The Successful Digital PM, Part 2: Self-Process
Here is part two of my multi-part post on what it takes to be a successful digital project manager. In part one, I covered the vast responsibilities of most project managers at web agencies and what makes great project managers tricky to find. This post starts to look at specific individuals and the skill set needed to succeed in the role.
Other posts in this series:
- Part 1 - What is a Digital Project Manager's Role?
- Part 2 - Self-Process (Perfect practice makes perfect)
- Part 3 - Traits (Were you born to be a PM?)
- Part 4 - Knowledge (Have the right hobbies or past careers)
- Part 5A - Hiring (The search for unicorns)
- Part 5B - Professional Development (Keep the learning going)
- Part 5C - Retention (Empower and protect your PMs)
"Perfect Practice Makes Perfect"
Organizations often fail in project management when they expect one system to work for everyone. Yes, there should be a common set of tools and processes that everyone generally adheres to, but what works for one person may not for another. When it comes to personal workflow and effectiveness as an employee, this same thing rings true. While we may often wish for carbon copies of our best project managers, every project manager's working style is going to be different; don't try to stick square pegs in round holes. Let people work how they work best!
That said, every successful project manager that I've met has shared some common processes and habits that break down into three categories:
- A focus on efficiency
- A drive to stay organized
- Stellar communication skills
Are You a Robot? (AKA Efficiency)
People at the Toad call me a robot. I usually take that as compliment, because it refers to my ability to power through a borderline insane amount of work like a machine. Part of it is just that I'm able to focus and get a lot done, but a bigger factor results in seemingly being capable of doing the work of two (or more): extreme efficiency. I prioritize and then reprioritize on the fly. I skip steps when they're likely superfluous. I find a ten task process, take a step back, and figure out how to accomplish it in two steps. And I'm not alone in this skill. Plenty of great project managers intuitively know how to self-evaluate and constantly increase the speed at which they're able to work while not diminishing the quality of their output. Coincidentally, this is also why great project managers have the tendency to get bored or frustrated when stuck within a single process system on the same type of project over and over. At some point, they've squeezed all the efficiency possible out of the process, and any further gains face diminishing returns.
Here are some things to look for when it comes to project managers and efficiency:
- They speed their jobs via checklists, automation, batching processes to save time, finding software to do work for them, and delegating when necessary.
- They regulate workload to perfection and know where it's safe to cut corners to get the job done while keeping stakeholders happy.
- They find ways to collect, centralize, and synthesize information so it's readily available to the entire team throughout the course of a project.
P.S. A tip to the robots out there! Make sure you take some time to smell the roses and connect with your co-workers and clients every once in a while. It's all too easy to get caught up in the numbers, processes, systems, and tools at the expense of relationships!
Did You Take a To-do for That? (AKA Organization)
Living the GTD (getting things done) lifestyle can be surprisingly tiring. There's a tendency to feel a bit overwhelmed when one task always follows another, which follows another, which follows another. The project manager's job is never "done" because there's always more that could be done. Good project managers know how to find the right balance, and have deep willpower reserves to keep on trudging when necessary. As a project manager, having great memory is important, but equally important is having a workflow to store and organize information that will be difficult or impossible to remember.
Project managers often share a common list of processes when it comes to staying organized and making things actionable:
- They are never without a to-do list; often it's a paper one, making it harder to ignore.
- They take big, overwhelming tasks and break them down into smaller sub-tasks that are more approachable.
- They stay at or near inbox zero, because if you're not on top of email, you're not on top of your projects.
- They have a well-defined meeting agendas and assign clear action items out of meetings
- They see time tracking not as a crutch, but as a tool to stay organized and time box activities
P.S. Hey PMs! At some point you're going to have to put down your to-do list or risk burn-out. I'm personally a fan of leaving your PM process at work and living a more zen life at home.
How Did You Read My Mind? (AKA Communication)
Great communication is important in any business role, but is absolutely critical as a project manager. The best project managers bat well above average when it comes to communication. Project managers should use constant communication as a tool to answer questions before they're even asked, giving a high level of visibility to team members, clients, and any other project stakeholders. But the quality of that communication is important too; it has to be clear in order to be understood and acted upon!
Again, some common communication processes among great project managers:
- They utilize communication strategy including avoiding large blocks of text, using visuals to aid concepts, and choosing the right channel based on the information to communicate.
- They communicate as briefly as possible, without being too brief. Writing a novel is a major offense, but so is leaving out pertinent details.
- They are repetitive when necessary, and in the process train others that they only sound like a broken record when things aren't getting done.
- They listen actively and share information effectively to make sure that all project stakeholders feel like their needs are addressed.
- They communicate early and often. They are honest about project risks and share them as soon as possible. They inspire confidence by giving visibility into what's going on behind the scenes.
- They never break bad news without already having an alternative plan in mind to suggest.
P.S. Are you looking to hire a project manager? Note that the above communication skills are often closely tied to extroverted personalities (right brain), while efficiency and organization are often introverted (left brain) skills. You need someone who finds balance in the middle, or as I like to call myself, an introvert who knows how to fake it as an extrovert.
A Self-Process Framework
The three categories above are fairly comprehensive, forming a framework for what each individual's workflow should cover. If someone has a self-process that effectively addresses all three, you'd think they're going to have a hard time NOT being successful as a project manager. But wait, we're just getting started! The next post will get into traits that you're going to need as a project manager, some of which I'll argue can't be learned; you either have them or you don't!