It’s been a whirlwind week in Memphis as we wind down another amazing, inspiring Digital PM Summit. This year's event brought together digital project managers from Argentina, Australia, Canada, England, Italy, Saudi Arabia and 35 states in the U.S., with a near-equal split of DPMs hailing from agencies and in-house teams.
While each of us has a unique set of experiences, and perspective, there's a great deal of common ground no matter your country, organization, team structure or title. Whether you’re in-house, working at an agency or leading projects and products at a product company, from a traditional background or not, we can all learn from one another and lift the DPM community up together.
“Don't just share your victories. Share even more of your failures and you'll see the overwhelming amount of DPMs who can relate (and offer their advice through their own experience).”
— Kelly Suter, Technical Project Manager at BI WORLDWIDE
Industry Pros Weigh In
So what are the biggest challenges facing digital project managers today? And how can we overcome them? We asked this year's Digital PM Summit speakers to weigh in, and offer advice on how DPMs can work through common struggles.
People Don’t Understand (or Value) the Role
Educate the doubters
“In some cases (somehow) PMs still have to articulate their value to clients or to the business. It's hard to understand, but true. I think the best thing a PM can do in those situations is educate about how they drive value, and the results they generate. I think the proof is in the pudding, but I feel getting in front of the situation and actively educating and orienting doubters sets a better tone. Own it.”
— Joe Rinaldi, Business Development Consultant at That Was Clutch
Work outside your role
“One challenge that stands out to me is finding your place and authority within your organization. Too often, the DPM role is not respected or given the authority it needs to be successful. You might even find yourself a bit typecast when it comes to your duties.
I think one way to address it is prove your value in ways that are outside of what people consider a DPM’s role. For instance, get involved in the sales process, help with QA, fill in as a content strategist or help run UX workshops. Whatever it is, if you provide value throughout the process, you will have the ability to make a bigger impact and drive the project in the right direction.”
— Lynn Winter, Project Management Consultant & Founder of Manage Digital
Push for what a DPM role can be
“I used to say that the biggest challenge for me as a DPM was the role not being recognized for everything I knew I was being asked to do. I'm happy to say that I think I have reached a point where I'm working with people who see value in DPM and actively seek it out, but not everyone is there yet.
To those folks who still struggle with their role being valued, I say do your best to educate as often as possible, even if it seems excessive and not in your comfort zone. Hold lunch and learns, talk to senior management, keep pushing for the changes needed to fully embrace what a DPM role can be. And if you try and try and it doesn't work? Time to find somewhere that is further down that path.”
— Patrice Embry, Digital Project Manager
Expand your role
“I think the biggest challenge for DPMs right now is in how the role is defined. It tends to be too narrow, which means we can get put in a box that limits our full potential in an organization. This also means that we’re not being valued as much as we could be. We need to ask for opportunities to take on expanded or different roles and show how much more we can contribute to our projects.”
— Shahina Patel, Consultant at Punchcard, Co-planner of DPM Edmonton
Protect your team…say no…laugh at yourself
“Sadly, I think the answer for this is still respect. For whatever reason, it is still difficult to convince clients and internal teams that project managers are valuable. It's the first role cut from sales, or the role that is overlooked by project teams. To get past this, we have to continue to show our value. The best way to do this is to build the following skills: the ability to protect your team, the ability to say no, the ability to laugh at yourself.
When you prove to your team that you have their back, they will respect you. Protect your team from themselves. Tell them when they are biting off more than they can chew. But, when you do this, you have to remember your soft skills. Let your team know that you're only trying to mitigate risks. Remember that it's ok to say no. In fact, it's encouraged. If a client is trying to make you add scope, push back. And, at the end of the day, learn to laugh at yourself. It shows you're human.”
— Tera Simon, Delivery Director at PointSource
Lead with emotional intelligence
“There is a lot of old-fashioned thinking and approaches out there when it comes to project management, and there'll be a pressure to do things that aren't proven to work. DPMs must relentlessly self-develop with an emphasis on the emotional intelligence skills required to be able to orchestrate people effectively. Greater organizational agility requires more emotional maturity and DPMs should be role models for this.”
— Colin Ellis, project leadership expert, best-selling author
The Victim Box
“This is not specific to DPMs, but knowledge workers overall…we need to stop hiding in the victim box. There are so many PMs and team members still walking around saying, ‘They’re making me do (insert whatever).’ I think we all need to be more intentional about what we do (me included) and take more ownership of our choices (me included).”
— Dave Prior, Agile expert, certified Scrum trainer, author, podcaster
Breadth of Learning
Channel your inner Hitchcock
“Moving beyond the tool and developing competencies and expertise in design (both UX, service and tech), data and/or testing. Core PM skills (scope, budget, schedule, stakeholder, communication, risk management, et al.) need to be continually honed and will remain relevant even in the age of AI, but in order for Digital PMs to deliver greater value to the team and end work product, they need to become super generalists and learn a little about everyone's role. I read a story once that Alfred Hitchcock learned all the roles it took to shoot a film—editing, lighting, set design, shooting—in order to be a better director. And then he would sometimes fall asleep during filming. Digital PMs should build their PM core but then choose a focus area to learn all the roles on set (project).”
— Ian Cox, EVP of Services at Cantina
The Rapid Pace of the Industry
“Biggest challenge: how quickly digital trends change. Advice to overcome that challenge: stay connected and involved with your local (and global) DPM community! Get yourself out there.”
— Kelly Suter, Technical Project Manager at BI WORLDWIDE
People…Messy, Emotional, Unpredictable People
Look for deeper issues
“Of course, in working with people, our biggest challenge is often people: the fallacy of people, the optimism of people and the errors of people. It is important for us to remember that our teams are made up of humans who are doing their best. We work with diverse groups with a range of experiences, and we are there to support them and facilitate their (and consequentially our) success.
When something goes wrong, it is often a result of failed process or misalignment. Those things can be fixed! As PMs, we should always remember to be looking for the deeper issue so that we can do our best to minimize the same issue in the future.”
— Lina Calin, Digital Project Manager at FosterMade
Shift your approach
“The increase in offshore and third-party project teams. This is a growing trend I’m seeing, in Europe at least, as organizations look to cut the cost of developers and QA. This presents a very new way of working for DPMs who after years of fostering excellent people skills to support their project management are increasingly relying on teams they’ve never met, who they communicate with via screens. It’s a real shift in ways of working and presents new challenges as well as opportunities.”
— Peta Kennett-Wilson, Founder of Digital Rev
Practice patience & empathy
“The biggest challenge is always people. All of us are messy, emotional and unpredictable. By comparison, technology is a cake walk. The best way to overcome this is a constant practice of patience and empathy—with your teams, and yourself.”
— Meghan McInerny, COO at Clockwork, Co-author of Interactive Project Management: Pixels, People and Process
Adapt tools & methodologies to your team & stakeholders
“The biggest challenge is for project managers to adapt tools and methodologies to their context, their stakeholders and team members. To overcome this, my best advice is to consider your own assumptions and biases and always remain curious (ask questions). Be flexible in your approach. Humans are complex and unique—there isn’t “one size fits all” when it comes to management. Remember that the most important thing about process and systems is that it works for all involved (not just that it works for you).”
— Mika Trottier, Education Program Manager at Shopify
Root relationships in strong communication
“DPMs need to be the connective tissue between teams that often have their one idea of success and agendas on how to get there. Every team context is different so I don’t have a one-size-fits-all solution, but IMO, DPMs can be set up for success by working to establish candid relationships rooted in strong communication across teams.”
— Aaron Irizarry, Head of Design for Commercial Card at Capital One, author
Understanding (& Impacting) the Bottom Line
Learn how your organization makes money
“Another challenge I see arising is a lack of financial mentoring for project managers. This makes it difficult for DPMs to make informed financial and commercial decisions on their projects, on behalf of their organizations. It also means that DPMs can be unaware of the impact of their decisions on the company’s bottom line. I would love to see DPMs hungry to learn about how their company makes money, and how they can support their company in reaching its financial KPIs.”
— Peta Kennett-Wilson, Founder of Digital Rev
Fighting for Your Team, Your Project, The Industry—& Yourself
Be resilient & seek out allies
“Project managers are hired to run projects. Ironically, the job they are paid money to do is also the one they are prevented from doing daily because they get told not to worry about overages if it’s to please a stakeholder, or to overlook risk if it increases budget, or to ignore toxic employees because the most toxic ones tend to do the most flashy work. To be a PM is to fight every day for processes that elevate your team, the project you run and the industry itself. It means fighting for the choice to do what’s right: not just for your projects, but for your own career and for the future of tech.
This is a lonely job, but PMs are magical beings. Good news? If you walk in knowing this, you become resilient and impervious to anyone knocking you down. Seek out your allies. There are good people who will tell you that your fight is worthwhile and together we will change how tech projects run. We’ll be here for you.”
— Rachel Gertz, Co-founder & Digital PM Trainer at Louder Than Ten
Avoid being a single point of failure
“Something I see a lot is the PM having to take on too much in projects. It’s the classic default position of a PM—absorbing all the leftover tasks that don’t fit within your project team. Over the years I’ve done everything from QA, content management and strategy through to analyzing code to try and determine the bug! But taking everything on yourself isn’t a good thing—you’re actually becoming a single point of failure.
Remember you’re allowed to say no and you need to delegate—don’t just mop up the overspill. Look at the tasks and the project team as a whole at the beginning of the project, and flag any risk areas. Then if it does become a problem, you have a better case to raise going forward. Ensure you’re not squeezing the budget and team shape just to fit to the client’s request, review the deliverables with the team and make sure they can commit to them in the timings allowed. Also, don’t just do every task that comes your way. Take a step back, review it to determine if you’re the best person for the job, and if not, try and find a person who’s better placed to do it.”
— Suzanna Haworth, Digital Project Director
What Do You Think?
What's your toughest struggle right now or what advice would you give fellow digital project managers? Share your opinion, or tell us what strategies you’ve found to be successful.
Need a support group to help you sort through challenges, level up and avoid burnout? Join us at Digital PM Camp.