The Future of Digital Project Management

Oliver Lindberg

The digital project management industry faces constant adaptation because digital technology constantly evolves, and it does so at a faster and faster rate. It’s a challenge to keep on top of things.

The creative industry is also transforming radically. “We have to accommodate,” recommends Damian Borchok, co-founder of For the People. “We have no choice because so much of what we do is commoditizing. The expectation from clients is changing rapidly. The pace at which people have to work, the more efficient they have to work is hugely changing the nature of the kind of information they have to get, the pace at which they have to get it.”

Where does that leave project managers?

Carson Pierce, senior consultant at user experience consulting company nForm, can see a future completely without project managers — at least not as we currently know them.

“The problem with the existing model is that it’s often not terribly efficient,” he explains. “You have a team doing the work and then this PM person moving around the periphery trying to connect all the dots. The client asks them how things are going and they have to refer to their standup meeting notes to provide a status report. They’re just a communication middleman and it ends up being an expensive game of ‘telephone’.”

So how can we improve our process? How can we prepare, and what trends can we expect? We asked some DPM leaders for their thoughts on what’s next.

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The rise of automation

Rachel Gertz, digital project manager trainer and co-founder of studio Louder Than Ten, thinks that smart, automated systems and tools that use machine learning will likely be the things that make the tedious parts of our project management role redundant.

“The future of project management will be about closing the gaps in transitional project phases where communication tends to break down. We can embrace the fact that eventually the hard skills will be automated while the soft skills continue to give us our human edge — at least until artificial intelligence surpasses human ability in 10 to 15 years,” she predicts.

“A tough side effect of automation and transparency is learning how to manage complex processes more efficiently so that we can actually be transparent in real time. It requires building trust with clients which leads to more accurate scoping, planning, and estimating – the next notch on the totem pole of automated tools, I bet.”

But how do you embrace this weird future?

“Don’t worry so much about the tools and the processes you agree upon with your team and clients,” Gertz warns. “All tools have gaps or overlaps, it’s the way you apply them that matters.”

Damian Borchok also points out that a lot of the tools we use at work are flawed. “So much business software has to fit so many features in, it has to make so many compromises, usually the users have to work hard to make the software work for them,” he argues. “And that’s crazy because the whole point of software is to automate all those things rather than actually make people dig in deep. Wherever automation can happen is key. Things are becoming far more volatile and so project management is needing to be more dynamic.”

Blending methodologies

Agile and Waterfall have been incredibly popular over the last few years, but many people that have jumped on the Agile bandwagon are now finding that it doesn’t work 100% for them. In fact, sticking religiously to one methodology can be counter-productive.

“There’s been a focus on Agile and Agile styles of delivery over the last few years, leading to a slight snobbery around projects that aren’t run this way,” sighs senior project manager at Tribal Worldwide Suzanna Haworth. “I think there needs to be less of an obsession on fitting to an exact process, and more thought given to creating our own processes that work for specific organisational and project needs, using a blend of different frameworks and styles.”

Sam Barnes, engineering manager at Marks and Spencer, believes we will see fewer methodologies with fixed names and processes.

“Both Waterfall and Agile bring with them their own evangelists and dogma that are becoming less and less suitable in today’s digital delivery world,” he argues.

“As a reaction to the Waterfall diehards and, as a consultant once called them, the ‘Scrumdamentalists’ out there, combined with a rapidly evolving industry that‘s constantly demanding more flexibility and with increasingly savvy stakeholders and clients, I think we’ll soon enter a world where companies no longer champion one way of working. Instead they’ll develop the capabilities to deliver projects using a variety of methods that are taken from all current existing methodologies, thus being able to tailor each project’s delivery processes to each client so both parties have the best and smoothest experience.”

Brett Harned, digital project management consultant, agrees. It’s all about adaptation. “As project leaders and PMs begin to understand processes and their teams more and more, they’re adapting formalized processes like Agile and doing what works for them. The smartest PMs seem to be those who know how to help the team adapt workflows for the best result, and that will certainly continue to change. What’s more exciting is that the companies who are making the best PM tools are seeing that shift as well, and they’re introducing more Agile-like functionality such as Kanban boards in their traditional project planning tools.”

Shahina Patel, project manager at UX design and digital agency Sigma, predicts that we’ll realise Gantt charts are an outdated model for digital project management tracking.

“We’re using the tools and techniques of the project managers in the engineering industry that we descended from,” she argues. “If there’s anyone that gets Gantt charts to be anything less than shelfware, I want to talk to them and ask them how.”

Evolving skill sets

As methodologies and tools need to be adapted, so do project managers’ skills. ‘Hard’ project management skills are an excellent foundation to delivering projects, as Peta Kennett-Wilson, founder of Digital Rev, a London-based project management training and consultancy firm, points out but they’re insufficient for delivering truly great digital projects.

“Already agencies are placing greater emphasis on people-centric skills, which allow project managers to build high performing multi-disciplinary teams,” she explains.

All delivery styles will be underpinned by foundational principles that guide all decisions.

“No matter what project I’m helping with these days, I ensure I’m always honest with everyone — even when it’s not good news — and communicate to all parties with no bias while displaying high levels of integrity,” Sam Barnes explains. “Being disciplined with core behaviours like these makes it crystal clear to all that my loyalty is to the project and not weighted towards my team, bosses or client, irrelevant of delivery methodology. When people see how you operate and how dedicated to the project’s success you are, the project tends to go really well and people feel positive at the end, respecting you a little more and all without the need to use a particular delivery methodology.”

Holly Davis, Agile project manager at digital agency Deeson, stresses that companies are increasingly looking for empathetic leaders, facilitators, communications and team players who can coach teams to deliver successful projects.

“Project managers are in a prime place to do that but the shape of the role is changing and so are the job titles. We’re increasingly seeing the emergence of delivery managers and Agile coaches. With the increase in self-organizing Agile teams and a movement away from projects built by external agencies towards in-house product development teams, the requirement for project managers will diminish and be replaced with individuals who can provide product insights and work closely with the development team to deliver business value. As a result, we may start to see a hybrid of the two roles emerge.”

Project management can’t be seen separately anymore, as the lines between digital, software and IT management blur, thinks Suzanna Haworth. “The focus will be less on siloed roles and more towards project managers who manage a mix of disciplines,” she says. “Role definitions are definitely already changing to focus less on management in favour of producing, and moving from project to product.”

Project leadership coach, trainer and consultant Susanne Madsen, meanwhile, thinks that project management skills will become essential for all kinds of staff, not just ‘career PMs’. “These skills will become just as essential as time management or communication skills,” she predicts, “and being able to run small to mid-sized projects will be a requirement.”

Carson Pierce highlights that the skill sets we expect from a project manager, to work with teams and clients but at the same time track budgets, write reports and do other admin tasks, don’t usually reside in the same person.

“I envision project management going in two different directions,” he predicts. “On one side will be practitioner-led projects. The main person doing the work on a project is the one that acts as the ‘project lead’. When the client asks for an update, they can answer immediately because they’re fully immersed in the work. They can make strategic decisions about direction, quality, scope, etc and are much more invested in the project outcomes. In this way, ‘project management’ becomes a skill rather than a role.”

“Then on the other side is the role of ‘project accountant’ who manages all the left-brain work like tracking time sheets, writing change requests, and setting up meetings. This person works closely with the project lead to help ensure the practical success of the project.”

Shahina Patel, however, warns against expecting too many secretary tasks from a project manager. “I would like to see the rapid demise of this attitude, expecting the project manager to do things like book travel and arrange meetings on behalf of team members. Nope. No. Should. Not. Happen.”

Qualitative measures

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Peta Kennett-Wilson predicts that, just as we’ve seen our design and development become more user focused, the same will happen with how we deliver projects.

“We’ve seen the start of this in moving to Agile frameworks which invite clients to be part of the delivery team and agency teams to become part of the client’s team. To facilitate this way of working I think it’s important digital project managers begin to see their role as more than scope, time and budget management and offer the same attentiveness to delivering against real business objectives, growing and developing their project team, and building trust based relationships.”

Shahina Patel agrees: “I see more of a trend towards team health, product robustness, client satisfaction as valid markers of success, as opposed to the usual ‘on time and under budget’. We’re starting to consider more of the qualitative rather than quantitative measures that indicate good work.”

Damian Borchok also thinks we need to be less obsessed with numbers. “It’s important that we actually think about how numbers can illuminate our day jobs as opposed to simply being something that we have to work hard at analysing. Numbers make us lie, and they alienate us. There’s a whole range of dysfunction that happens with numbers that we need to consider in the real life usage and how do we actually overcome that in the future of project management.”

Communication and collaboration

In the agency world, Suzanna Haworth has seen a number of clients splitting work between a lot of parties rather than using one agency for a full project.

“This will mean much more integration and collaboration with third parties and other agencies,” she explains, “and having to work with a lot more stakeholders on each project. This increases project management time and investment in each project.”

There’s also a definite shift to more remote styles of working. Organisations are allowing more flexible working for their employees and are working more with remote teams.

“This has developed a heavier reliance on tools like Slack for communication,” Haworth argues. “Having less face-to-face interaction creates a need to develop ways to maintain team engagement and focus on projects. I think it will be really important to maintain a ‘human’ element in the projects, and try and transfer some of the successful ways projects are run with in-house teams to the remote ways of working.”

The constant change in digital has exposed flaws in our project management methods. We need to adapt and not just stick to one way of doing things. Whatever you do and whatever your process, check in on how things are going quite often, and adapt as you see fit to make sure your projects will be a success. That’s what it’s all about.

 

For more on the future of project management, watch this talk by For The People co-founder Damian Borchok about Streamtime, The Future and the Battle for the Soul of Project Management or read the transcript.

 

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The Future of Digital Project Management