Digital Project Management Summit

Digital Project Management

Leadership requirements


I recently returned from the 2013 Digital Project Management Summitin Philadelphia and I’m still processing it all. I’m particularly thankful to Happy Cog and Brett Harned for initiating and bringing everyone together. The summit was a tremendous validation of the Digital Project Manager role.

One of my favorite things about inaugural digital conferences in general is how everyone brings their personal point-of-view. There’s not a lot of formality to the Digital Project Management discipline yet so people talked about what they’ve experienced and learned over years and many projects. Instead of presentations about software and formal process, the emphasis was on people skills, leading teams, and working with clients. The goal was to learn from each other.

As the conference wound down, it struck me that everyone I listened to or spoke with shared a sense of ownership; for both their project and team’s well being. Refreshingly, there was recognition that digital projects are inherently messy. Mistakes happen. Issues come up. Dates are missed. Scope changes. No one at the conference said the problems on their projects were someone else’s fault. Instead, I saw a group of people that work hard at being great leaders. And it was great to be part of that conversation.

Digital Project Management

Seizing the Leadership Role

Great digital projects impact the client team, the internal team, and end-users in surprising ways. Messages are refined, content and features are discovered, opportunities are revealed, perspectives are challenged, skills are sharpened, lessons are learned (or re-learned); all along the way from initial idea to final delivery. These are the most rewarding projects.

Populated with people and their seemingly contradictory or redundant roles, great digital projects present an endless opportunity to grapple with unfamiliar situations and important decisions. Team members?—?both internal and client-side?—?want and need someone to both point the direction and help them deliver their best work. Embedded in that need is a desire to have a positive project experience. That’s the Digital Project Manager’s role.

It’s not surprising when Digital Project Managers cling to the standard set of project management tools (e.g. meeting notes, schedules, budget reviews, status reports, etc…). They’re familiar, tangible, and necessary. But by themselves, tools have limited impact on the quality of the project experience. To increase my effectiveness as a Digital Project Manager, I do my best to develop the leadership skills that help navigate and lead teams through the complexity on a project.

It’s a truism that leadership is rarely given away. Making it even harder to lead, Digital PMs must overcome their title’s baggage. Many people assume the Digital PM is little more than a computer-friendly version of the Traffic Manager, Producer, or Project Manager. I’ve found that the best way to change this perception is to assume a leadership role before it’s denied. A common way to do this is to declare your role, document the final solution, and make sure everyone stays in line.

But that’s not me. I’m much too analytical and seasoned to believe I know the final solution on day one. So I’ve had to rethink my approach and I like to believe that the process of challenging the accepted path makes me well suited for Digital Project Management.

The Digital PM Summit reminded me that the opportunity to adapt and reshape perception is what’s exciting about digital projects. The project experience isn’t always predictable or familiar. In this light, I see my role as coach, guide, leader who employs communication tools to improve the project experience. It means managing the people, events, and decision-making that spins out from a complex, unfamiliar, and evolving undertaking. And, above all, delivering something of value to a client.

With that in mind, the stories, presentations, and people at this year’s summit prompt me to think more formally about how I approach leadership. The tips and tricks, perspectives, soft skill exercises, personal histories, and shared experiences from the conference help expand my vision of the opportunity. For me, being a great Digital Project Manager means we have to:

  1. Recognize that digital projects are complex and unpredictable
  2. Identify the behaviors that move a project forward, deliver superior outcomes, draw people into the project, and amplify each team member’s contribution

My initial thoughts for the Digital Project Manager

Own the Project and the Role
This can be tough for Digital Project Managers. Most of us are generalists or came up through another discipline: Information Architecture, Developer, Content Strategy, Account Services. You can see where the weak points are and it’s hard to resist the urge to jump in and fix it just this once.

  • Know your client. What are you dealing with? I liked what Carl Smith had to say on the topic. Client projects are either “Must-Win” or “Checklist” clients. Know what you have.
  • Embrace your role as leader. Don’t pinch-hit for a missing role. Proactively leading IS a full-time job. Use the day’s quiet moments to synthesize the day’s events and plan the next move. If a team member’s idle, it’s a reminder to confirm nothing’s fallen through the cracks.
  • Find the vision?—?get clear about the vision for the project. Find a way to capture it, clarify it, and promote it. Only later does it become a final solution.

Establish Trust
Establishing and maintaining the team’s trust is critical. You have to have a strategy for setting expectations and meeting them. Trust buys a leader information and insight into team dynamics and enables you to redirect the team. Too few trust cues and the team thinks you don’t care, too many and you put yourself in jeopardy of failing. Some basic things that work:

  • Weekly Notes go out and follow up within 24 hours
  • Establish communication procedure. Capture all thoughts and requests in a central place and make sure it’s clear that the inputs will be reviewed regularly by the PM and the team.
  • Establish Risk Reviews at set points in the life of the project (4x)

Reinforce Leadership
As a Digital Project Manager, you manage internal team members and client stakeholders. It’s a lot of people and you have to find ways to make sure people know you’re leading the project without undermining people’s autonomy.

  • Speak directly about issues
  • Initiate difficult conversations
  • Be concise and become aware of when you’re over-communicating

Motivate & Coach the Team (Internal and External)
Everyone on the team ought to be stretching themselves. Sometimes they’ll need help, but won’t know how to ask for it. Others will know just what to do.

  • Get to know everyone on your team and all the stakeholders. Know their strengths, weaknesses, and motivations
  • Listening and people skills
  • Listen to and hold other’s points of view

Take Care of Yourself
Leaders are human and they experience frustration, anger, happiness, irritation, etc…. Leaders must actively manage when, where, how, and with whom they express those emotions.

  • Find people outside your company that can support you
  • Avoid complaining to anyone within your company
  • Never complain to the client
  • Distinguish between complaining and being direct. Uncover why you’re complaining and find a way to change things. You can’t complain, but you can be direct and assertive. The work is uncovering how to change things.