Last week, I attended a conference for digital project managers in Philadelphia.

As Big Sea has grown from the little 3-person shop I started in 2005 to the 10-person team (plus a few amazing friends who pitch in all the time) we are now, the processes and management of projects have become considerably more complex and far more important. Coming from a traditional agency environment, I’d always been inclined to manage projects in the same way I was taught.  But that just doesn’t work.

We don’t just create something then send it to print and walk away.  There are so many more moving pieces in the process that prevent that traditionally linear approach:  the interactions of plugins/add-ons in ways we didn’t expect, new browsers and device sizes to test (often changing mid-project), the addition of *real* content that changes our intended layouts, the design modifications that need to happen once the limitations of development and/or budget are realized – to name a few.  Add the often enormous QA/testing process and of course, endless iterations, enhancements and issues accordingly.

The process of building a website or web application is a constant and steady blender of incoming information, assessment, management, development and output.  It’s messy, it’s interactive and it’s all fairly new.

When I saw the announcement for the Digital PM Summit hosted by our heroes at Happy Cog in Philadelphia, I knew I had to go.  I’ve been evaluating our processes for a few months now, having taken an inventory of our current approaches, tested dozens of SaaS products, and put together lists of must-haves and must-nots. I went to the conference with a long list of ideas of how I want to change our approach to project management.

Be a Better PM

What I realized while there though, is that it’s not about the tools and processes. It’s about managing expectations, feelings and being honest as much as it’s about making sure the work gets done. Here are my key takeaways from the conference, in no particular order.

1.  Clients don’t want to drive.

This seems obvious, but when we get really busy, it’s difficult to find the time to “drive” a project the way it needs – to stay on top of who needs what before they need it, to send thorough status updates and keep my inbox in check. We become reactive instead of proactive – and our work and relationships suffer.  The addition of a full-time project manager to the Big Sea team this summer will definitely make huge strides in filling the gaps, though (and allow me to refocus too), so I’m making this our motto until it’s thoroughly hammered home.  Thanks to almost every speaker for reminding me of the core duty of a good PM.

2.  Be honest and direct.

In fact, that’s what our clients are paying us for. I do this fairly well when it comes to feedback and assessment, but I definitely shy away from difficult conversations about issues and problems.  I often blame myself for overcommitting or not scoping properly rather than outlining the true issues that might affect a project success – and many times, those issues are out of our control.  Brett Harned told us to  make sure to initiate the difficult conversations; Rachel Gertz gave us all kinds of ideas on exactly how to do that.  Sam Barnes reminded me to sell directness as a differentiator.  Carl Smith talked about owning our mistakes and addressing issues early.

3.  Never email when you should call.

Thanks again to Carl Smith for this one.  I resist the phone like it’s tuberculosis, yet every time I have a quick five minute call with a client, we resolve more than any string of 10 emails would have.  It’s so much easier to pick up on tone and intention over the phone than shooting non-emotive messages back and forth.  I will pick up the phone.

4.  Don’t oversell or overcommit.

My team will tell you that this is probably my biggest weakness.  I know what we can do as software developers – we can do some pretty amazing things.  But amazing things take a decent amount of time and effort – especially in this age of browsers and devices and interactivity. I have a habit of telling clients that things are possible and over-promising, then having to eat the cost of developing those amazing things just to make good on my words rather than clearly explaining the complexity and work involved.  I  want to do great work regardless of the financial compensation, yet I’m running a business and need to balance that.  No one wins if we’re working for free – it’s unsustainable and foolish.

5. Anything can be managed with enough communication.

We build a lot of features and functions that perhaps haven’t been done before – or at least, not in the combinations we’re asked to develop them. Those tasks and projects are incredibly difficult to estimate and scope – and we run into a lot of issues along the way. By communicating these issues early and often,  I can better prepare my clients for the eventuality of either an increased timeline, budget or ditching the approach all together. Yes, it’s a difficult conversation but shedding light on things up front and as soon as they’re aware will make all of us a little more comfortable with it.

6. Educate and guide your clients and your team.

Never send anything without rationale (thanks again, Carl), tell clients how to give useful feedback (thanks, Brett), give meaning to tasks for both your clients and team members (thanks Nancy Lyons and Meghan Wilkins), and most importantly, always send thorough weekly status updates (thanks every single speaker).  No one teaches you how to be a client – so that’s up to us, as project managers.  Communicate effectively so that clients feel empowered, involved and informed.

7.  We cannot solve problems for our clients based on their personal preferences in color, typography and texture.

I couldn’t think of a better way to phrase this, so there it is, verbatim. Thanks to Jared Ponchot for it, and everything in his inspiring talk about designing on purpose (slides here – worth a browse).  Every design process needs to focus on purpose and content, then inform the style.  Always ask “why” instead of “how,” and don’t ask design questions of your clients.  Instead, use metaphor to unearth the adjectives and traits they want in their project design.

I could go on and on with tiny lessons and snippets of great information, but the above are a pretty good list for me to really focus on for our projects and management process going forward.  The tools are useful – but they can only support, not create an overall project management approach.

Thanks again to Happy Cog and Brett Harned in particular for putting on the first conference in years where I felt among my people.  Made some great friends and had an awesome time – and I’ll be back with our PM next year.