Project Manage The Organization

It's just over a week until the 2014 Digital PM Summit, where I'll present on organizational growth from a PM perspective. This post in my supporting series applies learnings from the world of digital project management to the need for managing company operations. It grows on my previous post "Scaling Projects and Scaling the Organization" with a bit more personal approach to how I've found success and why digital in particular is well-suited to the challenges of organizational operations.

Other Posts in This Series:

  1. A Formula for Healthy Project Size Compared to Organization Size
  2. Scaling Projects and Scaling the Organization
  3. Unit Change During Project & Organizational Growth
  4. Family-Sized Business Units & the Agency Holding Company Model
  5. Beware the Matrix Model?
  6. Communication Styles and Team Dynamics
  7. Agile Versus Waterfall, Once and For All
  8. Process Frameworks That Weather Growth
  9. "Why" Not "What" Documentation
  10. Project Manage The Organization
  11. Plan or Pain?

Define "Project"

Once again it seems fitting to begin by referencing Scott Berkun's post "Everything is a Project, Even This." That mentality of a project management-based approach steers much of my life (though I make a conscious effort to turn it off and go with the flow in some cases, particularly when it comes to my personal life) and has greatly aided me as I've transitioned over the last year from managing client projects to a greater emphasis on operations management at Metal Toad as we grow. While I had a very successful run managing client projects, we spotted an increasing need to bring a greater emphasis to organizational management and systems during our growth from 10 to 45 people (likely 50 by year end). I found myself excited by the opportunity to, as I see it, project manage our leadership team by applying similar practices and principles from digital project management to business systems. That may be in part because I'm a business major who happens to also be a tech-head, but I think that just about any digital project manager can make the transition if they're passionate about their organization, enjoy business, and want to support those running the business with sound project management principles.

Digital PM's Dynamic Nature Applied to The Organization

A big plus that digital project management brings to organizational operations is that digital projects as a whole are a creative, learning-based endeavor. It's near impossible to thrive as part of a web project team without enjoying learning and challenging yourself to figure out unknowns. Compared to say construction project management with highly established practices and a very linear project life cycle, digital PM is all about the creation of process and systems to support making unknowns known (often with clients involved, who introduce an entirely different dynamic of custom process needs). That translates extremely well to growing a business, where the "how" of scaling is a blank slate. There are countless books on leadership, scaling, finance, sales, hiring, and other core business operations that all present suggestions for how to run a business, but as soon as you introduce real people into the equation, each organization becomes its own special snowflake with particular needs, abilities, and opportunities for growth. Much like customizing digital project process based on client needs and choosing waterfall, Agile, Kanban, chaos theory, or anything inbetween, organizational management requires custom process to support the people and team dynamics leading the organization. Remember that whole "individuals and interactions over processes and tools" thing from the Agile Manifesto? Definitely applies to organizational leadership.

There's a lot of thinking outside the box when it comes to growing an organization. Decisions constantly rear their head along the lines of "do we go with the process or tool that everybody else has used and is proven but nothing special, or do we create something new and do it our own way to differentiate ourselves from the rest of the competition?" You can't always choose the latter unless you're rolling in cash and have more than enough time to DIY, but always choosing the former usually results in a very mediocre company. Agile practices applied to a company also creates some intruiging results. The Manifesto gets a lot right in focusing on not just better ways of creating software, but in doing work in general. Organizational growth is constant change, and while some change is predictable and can be planned for, much of it is guesswork and intuition. Building process around constantly changing requirements is the only way to go when growing!

The Entrepreneur/PM Balance

First, let me put it out there that I don't think there's anything stopping a project manager from being an entrepreneur. But many PMs are naturally risk-averse, and a key trait for entrepreneurs is the ability to suspend disbelief, bypass most logical assessments of risk, and trust in their vision being possible during times of seemingly inevitable failure. Given that distinction, PMs are usually a great counterbalance to an entrepreneurial founder. Once a business gets its footing and starts to grow (often in the 10-20 employee range), founder's syndrome all too often rears its head, and with self-aware founders who are willing to combat temptations of founder's syndrome, the opportunity presents itself to take a PM approach to identifying the best bits of culture, practices, and products and translating that to a mature organizational model with plans for the future and delegation of responsibilities. Just like you want to build digital and software projects around motivated individuals and empower them to complete the work autonomously, at the organizational leadership level it's critical to empower individuals to aid in organizational growth and support them with systems and processes that make their lives easier (as opposed to creating beaurocracy and red tape).

PM Operations Opportunities

While the opportunities for where to apply project management principles to organizational growth are countless, I figured I'd share some personal experiences and areas where I've found not only by business acumen but also deep knowledge of digital projects and the type of work Metal Toad delivers helpful as we continue to grow:

  • Once Metal Toad started its upward growth trajectory, we found that in order to maintain our growth and protect the organization from extreme volatility, we needed better ways of seeing into the future, particularly when it came to predicting sales and capacity to complete work. I took a competency with spreadsheets and love of process to create a rudimentary system that allows the entire organization to both visualize and communicate about how work we've signed on to complete, work we're hoping to win, and the people available to complete the work all align (or don't align).
  • Similarly, future-facing finance (as opposed to historical accounting) became a need to enable proper steering of growth. Budgeting at the organization level and projecting revenue became needs which we accomplished with a look at organizational structure abstracted from team structure and budget analysis at the portfolio level. These days we have a finance manager that has taken on much of the financial projections at a more granular level, but the initial need corresponded closely to budgeting and projection activitities that PMs were already doing at the project level.
  • Before we had a full-time talent aquisition manager, I took a PM mentalilty to building an intentional process around hiring, particularly for new PMs. Beyond that, creating systems for ramp-up, new employee success metrics, and promotion criteria, all have roots in experiences from digital projects.
  • While the stage gates process is still heavily focused on the project life cycle, we've found areas to adapt and apply the concept in other areas of the business, including business development and new developer onboarding.
  • Metal Toad has (not surprisingly) outgrown our current office, so I've had the opportunity to delve into the world of corporate real estate and try my hand at bits of construction project management while we have our new space built out.
  • Just as I focused heavily on team dynamics within my client project teams, I'm now working with our directors team to build a team-based org chart model that could sustainably get us from 50 to 100+ people.
  • On the whole, a team of directors and VPs grew as we've reached our current size, and with a team came same basic needs fitting of a project manager: Organizing meetings, creating agendas, taking notes, identifying action items, and following up to make sure to-dos are followed through on. That's been a pretty natural role for me to take on!

These are a sampling of some of the sorts of activites I've taken on that have been strongly aided by my digital PM background. I look forward to seeing what growth challenge we'll get to tackle next!

Catch me at the Digital PM Summit

Interested in the topic of organizational growth from a PM perspective? Join me and a bunch of fellow PMs at the 2014 Digital PM Summit in Austin coming up in just a few weeks! I'll be presenting a talk similar in nature to my Drupalcon presentation and related to this blog series, but new and improved after additional months of experience and iteration. The event has now sold out, but there are still some tickets looking to be traded floating around if you're interested in making the event. I hope to see you there!

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