Digital project managers face many challenges. If you don’t get projects right and make mistakes, they can have significant knock-on effects, which could lead to the projects spiralling out of control. They could take a lot longer, run well over budget, or even fail altogether.
Digital project managers are the first port of call for the many different parties involved. Keeping all of them happy, while creating a successful product, is a difficult balancing act. Every project is different, of course, and there are many different aspects to consider but we can analyse and learn from some common themes. The benefits are enormous: happier teams, better products, happier clients and customers, and ultimately more profit.
We’ve talked to some leading project managers around the world to find out what kind of common mistakes they see DPMs make regularly and how to avoid them.
1. Lack of prioritisation
One of the main issues — which is being referred to throughout the article — is not prioritising tasks.
“As project managers, we can find ourselves feeling totally overwhelmed because we’re being pulled in too many directions,” explains Ben Aston, founder of resource website The Digital Project Manager. “It feels like there’s too much on our plate and no way to keep everyone happy.”
“Accept you can’t make everyone happy. Understand that even though something seems urgent, it doesn’t make it necessarily important. You can be incredibly busy, running around doing urgent but pretty unimportant things all day. So stop and ask yourself, what’s the impact of me not doing this urgent thing right now?”
Ben also suggests making sure you’re scheduling time to do the things on your project that are really important. “The estimate the client needs, the project reconciliation, or the brief the team needs to get started — they are the kinds of things that are really critical to your project’s success.”
The Priority Matrix
“Try making a priority matrix of classifying by urgent and important. Start every day reviewing your priority list. Schedule time for the urgent but unimportant work like checking in with your team, reading and answering emails, answering the phone. Try to complete these tasks all at once at a set time during the day to help minimise the time it takes to return back to the important tasks. But most importantly, schedule time to do your important but not urgent work, if you don’t get to it, then everything will start falling apart.”
Here’s a short video on understanding the Eisenhower matrix, a popular prioritisation tool:
2. Not keeping up
“A big mistake that many project managers make is not keeping up with, and communicating important project details to their team and clients or stakeholders,” points out digital project management consultant Brett Harned, author of Project Management for Humans.
“There is so much that can happen on a project from one day to the next that it can be tough to keep up with all of the changes, assignments, and next steps. When you let those details go, things get crazy.”
Brett suggests making yourself accountable to communicating details on a regular basis. He recommends status reports as a “simple, routine way to communicate what has happened on the project since the last report, what will happen next, associated to-dos per team member, upcoming milestones, deliverables, and meetings, and a list of potential risks, blockers, or issues.”
That way, Brett argues, PMs remain accountable to keeping up with the details — and updating important project docs like project and resourcing plans — and ensuring everything is out in the open.
“It’s also always a good practice to follow-up the delivery of the status report with a short call or meeting to walk through it,” he says. “It’s just too easy for any team member or client to ignore the report and miss a critical detail that could lead to more problems.”
3. Overplanning your day
Project managers need to be careful to not let the stress take over.
Rachael Shah, project manager at Reason Digital in Manchester, recommends reassessing the top three non-negotiable tasks you have to do each day and making sure you block out time for them.
“It may seem obvious but if you add an item to your diary, it means you’re more likely to follow through with it,” she explains. “Another simple technique is to always leave time available for the unplanned tasks that can sideline your day. We’ve all been there — we have too many back-to-back meetings booked in, and then when something goes wrong, the whole day goes to pot! I block out time after a meeting to ensure I have time to work on follow-up tasks.”
Also ensure you take breaks and don’t work right through lunch.
“We need to stop!,” Rachael warns. “Science tells us that it’s counterproductive to sit and work constantly without a rest. Book time into your calendar for regular lunch slots and commit to going out with a colleague. You’ll get better insights into how the team is doing and build relationships.”
4. Getting sidetracked
Often digital projects are affected by people wanting ‘fancy’ features that look nice but that are not part of the core requirements, as education content developer Leon Brown has discovered.
“The problem is that the team can end up spending too much of the available time on these features without completing the must-have features,” he argues.
“I once worked on a project, and the designer insisted that I make minor features absolutely perfect. He had me spend an entire afternoon making sure that some statistics bar was displayed with curved edges across all browsers, when the same thing could have been achieved in just a couple of minutes if they had used straight edges. The company was wondering why they had run out of budget by the end of the project!”
The Parking List
As in Leon’s case, projects can include very vocal people who will do everything they can to get their non-critical features implemented.
“A good solution is the use of a parking list — or Kanban board, where ideas can be placed and picked up in the order that suits developers. The advantage is that less critical features can be left until later, if the time and budget allows for it, so that vocal people don’t have to be tackled head on if their requests can’t be implemented.”
A physical Kanban board with a basic, three-step workflow
5. Not listening
Unfortunately, bad managers have a habit of only listening to what they want to hear, Leon finds.
“It’s not good for developers to be put into a position where they warn against issues such as how a certain feature poses a risk or that the target delivery date is unrealistic — and then to have their advice ignored,” he warns and points to a comedy sketch by way of an example.
“This is an especially common scenario in creative projects when managers don’t have a technical background. Bad management focuses on getting the developers to say ‘yes, it’ll be done’, regardless of any warnings that are given to a certain feature being impossible or a high risk.”
Leon argues that agile development helps but that the problem lies with managers who need to understand how to be really agile. “A lot of people try to use the old waterfall model and dress it up as agile development — that’s absolutely the wrong way to go about things,” he cautions.
6. Talking to people in a way which resonates with you, not with them
“One of the biggest learnings of my career was identifying that I should be thinking and speaking in commercial terms with my senior management team when I needed them to do/think/care/change something on or about my project,” says Peta Kennett-Wilson, founder of Digital Rev, a London-based project management training and consultancy firm.
“Once I saw how much easier that made my PM life, I was pretty sure it would be a great approach to adopt with everyone I worked with. When I need someone to do something, I try and think what is it I need or want at the end of this conversation and what’s the best way to approach it to try and ensure that happens.”
“For some people it’s a chat while making a coffee, for others it’s a financial report, and for some it’s aligning it to strategy and goals.”
7. Becoming a single point of failure
Absorbing all the leftover tasks that don’t fit within your project team is the classic default position of a PM, as freelance senior digital project manager Suzanna Haworth has learned first hand.
“Over the years I’ve done everything from QA, content management, and strategy through to analysing code to try and determine the bug!,” she says. “But taking everything on yourself isn’t a good thing — you’re actually becoming a single point of failure.”
Suzanna suggests remembering you’re allowed to say no and you need to delegate. “Don’t just mop up the overspill. Look at the tasks and the project team as a whole at the beginning of the project, and flag any risk areas. Then if it does become a problem, you have a better case to raise going forward.”
“Ensure you’re not squeezing the budget and team shape just to fit to the client’s request. Review the deliverables with the team and make sure they can commit to them in the timings allowed. Also, don’t just do every task that comes your way. Take a step back, review it to determine if you’re the best person for the job, and if not, try and find a person who’s better placed to do it.”
8. Poor collaboration between team and client
Sometimes it’s easy for the PM to become a funnel for the communication between the client and team. As you’re dealing with both on a daily basis, it’s easy to fall into the trap of becoming the person in the middle and just relay information to each party.
“This isn’t effective for communication as a whole, or for your team and the client to become fully immersed in the project,” Suzanna Haworth advises. “Make sure you’re including your team in the communications, the important meetings, and calls. But make sure you don’t add them for the sake of it, ensure there’s a purpose to it and it adds value.”
Suzanna currently uses a shared Slack channel for one of her projects to ensure open communication between the client and team. “It’s working well as a way to integrate, and for me not to become the messenger or, at worst, a blocker. Whilst this might not be ideal for every project and client, there are ways to spread the communication out such as using Google Hangouts or Skype for daily standups with everyone, or shared online documents to collaborate on.”
9. Not being honest and upfront
Honesty is one of the best qualities you can use as a PM.
“Don’t ever try and work your way out of a tricky situation by not telling the truth — this can often come back and bite you!,” Suzanna warns. “If there’s a big issue on the project, review with your team, work out a proposed solution and then go to your client or stakeholder and talk them through the issue and also the plans to solve it. It’s always best to go in with a problem alongside a practical solution to avoid any panic or uncertainty. Be upfront and you won’t get tied up in covering for things later down the line. Keeping the client or stakeholder closely involved in how the project is going also avoids surprises at a later point. Think about what you share with them on a weekly basis, and make sure you don’t communicate bad news in a document — always try and speak in person to be able to talk through things properly.”
Education content developer Leon Brown agrees and adds that bad project management usually leads to a culture of nobody accepting responsibility for their own actions.
“Blame is often being placed on the developers when things go wrong — even when the developers warned against the issues to begin with,” he explains. “Poor managers may think it’s to their advantage to pass the blame in these situations, but all it leads to is poor morale — which leads to people leaving the project. Good managers realise that people with skills and competence are in demand by other companies.”
10. Saving issues for the project debrief
A project debrief shouldn’t be the only time you discuss what lessons you’ve learned and how things need to change.
Project manager Rachael Shah points out that one of the fundamental elements of working agile is to constantly learn and improve.
“Even if you’re running a more traditional fixed-price waterfall project, you can still have open and honest retrospectives with the team to continually improve the delivery,” she argues. ”If you do need to have a debrief at the end, schedule this in at the start of the project, so it doesn’t get forgotten and keep a log of any unresolved issues, so these can be re-visited.”
11. Getting stuck in your problem-solving approach
Once you’ve run enough projects, you have a fairly good grasp of how things are going to go, what issues are going to crop up, and how you can resolve them with minimal effort or financial outlay. But Peta Kennett-Wilson warns that there is a danger of becoming too routine or familiar with how you resolve project issues.
“One technique I like to use is the reframing matrix,” she explains. “This is where you adopt different perspectives to see how other people would solve a problem. What would the best boss you ever had do? What would your mum do? What would someone in the accounting department do?”
“A fresh perspective almost always helps build upon your ideas and solutions leading you to find more creative/faster/cheaper/simpler ways to solve things.”
12. Not recognising your own power
“One of the biggest mistakes I see PMs making is not recognising their own power,” finds Rachel Gertz, digital project manager trainer and co-founder of studio Louder Than Ten.
“As the nucleus of the team, they have incredible influence and can create powerful alignment between stakeholders (their teams, execs, and clients). Often, if a PM’s organisation doesn’t recognise this power, it comes with a cost — managing up can challenge the status quo and can create friction on teams when they don’t make continuous improvements a priority.”
To solve this problem, Rachel suggests working to create allies across your team and identifying common team pain points and possible fixes together — then approach management with a request to try a new approach or process with a clear business case behind it.
“Consider trying it on a single project or within a clear timeframe at first,” she recommends. “Build in time for post reflection, so that you can make refinements along the way and include all important decision makers. If you have a process, or operations or sales idea that you stand behind, push your organisation gently toward alignment to make it a reality. In a commoditised world, these lean improvements can be the difference between a company succeeding or failing. PMs can play a vital role in that success. Wield your PM power.”
Tools that can help
Rachel suggests finding your allies in Slack (join the Digital PM Slack, check out 7 of the Best Slack Communities for Product Managers, or start your own), attend events that empower you and your processes (find a local meetup or attend events like DeliverConf in the UK and the Digital PM Summit in the US), and read books on change (for example, Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard and The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization).
Embrace the mistakes
Have you recognised any of the mistakes on this list? Have you made any of them yourself? It’s only natural, you’re human! Once you know that these mistakes can affect your project, you can look out for them and make sure they don’t jeopardise it. Poor planning is the number one reason for failed projects, so invest in a little bit of planning and organisation, using the tools and strategies outlined above, and you can become a better project manager and significantly improve the success rate of your projects.
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