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Episode 023

 Carson Pierce

Carson Pierce

why everybody hates project Management

with Carson Pierce

There you are. In the middle of the client and the team. Trying to control the uncontrollable. Forcing a smile as you give bad news to your coworkers. Or pointing back to a document as you tell the client no. So how do you get through a bad day? Especially when you've got the added pressure of managing multiple projects? Although we try, it can't be solved with process, tools or methodology. So how can we maintain our sanity? Listen in as Carson Pierce shares his thoughts.

Join Carson in San Antonio for Digital PM Summit 2016!


Transcript

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 going to talk to a member of our community doing awesome inspiring things. Now for your host, Carl Smith.

Carl Smith:    
Hey everybody and welcome back The Bureau Briefing. It is Carl and with me today I have got the Senior Project Manager at DDB Canada, Mr. Carson Pierce. How is it going Carson?

Carson Pierce:    
Hey Carl, I'm good. How are you?

Carl Smith:    
I'm good. We've known each other for quite a while. I think we met probably at one of the earlier Digital PM summits. We've always seemed to stay in touch. I know that you just started the gig with DDB, what, like a few months ago?

Carson Pierce:    
No, no, no. I've been for a year and half now, although it feels like ...

Carl Smith:    
What?

Carson Pierce:    
It feels like a few months just because the pace is so fast.

Carl Smith:    
Wait a second, this is Carson Pierce, right?

Carson Pierce:    
It is. Carl ...

Carl Smith:    
All right, I guess we're not as good friends as I thought. How is it going at DDB man? How are things?

Carson Pierce:    
It's really good. It's very different than what I've done in the past. In the past it was pretty much strictly, I guess pure digital agency stuff, whereas DDB is an advertising agency. Essentially they're for people who are not familiar, I think the stuff that goes on in Mad Men, that was based on DDB in the 60s. I'm not even joking about that, I think that's

Carl Smith:    
I know, I know.

Carson Pierce:    
That's not what it's like now, but it is really fast paced. Lots going on, not just digital but all over the map with media and print. Everything you can imagine we're doing, but I am focused mostly on digital. Yeah, very fast, very exciting. It makes a year and a half feel like a few months.

Carl Smith:    
There you go. You know when I started, I'm 48 and when I started I was at basically an advertising agency and it was still kind of like that. It was like every day around 2:30, it wasn't a Friday thing, every day around 2:30 somebody's walking around with a beer or a mixed drink. I even heard tell of some drugs, I wasn't privy to that as an intern, but kind of crazy. A lot of that is because of the pressure I think, it wasn't a lifestyle choice as it was a survival tactic for a lot of them. One of the things I know that you focus on a lot is the mental health aspect of being a project manager because you get so many things coming at you. Talk to everybody about that for a minute. What is your take on how to stay sane while you're trying to run probably multiple projects?

Carson Pierce:    
Yeah it's funny because I didn't think about it too much before, but when I got into this faster pace and much higher demands, that's when you realize this is a really, really stressful job. I was talking to someone recently and they were saying it's about trying to control the uncontrollable. Project managers are all about control, yet there's so much happening that we have zero control over. That's really stressful, so I started reaching out to other people and we were talking on a Slack channel about, "What kind of problems are you facing? What stresses are you up against?" Realized that we're all on the same boat. That was really interesting to realize that there's the commonalities that we're facing and we can all deal with them, hopefully in similar ways.

Right now we're exploring that and talking amongst ourselves and starting to dig into it. My wife's a psychologist so I started bringing things back to here, things I was hearing, going, "Okay, these are things that we're up against. What do we do about that?" I think it's just starting to become a conversation in the project management community, where we can talk about, "Hey, you know what? We need to get some sleep. We need to take some breaks. We need to look at the Pomodoro technique," or whatever. There's lots of things that we can do but because we haven't been really talking about it we've sort of been saying, "This is the way project management is," and dealing with it.

Carl Smith:    
In our industry most digital project managers are self taught, right? I know in traditional project management you've got all the letters and all that sort of stuff but I think most people in the agency world fell into it. Do you think that's right?

Carson Pierce:    
Yeah, absolutely. It might be shifting a little bit now as it matures but certainly in the past you were ... I came into it from ... I was originally a developer and I started my agency. I was coming from the owner's side. As you hire people you would go, "Well, I guess I'll let them do the design and the development, I'll just take care of," what essentially becomes, "project management." Yeah lots of people just fall into it from other areas, which means they're not trained in it, they don't know how to deal with these situations. Any time you have an environment like that you're dealing with lots of uncertainty and ambiguity, which all lead back to that stress.

Carl Smith:    
And classic imposter syndrome.

Carson Pierce:    
Absolutely.

Carl Smith:    
Not only are you extrinsically worried but intrinsically as well. You're not sure you're doing it the right way. For you personally, how did you get yourself to a point of comfort, if that's even the right word? Where did you go? What resources did you find that helped you feel like you were doing things correctly?

Carson Pierce:    
Some of it is experience. As you go through these and you realize what's going, that's helps a lot but that obviously takes time. Mentoring I think has been good. I haven't had a lot of opportunities for that because I came into from being a business owner. When you're business owner there's very few people to look up to, which you're involved in Owner Camp which I think is amazing to open up some doors there. For me I did the whole letter thing backward, instead of coming and getting educated upfront and then starting the job, I did the job and then thought, "I need to understand what I'm doing here," so I went and got my PMP and my Scrum Master Certification, things like that. I think a lot of it is to get rid of that imposter syndrome, of going, "Okay, I actually know what I'm doing here now."

Carl Smith:    
Got you. Scrum Master obviously comes from the software world moving into the digital agency, digital project world, but PMP, is that more traditional project management or does it now have a digital flavor to it?

Carson Pierce:    
PMP is definitely traditional but you know what? There's so much, it's a really good base. You're laying the groundwork for everything else. Digital is an offshoot of that and that framework that they teach you in that traditional project management still applies in so many ways. You have to modify it of course but it was still really valuable. They also have, within the PMI, they have something called PMI ACP, which stands for Agile Certified Practitioner. That's what I'm looking at next. That would their alternative to PMP, where it's more focused on Agile. Probably something more applicable to the world that we're working in.

Carl Smith:    
When we get back to this concept of mental health, walk me through a day where you wake up and you know shit's going to go wrong. How do you, from when you get up, I'm curious how do you go about structuring your day? Are you checking email right away? Are you meditating? How does Carson get through one of those rough days?

Carson Pierce:    
It's funny you mention meditating because I just found this website called headspace.com. It's all about teaching mindfulness and meditation and so on. I haven't tried it yet but it's something I recognize I probably need to start learning about. For me those tough days start the night before because usually the night before I try to look over my calendar and look over my to-do list to say, "What's going to hit me tomorrow," and mentally prepare myself. I think a lot of it is just making sure that you tackle those things first thing in the morning. I know I've done a lot of research on fatigue and glucose levels, they always tell you, "Do those big things, those tough things first thing in the morning," and the reason for that is because that's when your brain is most capable of dealing with it.

There's a really fascinating study, I think that came out of Israel, or it's based on Israeli judges. It was all about seeing when they were really thinking about decisions versus when they were just rubber-stamping things. It was all about prisoners coming up for parole, which ones got accepted and which ones didn't. The default is to say no, but what they found is first in the morning, I don't have the numbers in front of me but it was like sixty five percent of people were granted parole first thing in the morning and then it drops and drops and drops as judges were getting tired and hungry. They weren't thinking as much, and then there would be this peak again at lunch time. They take a break, they get something to eat, and all of a sudden that percentage goes up. It was fascinating to see a graph that illustrated why we do some of these things.

I actually think about that a lot and if something tough is going to be happening I try to make sure that I am in the best place for it, so do it first thing in the morning or alternatively right after lunch, that 3:00 lull, I don't do anything important during that time. That's one really interesting, I think, aspect of dealing with those things. A lot of it comes down to telling yourself, "You know what? This thing has to be done," or even thinking, "What happens if I don't do this right now? It's still going to be there tomorrow or the next day, only it's going to be worse because the news that I have to give them is going to be a day later," or whatever. Sometimes it's just rationalizing with yourself to say, "This thing needs to happen." It doesn't make it easier but I've been managing to force myself through.

Carl Smith:    
That makes a tremendous amount of sense, to schedule your day that way. I would also say that you tackle that tough thing first because otherwise it's hanging over you all day.

Carson Pierce:    
Yeah. I think it's David Allen's Getting Things Done, he talks about ... I can't remember the word he uses but basically that mental clutter. I've done that a lot too, where I recognize, "You know what? This thing is in my head and every half an hour I'm thinking about it and thinking about it. I just need to get it out." Sometimes he talks about putting those things on lists, but a lot of it it's just dealing with it and getting it out of the way.

Carl Smith:    
Closing that loop man.

Carson Pierce:    
Absolutely, yeah.

Carl Smith:    
You've got to close it so your brain can go, "Okay, that's taken care of, let's move on." One of the things that I know when I was managing projects, and I will never claim to be a project manager of any variety. You can go through the whole alphabet and put it before PM, I am not claiming that, but for me I think one of the most stressful things was I was always feeling like I was in the middle. As somebody who's always fighting to be honest and minimize spend, it was a difficult thing to help manage the client and manage the team. I think what I've seen in a lot of shops now, and I think this is very much to the Agile methodology, is the client being in there with the team, right? Where the communication is happening at the same time. Do you think that has impacted a PM's mentality? A PM's health?

Carson Pierce:    
Yeah, I think when we get a chance to do that, because like you said being in the middle, giving bad news from the client to the team and then bad news back from the team to the client, that's exhausting. It really, really wears you down. One of my last projects, I guess it's a couple years ago now but, we were completely integrated. It was hard to tell who was on the client side, who was on the development team side. Everyone was in the same room at the same time all the time, working through issues and having those open lines of communication, you could in a way sit back and let those conversations happen and not have to be in the middle. It was much, much less stressful. It was really nice.

I think as we move to more Agile practices, that sort of thing will help ease some of our pain. Certainly I love to see that cross over between the typical way that we've doing project management moving into the new Agile practices and having those things change our lives for the better, because right now it's not great.

Carl Smith:    
For me, my experience, clients are generally not mean. They're not mean, they're scared. Like, something's happened that's undermined their confidence and it's easier for them to tell one person in a tone, especially when that person is already sensitive to all the things going on, which puts a new filter on it, and then that gets shared with the team. Whereas when the client's talking to the team directly, in my experience they take on a different demeanor.

Carson Pierce:    
The fear thing is huge because I've often said that there's no such thing as a bad client, and then sometimes people will prove you wrong, but in general I believe that we make bad clients. We make bad clients because of the way we deal with them or communicate with them, and fear has a lot to do with that. We just think, "They're being difficult," or, "They're demanding," or whatever. We don't stop to get in their heads a little bit and go, "You know what? Their job is on the line. They're really stressed about them meeting their own budgets and timeline. They don't understand what's going on, they're in the dark," all these things that they're feeling. Once we cross over that line a little bit to get to where they are and get in their shoes, you can take a different approach to things. That changes that relationship and you do realize, "You know what? It's not so much that they're a bad client, they just need things that they don't even know how to ask for."

Carl Smith:    
Yeah. That makes perfect sense. I totally agree with you. I totally agree with you that there aren't bad clients. Now there are people in a client organization who may not be the best people. We've had situations where somebody changed and suddenly it became a total shit show. There are times where you have to realize you can't fix somebody else's predispositions, but ...

Carson Pierce:    
Even with the change though, I think the problem there is we treat the new person the same way we treated the old person but they're a different person. We need to work with them in a different way and it takes time to figure out what that way is. Generally if it's halfway through a project we just don't have time for that.

Carl Smith:    
Yeah that's fair. That's very fair.

Carson Pierce:    
Yeah. I don't know, I like to take as much responsibility as possible for that relationship and molding it the way you want it to be. Sometimes it's harder than others though.

Carl Smith:    
I completely agree because as soon as you blame somebody else you give up the ability to control, to fix. Not control in the sense of being controlling but to control in the sense of making things better, like you have an opportunity to do something. If you put it on somebody else that they're causing it, you've given up your ability to fix things.

Carson Pierce:    
I think this ties all together. I haven't ever said this out loud so I don't know if it will make sense but, project managers love control so I think they take on that ownership. They want to control it, they want to make sure that they have the ability to impact things, which just adds to more accountability and responsibility, where it all ties back to that stress. We put a lot onto our own shoulders because that's who we are as project managers.

Carl Smith:    
I'll say that I think it's how we are as humans a lot of times, right?

Carson Pierce:    
Yeah.

Carl Smith:    
Project managers, I think it's more up at the top and more exposed by the nature of the job.

Carson Pierce:    
Yeah for sure.

Carl Smith:    
I know you've actually said, and I know that the talk that you're going to give at the Digital PM summit this October in San Antonio is entitled Your Brain Hates Project Management. Obviously you've got some thoughts, and I've experienced it too. I've worked with some of the best project managers, in my person belief some of the best ones in the industry, and things still go wrong. They have methodologies that are approved and tools that seem to be working great, and yet still things sometimes go off the rails. Why is that?

Carson Pierce:    
I think whatever project management issues we face we try to solve it with, like you said, tools and process. We figure there's a way to come up with a checklist and that will solve all the problems, but I've been doing so much research on behavioral economics and neuroscience even and organizational psychology, all these different things that really tell us that it's not just about following the steps, it's about how your brain works. It's fascinating stuff, and that's not just to talk up my own presentation. You realize that your brain was made in a certain way, evolutionarily, to deal with certain things, and then the world got really complex and we introduced project management as a whole new profession.

We're trying to do things that our brain is just not equipped to do. We're trying to predict the future and plan out to the hour how certain things work and make decisions about risk. All these things that, that's not how our brain was meant to function naturally. It's not that we can't do it, because clearly there are really good project managers that do do it, but it's about recognizing why our brains are functioning the way they are and where they fail, and then consciously changing things or coming up with strategies to get around those things.

Carl Smith:    
If you haven't been classically trained and you're trying to do that, if you don't necessarily know the methodologies, if you don't necessarily have the right tools, man that pressure must be intense. When you're trying to predict what's going to happen I could see where your brain would be on the verge of exploding.

Carson Pierce:    
Yeah. Although I like to think that ... I haven't explored it enough yet but I like to think that we can learn all the tools and processes, or we can learn something about how thinking works, how decision making works, and maybe they'll offset each other a little bit, so the people who aren't classically trained can still do a really good job if they understand other aspects of it. We'll see how that works.

Carl Smith:    
I think that's valid. The thing that I experienced, and again I can only come from my own experiences with working with digital PMs and also the way that I ran it, which I would not recommend to anyone. No matter how smart you get, no matter how much experience you get, there are still certain things that seem to trigger your old behaviors. For me, that was one of the most important things, was to realize when I was falling back into a pattern that wasn't good for me or the client or the team or the project or anything. I'm curious, do you have any triggers? Do you have anything when you're working on a project that you catch yourself and you go, "Wow, I'm treating this personally instead of trying to back up and manage the process?"

Carson Pierce:    
I know sometimes with communication issues there's this tendency for me, and I think a lot of people too, whenever there's bad news we back off and think, "Maybe it will just deal with itself," or, "Maybe they won't [crosstalk 00:20:46]," or whatever. That's a situation where I know personally I really have to consciously say, "No, no, no. This needs to be dealt with. It's not going to be fun but we're going to get through it and it will be fine." I guess it always feels worse than it is, I shouldn't say always but most of the time it feels worse than the outcome actually is. Recently I was looking at the topic of setting boundaries, because I think part of the problem is we don't set those boundaries and then we have to have those really difficult conversations about why they can't have something, three quarters of the way through the project.

I did some digging around and doing some research and found out that people don't really remember those earlier parts of the project where you had to be a hard-ass and you had to lay down the law and say, "This is how we're going to do things. If you do this then this is going to happen." They adapt to that and they sort of incorporate it into how they work with you. You deal with those things, people live with it and forget about it. When you're three quarters of the way through the project and you have that situation, it's not a problem anymore. That's something I've learned and adapted into the way that I try to do things, although I still fall back once in a while.

Carl Smith:    
I'll tell you that at nGen we got praise and a little bit of some awkward side glances, but when we were having those conversations early on and we would talk about things that were going to derail the project, things that we have fallen into a trap of in the past, we used to always tell clients, "These are the things that we're not great at, we're going to keep an eye on ourselves. If you notice it let us know." These are the things we've seen clients do that have caused problems, when we would have those conversations, we would put on red noses.

Carson Pierce:    
Yeah.

Carl Smith:    
We would put on these red noses, clown noses, and then later when they would say, "I don't remember that conversation," we would always be to say, "Do you remember when put on the red clown noses and we said you're going to have to remember this later? That's what we were talking about." As silly as it was it kind of broke the tension because we were going to have a slightly difficult conversation about coming back after we've hit a certain phase of the project, we were very waterfall back then, once you've passed this timeline, once we're at this point. I think it's true with Agile as well, you can't be getting ready to launch and then backup to a new story or something.

It worked really, really well. I think that's the nature as well, clients don't give you a huge deposit and then try to undermine your every move. They give you that huge deposit, they make the decision and then they want to make sure it was the right decision. I think that's a big part of everyone's responsibility as well, with every interaction to realize, like we said earlier, everybody's got some uneasiness and some fear.

Carson Pierce:    
Yeah. It's interesting you talk about the red nose thing because I remember hearing that story years ago and going, "Okay, that sounds ridiculous," but some of the research I've done more recently, it talks about how we remember things and we don't remember things like a video recording. It's not all there and we can just play it all back, we remember highlights. Most of what goes into your brain doesn't stay there so we recall those things that stand out to us, and you obviously, I'm guessing without psychological training, you identified that, "You know what? People are going to forget everything we talk about in this meeting but we want them to remember this," and you created this trigger for it. I think that's brilliant. I don't know if I'd be willing to do it but ...

Carl Smith:    
I'll tell you it was not out of psychological training, although my dad is a psychologist, was a psychologist for forty years. It was more out of frustration because when we crossed our hundredth project we wrote this guide and we said, "These are the things that go wrong every time and we're the only constant. The client's different every time so we've got to be the ones perpetuating this, so how do we break it." Thank you for the kind words, most people thought we were crazy, but I'll tell you what, we didn't have that many issues with clients backing up.

Carson Pierce:    
Yeah for sure.

Carl Smith:    
We got a lot of things in there. Carson, I am excited to see this talk, Why Your Brain Hates Project Management. I'm excited to see you as well.

Carson Pierce:    
It's been at least a couple years since I've seen you in person and yeah, it's always a good time.

Carl Smith:    
It's going to be great. That's the Digital PM summit 2016 variety. This is the fourth one. That's crazy. It's going to be October 12th through 15th in San Antonio. Carson thank you so much for being on the show. We'll see you in San Antonio.

Carson Pierce:    
Thanks Carl, see you there.

Carl Smith:    
Everybody that was listening, thank you so much. We'll talk to you next week. Have a good one.