people working in the technology sector which we PM’s can enjoy, but there’s not many events that are specifically dedicated to the Project Management profession. So it was nice to have the opportunity to spend a day surrounded by other PM’s listening to their experiences.

One of the recurring themes of the conference was how our friends, family and colleagues perceive what we do. When we returned to Orange Bus, this seemed like a good basis for a Beers With Ideas session.

We started the session with a quick run-down on some of the talks.


Sam Barnes – You Can Do well Or You Can Do Good

This was one of my favourite talks from the day. Sam Barnes introduced the idea that there are two types of Project Managers – those that choose to do well and look after themselves and their careers and those that choose to put their projects first and do good.

Barnes told us about one of the the lowest points in his career when he was ordered to attend a meeting, present a plan to a client and tell them that his team would deliver the project on time and to budget when he knew this was, in fact, completely impossible. This experience had a personal effect on him and formed the basis for his future professional choices.

He even went so far as to say you should be prepared to get fired to stand up for your principles.


Katie Buffalo – Practical Persuasion Under Pressure

Have you ever heard the expression ‘swallow your frog’ before? The idea is to swallow your biggest frog at the start of your day. That big important task that needs doing but might not be ‘urgent’ just yet, so you’ve been putting it off.

This was what Katie Buffalo’s talk was all about – the key to practical prioritisation.

She introduced the room to Eisenhower’s Urgent / Important principle and got the room to plot a list of example tasks in the ‘Eisenhower Box’.


The idea is to think about whether our tasks are important (tasks that will help us achieve our overall goals) or urgent (tasks that are demanding urgent action but aren’t necessarily important) and prioritise accordingly based on value rather than perceived urgency.


Brett Harned – Army Of Awesome

The talk that definitely resonated the most with almost everyone in the room was ‘Army of Awesome’ by Brett Harned and this is the talk we chose to focus on during our Beers with Ideas session.

Harned’s talk was all about celebrating and understanding the work that good Project Managers do behind the scenes and about setting a common standard for how we should operate within a loose framework.

He introduced five principles:

1. Digital project managers are chaos junkies – we love solving problems.
2. DPMs are multilingual communicators – clients, project owners, internal bosses, creative thinkers, designers, user experience leaders and developers – making sure key messages and project directives are heard.
3. Be a lovable hardass – by being honest, reliable, communicating and admitting fault.
4. DPMs should be active members of the team by being a consummate learner and teacher.
5. It is the duty of a DPM to be a pathfinder – through timelines and budget, a strategic path must be carved for the success of the project.


The Task

At this point we split the room into two groups and gave them an example project brief for a (fictional) client wanting a website for their footwear brand ‘Shoe La La’ (spot the reference?)

Each team made a RAID log (Risks, Assumptions, Issues, Dependencies) for the project and presented this back to the room. The purpose overall was to see members of each department step away from their traditional role and experience a project manager’s mindset for a moment – would it change the way that they looked at a project? A spec? Their project manager?



To finish up, we turned, once again to Brett Harned’s ‘Army of Awesome’ discussion and, in the same way that he handed the mic to a floor of Project Managers at DPM:UK, we opened the discussion to our own team asking similar questions – What makes a good Project Manager? What should their values be? What is a Project Manager not?

After the session we got together and compared some of the responses we received to those featured in Harned’s talk deck.

Unsurprisingly, a very similar trend occurred in the first two questions, albeit with a few additional in-jokes featuring haircuts and unicorns (a vital part of any OB team). It seems people generally see project managers as coordinators and facilitators, responsible and focused on the overall envelope of the project.

In terms of values, our team wanted their PMs to be tough, communicative, problem solvers and calm in the face of pressure.


However, when we asked our team what a PM shouldn’t be, we found some resounding differences between Harned’s findings and the opinions of our team-mates on the shop floor.

If we were to make our own list of ‘bad PM’ characteristics, this would probably include things like steering clear of carbon copying our approach to managing projects and relying on tools and templates. We discovered our team had their own things that they want PMs to steer clear of, things that are way more visible to them in their day to day work. Again, communication came up as something that had to be treated with the utmost respect – teams want to be talked to, rather than treated with assumption, they want their PM to be available, flexible where it counts and empathetic to the work being carried out, beyond the black and white of estimations, story points and percentages.

As PMs it’s easy to get into a routine with how we carry out our jobs. Getting our team to open up to us about what they value in a PM was extremely beneficial and important for us to improve our practice and our relationships with our team. I’d highly recommend you carry out a similar session with your teams.

It’s important that PMs turn to each other, especially with the DPM trade in its infancy as it is now; but our teams will always be the best yardstick for telling us what we are and, most importantly, what we must strive to not be.

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