Monday, November 21, 2011

8 things I've learnt as a Digital Project Manager.

This week I stopped being an Interactive Producer. After more than nine years with the title, one that has alternated between producer and project manager, digital and interactive, from Associate to Senior, it was time to move onto a new role and another set of challenges. So as I throw another box of business cards in the bin, I thought it was time to reflect on some of the things I learnt along the way :

It’s not about delivering on time, on budget. It’s about delivering more value than the investment.

If it was about delivering on time, on budget, I would have been out of a job 8 years ago. Most projects I’ve produced were more expensive than when they started. Most projects I’ve produced didn’t go live on the date we estimated.
But that didn’t correlate to whether the project was considered a success or a failure.
The consistent theme for a successful project was when all stakeholders – from client to planning, design and development – were aligned on what success is, transparent on their roles within the team, empowered with the tools to deliver, and with the voice to say when you can’t. Unsuccessful projects fail in at least one of these areas.
Now when people define digital ‘success’ it’s often documented in metrics – visits, frequency, engagement, likes, products sold. But this isn’t what I talk about, when I talk about success.
These numbers are important – they drive business decisions, job titles, awards. But in the digital world, determining numbers is difficult – is 10,000 good? Is 100,000? And often as an agency you have control over only a small sub-set of all metrics (if you don’t control the media spend, how can you determine the visits?). And what you realize is, individuals rarely correlate a number to success – it’s value. Based on how much I invest – of my time, my money, my expertise – do I end up in a better place than when I started? Did I build better relationships, better process, knowledge, improve my perception amongst my boss and my co-workers? These things are important to people, and are often achieved in the process of getting to a result, not in the result itself. As a producer you have a lot of influence over this journey, very rarely the result. It cuts to the core of why the role of a producer is important.

You can’t ‘motivate people’. But you need to understand what motivates people.

Motivating people isn’t walking into a meeting with a plate of cupcakes. We’re all motivated by different things – empowerment, recognition, learning new things – spend time with your team understanding what it is each want, and try your best to support these.

Producing is not about following any one methodology. It’s about adaptability.

No one project is the same, and no one methodology can be applied to all. A great producer understands there are various methodologies, and knows how to apply them in a given situation. Most of my projects draw from Waterfall and Agile. I’ve given Agile a bad rap, but only because so many producers preach ‘Agile or bust’ – and in an agency environment, dealing with multiple teams, clients, projects and budgets, Agile is not always the answer - what’s more is its founding principles are 10 years old now. Technology and our ways of working have evolved. If you work in an ad agency, on a variety of clients, know the various methodologies, take the most relevant parts and apply them to your project.

Minimum Viable Documentation*

Some of the weakest Interactive Producers I’ve worked with were the ones that surrounded themselves with printouts of project plans, spreadsheets and Gantt charts. These printouts work like a protective cloak to reassure them they are busy. And they spend their whole time updating them.
Produce the minimal amount of documentation to communicate what is needed. Figure out how people like to communicated to. Alerting people to milestones can be achieved via a calendar, hotsheet, PowerPoint deck or Outlook alert. Gantt charts work for me and no-one else on my team. You’ll find most people err to a visual display of milestones relevant to them, but what’s right for one person, may not work for another.
Avoid duplication where possible. MS Project’s Timeline view means I can be deep in a Gant chart, but outputting a Powerpoint slide with only the right level of information for my client. Updated once. Less documenting means you can spend more time on meaningful things.
*This is my spin on Eric Ries’ Lean Startup Minimum Viable Product.

Meaningful meetings.

Meetings are wasteful. Next time you’re in a meeting, multiply your agency rates by everyone in the room for the duration. You’ll rarely find that the value of the outcome is worth that amount.
So treat each with purpose, don’t let them become a ritual and don’t let the duration be determined by Outlook defaults. Set an agenda, communicate it upfront and stick to it. Know that while they can be effective at broadcasting information to a team, the real value is in instant feedback, people’s reactions, contributions and interactions between one another. If the meeting invitees can’t offer this in return then you may as well send an email.
Everyone wants to be involved earlier, but not everyone should be invited to a meeting. Edit your invite list, there should be no passengers.
I know a status meeting is becoming wasteful when people are addressing their status to me, not the team. Producers often create status meetings to reflect process. The results are rarely meaningful for those involved, sometimes you need to figure out a better way – change up the frequency, the duration, the time of day, team members involved. Perhaps determine that a meeting isn’t best. Tools such as Campfire can be just as effective for regular updates on how people are tracking.

The medium is the message.

Since Marshall McLuhan coined this phrase back in ‘64, the forms in which we can communicate have continued to splinter. On any given work day I can reach my designer via Phone, SMS, IM, email, DM, Gchat, Skype. Heck, if I’m feeling adventurous I can even walk over there. But treat all these channels like a Swiss Army knife, know your tools and which one to use when. I’ve wasted far too much time on a heated email when I should have picked up the phone. Voice tone and delivery speaks volumes (no pun intended). Don’t spend ten minutes crafting an email that a short walk and conversation will solve. Don’t bury 5 questions within 5 paragraphs of meeting notes. People respond differently to different channels, know that determining the right channel for the message can be as powerful as the content itself.

Estimation: Back to the future.

I don’t pretend I’ve determined how to accurately estimate any given project. And if you’re working in an agency, and consistently accurate in your estimates, I’d say you probably not doing all that innovative work. But I will say that I’ve improved in my ability to estimate, and it’s because of two things:
1. What happened in the past is your best guide to what might happen in the future.
2. Parkinson knew what he was on about back in ’55 when he said “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”.
Study work patterns from past projects. I’ve learnt the hard way, that when people take holidays during a project, you need to add contingency beyond the holiday duration – getting them back up to speed, rescheduling meetings around availabilities, sourcing alternate staff.. it’s costly.
You also need to set shorter milestones, milestones that matter to people. A status meeting usually doesn’t illicit a burst in productivity, but asking someone to present to a client their work, and they’ll be prepared, or they’ll be vocal in telling you if they’re not.

Producers inherit inefficient systems – don’t let that be an excuse.

Every agency I’ve worked at I’ve inherited inefficient tools to do the job. While I’ve spent years producing products with the best possible user experience for our client’s customers, very rarely do we critique the user experience of the products we use in our own job. From time tracking, to resource scheduling and project management – inefficient systems take up an irrational amount of time. But these days there need be no excuse. SaaS and cloud based services are changing the game. From Basecamp, to Google Apps, Dropbox, Pivotal Tracker, Done Done and Trello, there are tools launching every day that are helping us get things done. My to-do list has gone from sticky notes, to Outlook reminders, to Action Method and now Wunderlist. You shouldn’t settle for what you’ve inherited, stay informed on what tools are out there, discover what works for you and your team, and find a way to integrate them into your agency.

What’s next..

Which leads me to where I’m now spending a lot of my focus – Float. Float is a service we built for scheduling your team’s time to client’s projects. It was born out of a lot of frustration working with other producers, buried in Excel spreadsheets trying to allocate people's hours across all our client’s projects. We wanted to build a solution to make this simple. Float is now available at


Sheena Rajan said...

Wow! I couldn't agree more with every single point you've made! Thanks for this post!

I'll have to check out the various tools you've mentioned here. Especially Float.

Sheena Rajan said...

Wow! I couldn't agree more with every single point you've made! Thanks for this post!

I'll have to check out the various tools you've mentioned here. Especially Float.

Jake said...

Look at you with your Eric Ries references!

Float looks awesome, very nice product.

You missed number 9 - never sit across a desk from a guy with an infinite number of rubber bands and no real work to do. ;)

Glenn Rogers said...

Thanks Sheena.

A very close number 9 Jake. Thanks, we need to write a book on the lean work environment.

Unknown said...

As an aspiring digital producer, I feel this was probably one of the most insightful things I could have possibly read.

Cheers Glenn!