Expert Interview Series: Ben Aston of The Digital Project Manager About the Trials and Tribulations of Today’s Project Managers

Ben Aston is the creator of the world’s most popular digital project management blog, The Digital Project Manager. Recently, we talked with Ben about the current challenges faced by project managers and the strategies they must embrace to overcome those challenges.

Tell us a bit about your background. Why did you decide to start a project management blog?

Armed with an x386 PC and a 33k dial-up modem, I launched my first (frankly terrible) website at age 14 and was hooked. It was a message board and friend profile site (I’d argue that was then cloned by Facebook!), but it got me excited about all things web and digital.

After graduating from university, I spent some time at some traditional advertising agencies in London and found my sweet spot. Digital was a fascinating intersection of technology, communications, and business where I could put my “nerdiness” to good use as a project manager managing complex, digital projects.  I spent the first ten years of my career at London’s top digital agencies including Dare, Wunderman, DLKW Lowe, and DDB flitting between client services and project management.

But when I got into digital project management as a relatively new discipline within digital, I began to realize no one was really talking about it. As I rose up through the ranks and began managing a team of project managers, I realized I was giving the same lessons to up-and-coming project managers time and time again; so I thought I should begin to share my thoughts more widely on a blog.

That’s why I created The Digital Project Manager: to empower a community to learn from one another, and to provide specialist digital project management guidance that draws on existing schools of thought (including PRINCE2, SCRUM, and PMBOK), but that’s engineered to work within the Wild West of digital marketing and communications, particularly in agencies and studios. Our goal is to elevate the conversation surrounding digital, leadership, and the world of digital project management.

Is there somewhat of a disconnect between the project management knowledge available on the Internet and the reality of many projects or situations?

There’s certainly a lot of theory, best practices, and process that are widely available on the internet. This theory is actually a great starting point as a framework for thinking about how to run a project, and it provides some helpful common language for us to use to understand one another when talking about projects.

You’ll find lots of project management theory that can be directly applied to IT or software development. Traditional project management theory can be great for those large enterprise projects that tend to be run using a waterfall methodology. At the other extreme, lean agile development is great for software products; but again, it doesn’t really fit well with the realities of projects within the typical agency/client relationship.

In the world of digital agencies, there’s often a big difference between theory and practice. Theory is a great starting point, but it can’t be applied so easily to more rogue, fast, and loose projects –  like the everyday campaigns and deliverables of digital project management where crazy clients, tiny budgets, stupid deadlines, and standardized processes and methodologies simply don’t work. Theory and frameworks also don’t have a lot to say when projects don’t go to plan! Take, for example, the project manager’s iron triangle. It’s a great principle, but in the cutthroat and increasingly commoditized business of agencies, budget, timelines, scope, and quality are often agreed upon up front and are totally fixed. It’s the agency that then takes on the risk of delivery.

So in that sense, there’s a disconnect between the project management theory and the reality of delivery. In digital, I think soft skills are so much more important for successfully leading teams and managing clients. Being able to lead well, communicate effectively, and negotiate well become critical to managing projects well.

What are the advantages of PRINCE2 and Scrum? Which types of projects would be best-suited for each of these methodologies?

PRINCE2 is designed for large scale IT projects – a heavyweight, “full stack” waterfall project management methodology that includes principles, themes, and processes.  So as a methodology, its advantages are that it’s incredibly thorough. It leaves nothing to chance. It’s a great framework to use when you’re thinking about large, predictable enterprise projects. It clarifies what will be delivered, ensures a focus on the viability of the project, clearly defines roles and responsibilities, and provides a common vocabulary which we can apply to other methodologies. On the flipside, while the principles and themes are great, the process can make it laborious and onerous for small projects. The emphasis on developing a good business case with KPIs and value earned, clear roles and responsibilities, and managing change and risk are helpful when we consider managing projects for our clients.

Conversely, Scrum is about empowering a self-managing team to deliver. It’s great for software development where you can structure your team in the way that Scrum dictates: with a development team, a Scrum Master to support the development team, and a Product Owner to define what needs to be built. As a methodology (if you can call it that), it’s very lightweight. It simply defines roles and responsibilities designed to create a healthy tension between delivering the right thing, the right way, as fast as possible.  So Scrum can be a really useful framework for the development and maintenance of complex products. Scrum defines a simple set of roles, meetings, and tools to efficiently, iteratively, and incrementally deliver valuable, shippable functionality. Scrum is great for codifying some of the agile principles in a process to show how you can make it work in the real world using small, self-organizing, cross-functional teams, daily stand-ups, progress demos, and retrospectives.

What issues and problems that must be addressed by the project manager tend to arise in almost every single type of digital project?

Most digital projects tend to encounter issues around scope – “is this in scope or not?” If it’s not in scope, what happens? Should the client pay more, or do we just suck it up? Whose fault is it?

We’re often working on the bleeding edge of technology. We’re regularly doing things that no one has ever tried doing before, so there’s a lot of uncertainty and risk. And the technology is ever-evolving, so we’re often working out how to build something as we’re building it. This all can make it very difficult to definitively define scope; and for long-term success, it really takes a shared maturity from both the client and agency to shift the conversation from defining project “deliverables” to having a shared ownership around project outcomes.

If we’re able to get a really good understanding of success, we’re much more likely to be able to deliver on it. There’s massive benefit for us, our team, the project,  and our clients if we’re a bit more strategic. When we shift the conversation from what to why, we often get to a better solution. We need to be conversation shifters – from focusing on requirements and results to understanding the strategic importance of what we’re doing.

Finish this sentence: “The thing that often seems to surprise new project managers is…”

… how many different plates they have to keep spinning.

The “plates” are our competing priorities. We’ve got a very challenging role in determining what’s worthy of our attention, how much attention we should give it, and in what sequence. We’re continually trying to optimize the critical path of our projects so that they can run as fast as possible.

But we’ve often got a bewildering choice of what to do. Some tasks are seemingly urgent and require a lot of attention; but in truth, they aren’t that important. If the “plate” falls to the ground, it really isn’t a disaster. Conversely, there’ll be truly important “plates” that don’t seem as urgent but are monumentally disastrous if they fail. Doing the right thing at the wrong time is often what surprises new project managers – but getting it wrong can be disastrous.

For digital developers or IT personnel who want to learn how to become project managers, what innate advantages do they often have as compared to a typical project management student or trainee?

Subject matter expertise and real-world experience are certainly a bonus throughout the entire project lifecycle. Those with digital experience tend to know what needs to happen next, which can be a great help in leading the team. As they’re managing the team, they’ve also got an advantage in that they can often spot any sandbagging of estimates. And throughout the planning and implementation of the project, they can also help with technical design and solution development.

What will be the most important skills that must be mastered by future project managers who want to be successful in their field?

Success really comes down to the soft skills I mentioned earlier. But probably the most important skill of all is leadership – the ability to lead teams effectively.

We can lead the team first by providing vision. Great teamwork and magic happen when there’s leadership that provides a clear unifying vision. Help people get hold of that vision and understand, “Why are we doing this? Why should do we care? What’s the point?” And then drive the team towards taking ownership. “Where are we at? Where are we going? How are we going to get there? How can we be meaningfully involved?”

Building a great team isn’t simply being dictatorial; it’s empowering your teams to take ownership themselves and supporting them every step of the way. Your teams have got to know that you’ve got their back and that you’re supporting them. In practical terms, that also means working out how you as a project manager are going to make your team’s life better today. Proper briefs? A new computer? Donuts? Fetching the dry cleaning? As the project leaders, we need to be the person that moves mountains for them.

Project success doesn’t come from a team that is worked as hard as they can. It comes from a team that is happy, motivated, and enjoys working with one another.  It comes from a team that’s led to success by being enabled, empowered, and sharply focused on bringing a shared vision to life.

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