06 Dec 2017 by Carson Pierce
Project Managers vs. Project Leaders: DPM Summit 2017 Review





Every October I get filled to the brim with nerdy excitement to attend the Digital Project Manager Summit, this time with the added perk of being held in Las Vegas. I had a bit of apprehension mixed in this year, though, on account of the fact that I no longer held the title of “project manager.”

You see, at nForm, we don’t really have a traditional PM role. Crazy talk – I know. Instead, each project is led by the key practitioner (information architect, UX or visual designer, content strategist, etc.) doing the core work. This seemed really odd to me at first, but started to make a lot of sense when I saw it in action.

When the client has questions or decisions need to be made, the person who is most hands-on with doing and understanding the project tasks can address them directly. No need for a PM to respond with “let me check with the team and get back to you.” It also changes project accountability, as the project lead is responsible for defining and delivering the final product as well as the process for everything in between.

Project management is still a part of it for sure, but so are business analysis, digital strategy, account management, quality assurance, and several other roles. Which brings me back to my concern about attending the DPM Summit. Did I still belong? Would they find out I was an interloper and toss me onto the mean streets of Sin City?

It turns out I had nothing to worry about. In fact, it seems that some of the industry is already shifting to a similar model, even if they’re still holding onto the “project manager” title. Several of this year’s presentations included messages that align quite nicely with the nForm role. The ones that stood out most to me included:

Martijn van Tilburg – A 10,000ft View of Getting Things Done
Martijn, CEO of resourcing software 10,000ft, shared the results of a DPM survey they conducted earlier this year. My favourite quote from his talk was “Project managers are the guardians of the outcome,” which speaks nicely to the PM role as product owner. He also presented the idea that the future of project management belongs to T-shaped people; those who have deep PM skills, but also a broad interdisciplinary knowledge spanning design, development, marketing, etc.

Amanda Costello – How Silos Learn: Working in the Idea Factory
Amanda proudly hails from the American midwest and gave us a very practical lesson on silos – the real-life kind, filled with grain. She then extended the analogy to work silos, but then instead of the usual “break down all silos!” message, she pointed out that the silo structure has real value and we just need to look at them in new ways. In real life, modern silos often have structures on top connecting them together. As PMs, we need to play that same role; bridging our various teams to make sure everything is working efficiently towards a common goal.

Suze Haworth – The Art of Managing Expectations
Suze’s talk was all about the PM’s role around expectations, both with our teams and our clients. One of her key points was that we should go beyond simply managing expectations and take on the responsibility of setting and shaping them. That is, it’s up to us to set objectives at the outset, get people invested in the vision, and then keep everyone focused from start to finish. She also encouraged us to not be subtle about this or rely on documentation; it’s an active role that requires clarity and repetition.

Meghan McInerny – Level Up: Project Management as a Leadership Role
Meghan’s presentation was my favourite of the Summit and the one that struck most closely to the heart of the idea of an expanded PM role. She defined leaders as “those who inspire people to move toward a vision” and managers as “the ones that make sure we all get there.” She then went on to tie these things together by saying that “project management is a leadership role.” But what does that mean in practical terms? A few of the takeaways from her talk included:

  • We need to walk the line between transparency and protection, acting as a buffer between beneficial information and distraction.
  • We should deliver good news and bad news at the same velocity. To prepare for this, we need to tell clients right from the start that bad news will come.
  • When asked who the project manager should be loyal to – the team or the client, Megan’s reply was that we are loyal to the project. This stance will require bravery, AKA “leadership.”

In the end, I left the Summit not only with a sense of belonging, but also that the path we’re forging at nForm is a solid one: smart and effective. Moving forward, I anticipate more and more digital agencies will follow suit and that this project leadership model will become a best practice in our field.

Then when next year’s Summit rolls around, I can roll in with confidence and maybe throw in a few “I told you so”‘s.

(photo credit: Peta Kennett-Wilson)


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