Digital Project Management: Seven Deadly Sins – Part 1

Michael Dlugosch works as a Senior Consultant at Kwantic Oy, a Web Analytics startup company in Helsinki/Finland. While not working, Michael can be found taking photographs or preparing home-made pasta. Equipped with a true passion for the Internet since his first encounter with it in 1996, Michael has been jumping around in Digital Agencies since 2000, running digital projects, web productions and teams, consulting as a Usability Specialist and, lately, as a Web Analytics Consultant.

We’ve all been tempted, we’ve all been there…

Tiresome digital projects without end, endless discussions with the client, never-ending resourcing problems, budget cuts, technical systems not working and changing scopes all over the place – everything turning upside down faster than you can spell change request!

No doubt about it, digital project management is not an easy job.

However, during my own involvement with digital projects I’ve had to witness particular things which were said by team members, in front of the client, and within the team itself, and these things did nothing else but add to the confusion and difficulties that all digital projects already have too much of even at the best of times, making the job of the Digital Project Manager that much more challenging.

I tend to call these things the “Seven Deadly Sins of Digital Project Management” and within this series of four articles I will describe and illustrate them, with examples – along with my best practice advice on how to deal with the temptations we all face.

1. Vanity – “We know better than the client!”

Let’s assume you work for an agency which has a certain experience in the field and has been running digital projects for several years now, think how many projects have you and your team been involved in? 20? 50? Maybe even 100…

An average client has run only a few and often has only one primary goal; he or she needs to satisfy the expectations that have been set by their superiors.

While it has become commonplace in web agencies to internally share the most outrageous briefings and the insane functionality requests for a good laugh with the project team, it should always be coupled with attempting to help your client by communicating with them better.

Of course you know more about digital projects and digital project management – so why don’t you start educating your clients accordingly? Take the following example of client feedback we’ve all heard and laughed at:

“Thank you for the screenshot of the HTML newsletter you sent. The layout looks ok, and the copy looks good. But not a single link works in the .jpg file you’ve sent me. You are going to fix that before sending the campaign, right?”

There is a wrong and a right response to this request. If you’re pressed for time, simply reply:

“Yep, we’ll take care of everything before we send it out.”

Don’t reply with:

“This is a screen shot, you stupid butthole! Of course the links don’t work in it!”

If you’re a patient person with nerves of steel, you could say:

“Hey, thanks for your feedback. We’ll take this as approval for the newsletter layout and content, and will make sure that all the links in the final version are functional and being tracked. Our technicians cannot yet exactly predict how long it takes to complete the newsletter batch delivery for all 3428 addresses, but we have scheduled to send the first campaign blast with 500 addresses at 2am tonight.

The file you’ve reviewed represents just an image version (jpg) of the final newsletter file (HTML) and thus doesn’t include any active link functionality. This is to ensure we do not inflate the click-through numbers during testing…”

See the difference? Embedding your sharp reply inside a plethora of “this will happen next in the process” information is serving two purposes:

  1. It gives the client more information that they can hand over to their respective superiors
  2. It educates the client about some tiny details in web technology

A colleague of mine once labelled this approach as “killing with kindness”.

Admittedly it takes time to write such lengthy replies. But by tying your reply to the next steps in the agreed process you do yourself and your client several favours:

  1. You’re re-assuring your own understanding of the tasks that need completing
  2. You give them the correct language to frame the project status and next steps to their superiors

This makes it easier to deal with upcoming requests from the client’s organisation as you easily can prove how deeply intertwined the single tasks are.

Also, at all times you are depending on your client’s political position within their own organisation and are literally casting silver bullets for them that they can fire from their corporate rifle. They may use the additional and contextual information that you give them to brag, fight back unreasonable requests or to claim as their own, but in all cases you can assist in making your client appear in a brighter light by filling them with digital project specific information and terminology.

Remember, as a Digital Project Manager one of your many roles is to make the client look fantastic to their superiors, do this and you’ll only improve your chances of repeat business.

But wait, isn’t that the job of the Account Manager?

2. Envy – “account management… I could do a better job myself!”

Many times I’ve witnessed Account Managers leave the office, much to the envy of the digital project team and Digital Project Manager as they are still clocking the hours up long into the night. As the leader of a digital project team you are of course, more often than not, sharing cold pizza with your project team rather than seeing your friends and family in the evening.

But remember this distinct advantage of being a Digital Project Manager over an Account Manager… by definition – A digital project is a temporary endeavour with a fixed start and end date and so sooner or later it will be over – account management is never over.

Nothing prevents any client from calling up your fellow Account Manager at 10pm to discuss an article about how the latest web trends in viral marketing will influence the company’s performance on social media perception within the next twelve months from now on.

What looks so easy during daytime often proves to require an “always on” mentality for Account Managers, and trust me, wining and dining with clients is not as much fun as it sounds (although the food and drinks are on the house, mostly).

The only currency that an Account Manager has is trust. However, gaining, and keeping, the client’s trust is essential for both Digital Project Managers and Account Managers.

But while Digital Project Managers have very clear boundaries – delivering digital projects – Account Manager’s success criteria are a little more blurry. While Digital Project Managers may get adulation and praise for their constant supportive role (aka pulling rabbits out of hats – aka saving the client’s butt), Account Managers often find it more difficult to get famous for their deeds.

Maybe that is the reason why Account Managers are so often interfering and messing around with digital projects, and the people involved in them, when it is not necessary – because it seems so much easier and more instantly rewarding when compared with what they normally do.

It occasionally seems to me that it’s the Account Manager’s secret job to promise what others have to deliver with no real clear idea if it is even possible, but the reality is a usually more brittle than that – thus putting the Account Manager in a difficult position.

While Digital Project Managers have to deliver within a defined scope, Account Managers have to account for future scopes. At any time, a current client can approach a direct competitor of yours to begin talks about receiving the same service with improved quality and lower costs.

The Account Manager’s job is precisely this – to decrease the likelihood of this happening.

Operational, tactical and strategic are the names of the fictional stages of the continuum that both types of Web Managers have to tackle on a daily basis. While the operational side deals more with things that have already been agreed (projects and deliverables), the strategic level deals more with the ‘yet unknown things to come’, involving, for example, planned co-operations with institutions nobody has yet heard of and the instant need for ramping up your agency’s workforce by 385% within the next eight months.

The really tricky thing is that the Account Manager is held responsible for is the substantial monetary growth of the account through targets based on many unknowns.

So as a Digital Project Manager, while continuing to attempt to keep the Account Manager away from the day to day running of your project, understand why Account Managers may insist on doing this before berating them.

In Part 2 Michael discusses his next two Deadly Sins of Digital Project Management. How to keep digital projects on budget without having to ask the client for an additional 2 million, and how the Digital Project Manager should be willing to serve the project first and themselves second – Gluttony and Lust.