What Makes a Great Digital Project Manager?

I’m writing this article in response to a common question I get asked… what exactly does make a great Digital Project Manager?

I believe the reasons I get asked this so often is because the existing articles out there that define what makes a great project manager don’t include the ‘digital’ part and either focus on I.T. project management or just project management in general.

Corporate project management has a sexy reputation

However, it should be noted that many of the points made in these articles are very relevant to digital project management, for example, The 12 Attributes of an Effective Project Manager.

For those who are just too damn busy (lazy) to click the link and read, it lists a few attributes that a good project manager should ideally have, e.g.:

  1. Skill in negotiating win-win solutions between stakeholders and the project team
  2. Staying calm particularly during turbulent times
  3. Desire to hold the team accountable for deliverables
  4. Ability to earn the respect of the team regardless of reporting relationships

It should go without saying that these attributes are as applicable to someone managing the construction of a carbon freezing unit as a digital project, or put another way, GreatDigitalProjectManager extends GreatProjectManager.

Here are a few more similar articles that are worth a read:

But here lies the problem; we are awash with articles explaining what makes a great project manager, but what makes a great DIGITAL Project Manager?

Is it the unique ability to be able to annoy clients, their Managing Directors, design and development teams in one day? Hadouken!!!! K.O.

I definitely wouldn’t mess with any of these killers

Or perhaps it’s their powerful skills in having chronic OCD but somehow avoiding medical diagnosis for their entire life?

One day all my minion resources will line up like this before me!

Ok ok, while these are things all Digital Project Managers are proud of; be it secretly or openly, let’s get serious on what really makes a great Digital Project Manager…

Digital project management experience

Of course “experience” is something, that if you have it, makes you a more wise and skilled person in anything and digital project management is no different. But the key distinction here is between digital project management experience and experience working on digital projects.

Often you’ll find all sorts of different people from different backgrounds running digital projects, from designers and developers to digital account managers and I.T. managers, but while all of these people will no doubt manage to deliver the website or web application, more often than not, there are noticeable lapses in certain areas that cause digital project difficulties and these lapses are where an experienced digital project manager really shows their value.

Often the lapses will be in the areas that are the weaker area of the person managing, for example, often a digital account manager will be great at building a rapport with the client, but will commit to unrealistic deadlines or miss functionality out of the scoping stage.

A designer will often ensure the design looks world-class but fail to realise that by delivering a world-class design with a zillion overlays and cool UI features, the entire project budget will be blown on front-end development.

An experienced Digital Project Manager will be aware of these common “gotchas” and direct the project accordingly, making sure all aspects of the project have balanced attention and are aligned with the scope, budget and timelines while maintaining a level of quality both agency and client are happy with.

Hands-on digital experience

As with most project management positions, although definitely not always the case, it’s often a huge advantage if you have hands-on experience of the disciplines involved in the project – the same is true for digital projects.

I’m always in awe of digital project managers who deliver great solutions having never used paths to cut something out in Photoshop, turned a PSD into a HTML template or created a Hello World script in a server-side language.

The fact of the matter is these Digital Project Managers are out there and doing a fine job but I genuinely believe a Digital Project Manager with hands-on practical experience in the disciplines required in digital projects is a valuable aid for the reasons Luc Richard gives:

To be an effective project manager, you must be capable of designing and developing the solution yourself. Otherwise, you have two options. You can either (a) ask others to make decisions for you, or (b) simply pretend you know what you’re talking about. In the first case, you’re a project co-ordinator. In the second case, you’re a project mangler.

Must Project Managers Be Technically Savvy?

However while I don’t agree that to be a great Digital Project Manager you need to be capable of delivering the solution alone, I do agree that without a good grounding in all the digital project’s disciplines you really are at the mercy of your team when it comes to estimating effort, scheduling tasks, assessing risks and generally making sure everything goes smoothly by being able to anticipate and avoid problems.

Plus, the harsh truth is, having hands-on experience allows you to spot when any of the production team are just flat out slacking or spinning a yarn about why problems are occurring…

Come on, I dare any Digital Project Manager out there to deny that they get a sense of smug joy when they teach someone on the production team something about Photoshop or code, or laugh at the ridiculously long estimate you’re given to change a banner – oh their little faces, they look like startled little Ewoks :-)

A photograph of three toy Ewoks lined up saying they're amazed a project manager just explained how to fix a CSS bug
Production teams are so cute n fuzzy awww

But, in the defence of all production teams out there, they do a really hard job and having to design or code under pressure really is a tough thing. This is another reason why a great Digital Project Manager will have spent their time on the production side of things and really be understanding and empathetic with their team in times of stress and woe, and in some cases even fight the corner of the production team to management and clients when unrealistic schedules are being proposed.

But it should be said, if you’ve found yourself running digital projects, having come from a position of little hands-on experience, such as account management, don’t remain ignorant to what these guys do, I believe it’s your duty to open up Photoshop, HTML editor and get Apache, MySQL and PHP running and just start learning the absolute basics.

I’m not talking about designing a website or developing the operating system for the Death Star (I can here the Apple and Linux groupies shouting it would be a Windows-based system of course, tut), but just learn enough so that you can talk to your team on their level and also explain to clients how things work, trust me, it will benefit you massively in the long run and it honestly isn’t that hard, you just need the drive and motivation to want to better yourself.

Ability to communicate with everyone

With any project management role, a key skill is the ability to be able to effectively communicate with everyone involved in the digital project knowledgeably and on their level.

While hands-on experience will arm you with the knowledge to talk to designers and developers with confidence, communicating with suppliers, your superiors and clients is a whole different ball game – a great Digital Project Manager has to be a chameleon!

As most seasoned Digital Project Managers out there know, when talking to designers or developers you often have to adapt your tone in order to communicate effectively.

Warning! Obscene stereotyping commencing… Please recall all the comments you’ve made about PMs in general and then continue reading, humbled and ashamed.

For example, when talking to designers you have to appreciate that most are extremely territorial about their work and so you have to respect that and frame your questions and feedback accordingly, because the last thing you want on your digital project team is a designer who doesn’t feel trusted by you and has been reduced to a pixel pusher.

With developers it’s slightly different; these guys tend to want things explained in logical straightforward steps. If you start to try and tell them how to code or insist they “code something quick and dirty” they will immediately hate you and fantasise about watching you in a fight to the death with the Rancor monster (probably while a naked Princess Lea sits by their side)

However, these personality traits are not negatives, everyone is different and these traits are actually part of the magical formula that makes a great designer or developer. Part of working a team is learning how to work with other people that are very different to you.

But while speaking to designers and developers you can have little geeky laughs about Comic Sans and drop shadows, or how bad that code is due to all its embedded CSS and JavaScript, but when you hit the meeting room with your bosses or clients a Digital Project Manager has to change their skin again.

Your boss generally just wants to hear how things are going and if there are any barriers they can help remove for you. Although they have a genuine interest in the quality of design or code being produced, they are busy people and tend to want to be told about results and the impact on the business.

Likewise with clients you have to shift again and focus on what the project, and each decision made during its lifecycle, brings to the table in terms of achieving the business aims and ROI rather than hearing how the CSS3 you’ve used is ground breaking stuff.

An office worker asleep while on the phone
Uh huh, CSS3… uh huh HTML5 uh huh… zzzz

Being able to adapt to, and blend into, each very different environment at the flick of a switch is something a great Digital Project Manager can do and often where average ones tend to fall a little short.

In summary

I believe what separates a great Digital Project Manager from an average one is the ability to look at a digital project and be able to envisage the whole solution in its entirety from an early stage and with few gaps, thus being able to manage the project’s risks and maintain momentum.

They’ll be able to understand the creative requirements almost as well as a designer, the technical requirements almost as well as a developer and communicate both in a way that results in clear tasks that need to be completed and the perfect solution being delivered, all while not being sniggered at for pretending to play at being knowledgeable in these areas but instead gaining respect.

Perhaps some of the technology requirements are out of the Digital Project Manager’s comfort zone; well the great ones will go home, dig in and do a bit of research until they feel comfortable they have grasped the basics.

A great Digital Project Manager should be able to produce good project plans, schedules, sitemaps, wireframes and functional specifications that production teams can work from with ease, rather than loose, fuzzy, vague and ambiguous documents that are recipes for disaster and all too commonly produced by people just wanting to pass the work onto someone else.

They’ll also be able to keep production teams motivated and focussed on producing quality work while taking all of the crap and stress from all directions in an attempt to shield them and let them work their magic unimpeded by project politics.

And finally a great Digital Project Manager will be able to talk to everyone involved on their level and in their language which leaves everyone in no doubt of the expectations and objectives of the project.

Am I a great Digital Project Manager? No, but I strive to be and so should you. Is the above a complete list of everything that separates great Digital Project Managers from the not so great? No, but it’s a bloody good start.

What do you think separates a great Digital Project Manager from an average one?

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