“No one leaves a conversation unsure about what they’re doing”

^ quote from an industry insider about the role of Digital Project Managers (DPMs). From Brett Harned’s talk, Army of Awesome.

I had a wonderful time at the Digital Project Management UK 2016 conference (DPMUK16) last Thursday. The sold-out event was held at The Comedy Store in Manchester. Keynote speaker Brett Harned got a genuine laugh from the audience, stating we are probably the most unfunny people that have ever been on this stage! That said, the days’ speakers put on a fantastic show, full of informational content and entertainment value.

The day started off with some great first impressions that immediately that set this conference apart from previous tech events that I’ve attended:

  • The gender balance seemed 50/50, if not skewed toward a womens majority. Having been to several tech conferences in the past few years where I’ve often been in the single-digit gender minority, this was both unexpected and encouraging.
  • The swag was fun — some of it was even unbranded! I very much appreciated the logo-less, square-ruled A5 notepad, serving the sole function of being helpful. Also, touch-screen gloves were a neat idea, though not very practical for those like me who have tiny hands! Nevertheless, I am perpetually chilly, and happily wore them all the way home in York.
  • DPMs seem to be a tightly-knit and very social community — or at least that’s the first impression I got as a web developer. I found it a little hard to break into conversations, though this was the first tech conference I’ve attended by myself so perhaps I’m a little biased by my acute awareness of others.

Beyond that, the content of the talks was outstanding and I took a ridiculous amount of notes — enough to regret never learning shorthand! There were a number of standout ideas that I want to share with you after the jump in the hope that you will be inspired to go seek out these fine speakers’ insights further. And maybe you’ll be at DPMUK17, so I won’t have to go it alone next time 🙂

The first talk, by Sam Barnes was titled “You can do well, or you can do good.”

This was a deep dive into what it means to lose your way in a project, and how to find a successful way out. I took away a lot from this one, mainly:

  • Digital project management is hard because it is young: there are no best practices, workload levels are not well known and DPMs perform the roles of many — the skills list is a long one!
  • Ask yourself: As a DPM, who should you be loyal to? The answer is always: Be loyal to your project and yourself.
  • There are two types of shit Digital Project managers:
    1. People who want to do well and look good
    2. People who want to do good but can’t
    The second group has passion, but they lack the knowledge and confidence. They become messengers. If this isn’t you, then your job is to help them!
  • Last but most certainly not least: it is important to do good. It’s worth the job risk. Regret sucks. And empathy is most important skill you can have here.

Notable links from Sam’s talk:

I also loved Katie Buffalo’s talk on Practical Prioritisation under Pressure.

Important things I learned from her talk include:

  • Always take an ounce of prevention: stop filling your containers to the top!
  • You need a backup plan more than you need a risk register (risk registers are a form of magical thinking)
  • When in doubt, do the thing that gets you closer to done. (Do you know what done is?)
  • Help the nice people first, the demanding jerks last.

The next several talks were shorter, and this ‘lightning’ format allowed speakers to delve deeply into a single topic.

First up was Matt Thornhill, discussing Technical Debt: Why it really matters.

I love his subtitle ‘how to make great products your teams want to work on’. His top tips:

  • Capture your debt in a meaningful way. A spreadsheet? Perhaps not; if nobody looks at it, then it is pointless.
  • Build in time for your team to test and refactor code.
  • Check out Morale — an app for tracking your team’s mood.

Ian May’s (@thatlanmay) talk on Managing the Organisers provided some insights on ways to keep a team happy and healthy:

  • The well-being of your team comes first. It’s not only ok to ask, but it is essential. “How’s everything going?” or “What’s your biggest challenge right now?”
  • Match projects with the right devs — if you don’t know, ask people, “Do you prefer small, short and creative projects or big, long, technical projects?”
  • Do a weekly project health check. Find out your recovery rate.

Notable links from Ian May’s talk:

Up next was Verity Maybury, showing us The best ways to wow your clients.

She emphasised these key points:

  • Always underpromise and overdeliver.
  • Stop, collaborate and listen.
  • Once you have those two dialed, “you’ve got the measurements, now make the suit.”
  • The client isn’t always right — they don’t even want to be always right.
  • And finally, a happy team breeds a happy client.

James Locker, Senior DPM Consultant at Sky, stepped in for a speaker unable to make it to the event. James presented a talk entitled An aid to control.

He started his talk with the wonderful Elbert Hubbard quote:

“The world is moving so fast these days that the man who says it can’t be done is generally interrupted by someone doing it.”

His point: you can’t afford as a PM to be a blocker to progress.

He also shared with us Sky’s organisational chart, using the Scrum method to “control the pace of the game.” He argued that, by using the Scrum method at Sky:

  • There is an accountable, stable delivery process.
  • Everyone has a voice. There is a process for that.
  • There is a continuous improvement process.
  • There is a focus on relationships and influence over authority and rules.

Next up for a full-length presentation was Susanne Madsen delivering The Power of Project Leadership.

Some key takeaways (and there were many):

  • Outlining differences between management vs. leadership — the former being more task-oriented, focused on authority, does more “telling” and the latter being more people-oriented, focused on empowerment, does more “question asking”, among other differences.
  • One of the biggest reasons for project failure is that projects aren’t linked to corporate strategy.
  • Overcoming resistance and change is about removing fear and uncertainty. Give people a role to play within the change scenario; it’s hard to resist a change that you’re a part of.
  • Ask ‘what if’ Q’s to your teammates: What if we had half the time? What if we had no constraints? What if we could start over? She implores us to come up with new or better Qs than these! See what happens when you do.
  • Ask yourself: Am I inventing things to do to avoid what’s important? Am I being productive, or just active?

Noteworthy links from Suzanne’s talk:

Rhodri Coleman was up next, presenting information about The Cost/Price Conundrum.

My key takeways from this one were few in number, but left me with a lot to think about when it comes to accountability and the value of what we do. Pithy, yet worthy of sharing:

  • Cost and price are independent of each other.
  • Cost can change; price is both imaginary and unmutable.
  • Capture the journey – look at cost at various points of your process to see where/why projects succeed/fail (and did they really ‘fail’ or does it just look like they did owing to the price/cost difference at the end of the project?)
  • You could learn a lot if you aggregate data across all projects. Are you consistently making concessions with a particular client? Are you putting junior people (who cost less) in the right places?

Suze Haworth on Methodology Madness.

My key takaways:

  • Waterfall, Scrum, Kanban, Prince 2, Agile, DMAIC, Lean — there are a lot of methods to choose from!
  • A very good review of the benefits and disadvantages of Waterfall vs. Agile.
  • From The Chaos Manifesto (PDF) – 53% of projects ran over on cost, 76% ran over on time.
  • Wagile is a hybrid method; it can help bridge gap between client and team — or, as Jason Gorman puts it, “literally thousands of projects have failed the WAgile way.”
  • There is no formal hybrid approach out there. Use what works for you.

She also lists some common faults she’s found in dysfunctional teams, such as:

  • No process
  • People on the team doing different things
  • Processes for the sake of process
  • A ‘one size fits all’ approach – a successful methodology in one project might not work on the next one.

And keeping with the day’s theme of lengthy lists of DPMs required skills, she provides some more of them, helpfully divided into Practical (e.g., tech knowledge, risk assessment, project process) vs. Personal (e.g., leadership, flexibility, problem solving). The practical skills can be learned rote, the personal ones must be experienced.

Brett Harned gave us a smashing presentation to round out a most excellent day: Army of Awesome.

In this comprehensive talk, he discussed what a DPM is and why these roles are important to the success of projects and teams. He went through a brief history of project management, as well as insider and outsider perceptions of what DPMs do (very amusing from all angles). He ended with his ‘DPM manifesto’, saying that he would love for these principles to make it into standards for the industry. I want to see these things in job listings.”

The key takeaways here are difficult to pare down — too many to mention, and covering so much important stuff! I’ll give a try with an outline of the big ideas:

  • Another lengthy skills list of what DPMs do/know. Like the lists that came before, I could relate to many of these and it was eye-opening to see just how complicated projects can get.
  • Non-industry perceptions of what DPMs do included but was not limited to:
    • “Someone who executes code.” Hmmm, close, but really not really.
    • Donald Trump yelling “You’re fired!” on The Apprentice.
    • His mom’s spot-on response: “You help teams organize their work”
  • Industry perceptions:
    • Paul Boag says “What they do is invisible.”
    • Whitney Hess says that DPMs are “the stage managers of the internet.”
  • There is work to do to make others understand the value of what we do.
    • DPM is only ~4 years old but it is not going anywhere, so you can embrace or reject it.
    • We need standards – most DPMs have similar projects and roles, but everyone is doing their jobs in wildly different ways.
  • He proposes 5 DPM Principles, a Manifesto of sorts:
  1. We are chaos junkies – we thrive on projects when there’s a lot going on and we feel useful when we can clear a path.
  2. We are multilingual communicators – we speak marketing, IT, design, UX, content strategy and more. We speak with expertise, empathy and consistency. We create routines. We listen and take cues.
  3. We are lovable hardasses who strike a balance between being likable and focused on issues, timelines, budgets, etc.
  4. We are active members of our teams — we are consummate learners and teachers, we learn on the job, and we learn from one another, conferences, blogs, books, articles.
  5. We are pathfinders. We focus on the strategic paths and successes of our projects. We are excited about what success looks like and how to get there. We understand that this may mean that timeline and budget must change.

Notable links from Brett’s talk:

By the end of this inspiring day, I felt less like I was observing DPMs as an outsider, and more like I was surrounded by people who more or less do what I do — or at least by people who get what I do! And their job it is to help me do it better. That was encouraging and I left DPMUK with a better understanding of the value of Digital Project Management and a pledge to myself to bring more of these skills into my daily work.

If you have any questions or thoughts about any or all of this, please share! Does your team use a hybrid method? How do you assess team health? Are there any templates you find helpful? What questions do you ask your team members? I would love to hear from any and all perspectives on DPM – just drop a comment below.