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Peta Kennett-Wilson

Peta Kennett-Wilson

Soft skills are rarely discussed in the process focused world of digital project management. But when you spend time understanding the team and the client as humans, an amazing thing can happen. People start to care. They open up and share ideas. They talk about what matters to them. Concerns they may have. Even previous experiences that could impact the way work gets done. With that openness, everything gets better. Even the bottom line. But across cultures, there is a tendency to get a little mechanical. So how can we put people back at the heart of how we approach project management? Peta Kennett-Wilson has some thoughts.

Join Peta's workshop at the Digital PM Summit this October in Vegas.


Announcer: 
Welcome to the Bureau Briefing, a podcast by the Bureau of Digital. An organization devoted to giving digital professionals the support system they never had. Each episode, we're gonna talk to a member of our community doing awesome, inspiring things. Now for your host, Carl Smith.

Carl Smith:
Hey everybody, and welcome back to the Bureau Briefing. It's Carl and with me today is Peta Kennett-Wilson. The founder of Digital Rev, which is a digital project management consultancy and training firm. And I will also tell you that Peta seems to be everywhere because I see U.K., Germany, Netherlands, Sweden, U.S.A., Australia. 

Peta, how do you survive?

Peta Kennett-Wilson:
Well hi, first of all. I am very busy, yes. I've been really lucky that in my training, I've got to meet project managers from all over the world, which has been fantastic. It's actually been really good to understand how differently project management works and digital project management across different countries. Yeah. I didn't know it was ... I hadn't thought I was everywhere, so it's exciting to be

Carl Smith:
(laughs) Well for an American you're everywhere. You have to appreciate, we've kind of holed up for a while now. I was like, "Why do I do this? I keep getting political." But I can't help myself. So, I'm curious, no you started Digital Rev. How long ago did you start it?

Peta Kennett-Wilson:
So it started in December 2016, so about seven, eight months ago, so it's quite fresh. 

Carl Smith:
And you're basically ... Are you training digital PMs, or you're consulting with companies on how to establish their project management set up? Tell me what Digital Rev is doing. 

Peta Kennett-Wilson:
So we do two things. One is we are training firm where, basically, we do a lot of workshops to teach digital project managers how to develop their soft skills. And it's really about taking project managers from just being managers and turning them into leaders. There's a lot of project managers that are great at making Gantt charts, they know all about process, methodologies, tools. But, they sort of lack those sort of bigger things that make them more leadership material in terms of, "How do you build relationships with people? How do you build higher performing collaborative teams?" And things like that. So I do a lot of training around that. 

And then the other thing that Digital Rev does is consultancy, mainly with London agencies at the moment, to help them either with projects that they're running or to help develop their teams and do management for them and really develop project management teams in agencies. Which is sort of grappling with, "How do I change from being a small agency into a bigger agency that needs process and rigor behind it?" And things like that. So, those are sort of the two main things that Digital Rev does.

Carl Smith:
So you're located in London. That's where you're based.

Peta Kennett-Wilson:
es.

Carl Smith:
And I happen to know ... When I had my shop we were working with companies like Macquarie in Australia. We were working with Siemens in Germany. One of the things that we realized quickly was the cultural differences in soft skills were immense.

Peta Kennett-Wilson:
Yes.

Carl Smith:
And we had to really bridge that gap and get better. When we were managing a project, we had to appreciate some people didn't want small talk, and some people were gonna be offended if they didn't get it. And so, how do you help when you're training, based on where that person is located? You obviously have a lot of experience, but do you brush up on what their cultural norms are.

Peta Kennett-Wilson:
Yes and no. So, as you said, I have been a lot of places, and I'm Australian myself and I've lived in the UK for seven odd years now. Specifically one of the things I've noticed in the UK is that people are much more polite and they don't like to be as direct about things. So particularly in the UK, I think there's a lot of soft skills training around, "How do you have a difficult conversation? How do you be direct and set expectations with people that's gonna help them in the long term, even if it's a slightly uncomfortable conversation to begin with right now?" So yeah. 

And I also spent time in Germany, which is a different level of directness to the Australians.

Carl Smith:
(laughs)

Peta Kennett-Wilson:
I've been really lucky, actually. I've got live in a few different places, so I have a good understanding of different cultures and yeah, you pick up quite quickly, sort of what's acceptable and what's not.

Carl Smith:
What would you say are some of the common soft skill issues that you've seen?

Peta Kennett-Wilson:
The biggest one for me, I think, is actually managing people like people. I think in project management a lot of the metrics we use are around resource, and capacity, and budget. And we look at, "You know, we want to make 'x' percentage of whatever." That's the objective of the project, increase sales by 'x' percent, increase leads by 'x' percent. And sometimes we've got these deadlines we're working to, and it can start to feel really mechanical and just inhuman. And it's really to fall into a trap where you start to treat your team like a resource rather than people. So for me, putting people at the heart of how you approach project management is probably the soft skill I would most like other project managers to sort of take onboard.

And I think, when you do that, you enjoy project management so much more because you get to make really good deep connections with the team that you work with. But also you get a much better product at the end, because people start to feel free to share their ideas, to challenge things, to think about how they can do things better, or differently, or quicker. And they buy into the success of the project, and they buy into the success of their team.

Carl Smith:
I couldn't agree more. I know that in my experience, if we're working, and we work distributed quite a bit, if you had never met the person, or never had any type of conversation that was fun, or even ... It didn't even have to be a laugh. It could just be something that you bonded over, like you both loved a certain type of music or something like that. The work was never very good. People didn't seem to care as much. But as soon as they had a personal connection, they didn't want to let that other person down. 

Peta Kennett-Wilson:
Yeah, exactly. And I was listening to one of your podcasts from a few weeks ago, and one of the guys in there said you know, "Whenever we take on new business, we have to have our client, they have to say something funny or interesting. There has to be something memorable from that for us to sort of be able to work with them." And I think that's actually true for your colleagues as well. You've got to have some sort of camaraderie there to want to get in the trenches and do the hard work together and feel good about it.

Carl Smith:
And that shows why soft skills take somebody from being a manager to a leader, because, and you know we've talked about this quite a bit on this show, but being a leader isn't a title. It means that people want to follow you, and very rarely do people want to follow somebody that's mechanical.

Peta Kennett-Wilson:
Exactly, yeah. Yeah. Sorry, go on.

Carl Smith:
No, I was gonna say. So, when you do soft skills training, it feels like a very sensitive kind of topic. Is that like a one on one situation? Or is that like a workshop with a room full of mechanical people?

Peta Kennett-Wilson:
So at the moment, they've all been workshops with big groups. The smallest group I've had is probably about six people, and the biggest group's been about 42, which is quite a large number of people to sort of stay on time and make sure everyone has enough one on one time to take away what they want to from the session. But I think it's actually really nice to do soft skills training with other people because you don't practice your soft skills by yourself. You can't stand in front of a mirror and practice building rapport, managing relationships. So it's always nice to do it with other people and get their feedback at the same time, and also get tips from them about, "Oh, I really liked how they told me that I was gonna have to pay for that," while doing a role-play about giving a client information about budgets and so on.

Carl Smith:
I can imagine that there's a little bit of laughter in the room. I have a lot of friends from Australia, I'm not saying anything, but I would imagine that you call them out a little bit. Do you like say, "Look, you're doing this."

Peta Kennett-Wilson:
Yes, yes. There's one example that springs to mind, which was this really lovely gentleman. It was a workshop about difficult conversations and it was a role-play, and everyone was in pairs. So you know, no one was listening to each other because they all were talking, so no one had to feel embarrassed about it. They were doing this role-play, and this guy basically had to tell the developer that he was no longer going to be working on the project because he couldn't deliver what they needed. And I was just listening in, and he got to the end, and he hadn't told him. And I went over and I was like, "You know, the aim of this is to practice giving difficult information in quite a safe setting." "Yeah, but I just, I didn't, I didn't want to tell him that. I felt so bad about it." It's like, "This is a made up situation!"

Carl Smith:
(laughs)

Peta Kennett-Wilson:
"If you can't do it here ..." Yeah, maybe that one is more for one on one training, but yes. I do like to call people out, so that one benefits. 

Carl Smith:
That is hilarious that he couldn't do it at a workshop.

Peta Kennett-Wilson:
Yes, in a made up situation, but ... Yeah, bless him. 

Carl Smith:
Oh wow. Well I would love at some point to get to sit in, or at lest watch one of the soft skills trainings because we've talked about it quite a bit at the Bureau. And we've had at some of our events, at some of our camps where we're having these conversations, we find that it's very rare for somebody to get fired because of a technical issue. It's almost always because of a soft skill issue. So it seems like it's great for everyone to address this, not just one time at a work shop, but in an ongoing manner.

Peta Kennett-Wilson:
Absolutely, yeah. I couldn't agree more and I think one of the things you see people struggle with and hold them back in their career is communication. Which is, you know you can do the job perfectly well, but they can't always explain what they're doing, when they're doing, why they're doing it to the people that need to know. And that's definitely something that you don't solve in a half day workshop. But, you can perhaps start to get some of the right tools and skills to develop it as you go on. But yeah, you're absolutely right.

Carl Smith:
Now you're going to be joining us at the Digital PM Summit, which is this October 15th through 17th in Las Vegas.

Peta Kennett-Wilson:
Yeah.

Carl Smith:
And you can blame me, or you can thank me, but I really don't care. But I chose Vegas.

Peta Kennett-Wilson:
I'm going to thank you then.

Carl Smith:
Well good. And here's the part that I find hilarious. You're doing a workshop on money, and we're going to be in Vegas. So ... But I think this opportunity for this workshop is perfect. I was never a digital project manager. I by default when nobody was there, but I was always horrible with money, and it seemed like we'd get to the end and if we had any left we felt okay about it. But I'm just curious. What do you see happening in projects where the budgets involved that seems to take things off the tracks?

Peta Kennett-Wilson:
Well, a little bit of what I'm gonna chat about at the Digital PM Summit is not so much about budgets. I purposely called it, "Money, Money, Money," because it's a little bit more money focused than budget focused. 

Carl Smith:
Okay.

Peta Kennett-Wilson:
Typically I think PMs, they do think about budget a lot. And obviously if we go back to the basics of what is a PMs job, it's you know, scope, budget, and time. But sometime I think we get too hung up on the budget without having a bigger and a better understanding of, "What does that mean in terms of money if we take it out of its silo of this project? And how do we understand what our budget means in terms of the profitability of our company?" Or "How do we understand and make decisions about if I give this part of the project away at a discount or for free, what does that mean in the future of what I might have, or not have? Or how would that change how this project is delivered?" 

A lot of that is what I'm really interested in talking to project managers about. And also, sort of getting the message across that it's really okay to be proud of your commercial success. I think that a lot of project managers sort of feel like they have to manage the budget to the exact budget. And normally, it goes a little bit over and you have a tolerance. But it's almost like in digital, like we always feel like we have to give things away for free, and it's almost like it's not good to make profit. When actually all of that stuff helps us reinvest in our people, and training, and develop our skills, and better equipment, and things like that. So that's a little part of it as well.

Carl Smith:
Do you find that that's a universal feeling across cultures that you've dealt with?

Peta Kennett-Wilson:
Yeah, I found it a lot in digital especially. I don't know what the reason is exactly. I think perhaps it's maybe that digital isn't always tangible, and so sometimes it's hard to equate it with a value unlike a product you can hold and buy and sell yourself, or something like that.

Carl Smith:
That's really interesting. At first, I thought you were gonna say that digital was its own culture because I've had this experience where when I meet people who are in this space, especially the digital services space ... I've met people from Croatia. I've met people from all over Northern Europe. I've met people from the UK, people from Asia. We all seem to have some of the same traits even though our cultures are very different. So it's interesting to me what you're saying right now because I had never thought about that; that our product isn't necessarily tangible and the impact that could have on people that come into this space, it's kind of powerful.

Peta Kennett-Wilson:
Yeah, and especially when our clients aren't necessarily in the digital industry. So the perception of value to them is also something that you've sort of gotta educate them on, sometimes over come even. Yeah, so it's interesting to think about. 

Carl Smith:
So, the workshop's really about smart financial decisions then.

Peta Kennett-Wilson:
Yes. 

Carl Smith:
And when you're looking at a project, and obviously there are many different types. And I know that you've managed like million dollar projects. How do you prepare for that going into the project? How do you prepare to make those smart decisions?

Peta Kennett-Wilson:
For me, I think that's sort of about having a sense that's a little bit beyond the project. In another workshop I run, which is all about basically strategic planning. It's about understanding what your agency or what your organization is interested in achieving from it, what your client is interested in achieving from it, what the project needs to achieve, and what your team wants to achieve from it. And basically, you sort of find where the value is in each of those things. And I've sort of found over my years of managing projects that once you tend to follow, "What is the value that I'm providing? What does this client really need?" That's when you start to make smart financial decisions because you're basing it on, "How do I best sell something to that person? How do I give them what they most need?" And consequentially, it helps you deliver a better project, a better margin, or more revenue because you can sell them things which help them to realize the potential of the project or whatever it is they need to achieve or that they want from it.

Carl Smith:
So this is bringing me back to soft skills because along with understanding from the client's perspective what success is gonna be for their business. They're also gonna have some personal traits, like if it's risk tolerance or previous experiences working with a services firm or whatever it might be that they're gonna bring to the table. So having those conversations up front's pretty important too. 

Peta Kennett-Wilson:
Yeah and I also think thinking about your clients as people as well. We sort of tend to think that once people go into business mode, they're almost like devoid of emotion and that they make really irrational decisions all the time. Actually, they're still just people. So sometimes you might have a client and what they really want from this project is for it to be delivered absolutely on time because they want to go and tell their boss so that they can get a promotion or something. So it's also understanding what's driving at a personal level from your client.

Carl Smith:
Well Peta, thank you so much for being on the Bureau Briefing with us today. And I'm excited to see you in Vegas, and I'm excited to join your workshop and learn more about smart financial decision, 'cause lord knows I'm gonna need then in Vegas. 

Peta Kennett-Wilson:
I thought it was really fitting actually. It hadn't clicked at the time but yeah. I am so looking forward to being in Vegas. I think it's gonna be fantastic. Yeah. Thank you very much.

Carl Smith:
You're welcome, and to everybody listening, we hope you'll join us too. And we'll talk to you soon.

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