EP 45: Training Your Digital Project Managers
Kelly: So today, we’re covering a topic that is really on the minds of a lot of digital agency owners in particular. How can I ensure that my project managers are best supported, best trained, so that my agency can run and fire on all cylinders.
So my guest today is Ben Aston, founder of The Digital Project Manager platform for thought leadership, training, jobs and more. So he is going to go in all of that. But welcome Ben, it is such a pleasure to have you on the show today.
Ben: Thanks for having me.
Kelly: So you founded the The Digital Project Manager in 2011, right? What was the inspiration or the impetus that led you to recognize that there was a gap in the market and then actually create a solution for it.
Ben: Well, you know what? I think back in 2011, I had been in the industry for 7 years or so, and I think in the early parts of my career, I’d realize that there weren’t any resources online that I could draw from, to try and find out how to do my job better. What was the best practice and what could I learn from other people?
I could learn by the people in my agency, but it didn’t really feel like I was learning from the wisdom across the board. So I started this project, which really the idea started as an eBook and I blogged around it. I never finished the eBook. But the platform The Digital Project Manager exists. And it was based on that idea that I wanted to help people, prevent people from going through that pain that I experienced early on in my career where having I guess impostor syndrome or not feeling like confident in what I was doing. So there that was the goal really.
Kelly: And your background was you started out and became an actual scrum master, so you are very, very involved in digital project management and agile methodology and all of that.
Ben: Yeah, at the beginning of my career, actually I started in above the line ad agencies, and I’d say prior to that, I was a developer myself. But I started in account management and then realized that yeah, based on technical background that I had actually lent itself quite well to begin to lead teams of people trying to deliver digital projects. So yeah along the way, I picked up some letters after my name as well, but really it is that kind of experience of having a love for technical and having a love for leading teams of making things happen that kind of gets me excited about leading projects in the digital world.
Kelly: Yeah, so talk a little bit about the platform itself. And what it actually offers for the PMs at digital agencies.
Ben: Yes, it’s becoming a quite popular platform, so we get more than a quarter a million views every month. And people are really interested in the how-to guides that we provide, so each month we’re trying to teach people how to do something, whether or not that's how to write a great communication plan, how to kick off meetings properly, how to kick off projects properly, how to create a project plan.
And also just beginning to unpick, I think some of the antagonism between traditional project management and digital agencies. And the reality is the world that we live in, the digital agency we kind of describe it as the digital wild west, because lots of these traditional project management methodology seems like- hey that’s way too heavy and way too much for a digital agency.
So what we try and do is try to show actually that there is a lot synergy there. We kind of learn a lot from the traditional project management approaches. And yes agile is exciting and everyone’s excited about running agile projects. But what we try and do is show actually have some of the traditional PMBOK best practice, PRINCE2 best practice. Yes, which is traditionally waterfall but a lot of that we can apply to projects to help deliver better, more successful projects.
Kelly: Right, and it is not just about projects. I mean, that even crosses over into retainers and ongoing work that the PMs are overseeing.
Ben: Yeah definitely. And yeah I think that's what yeah one of the challenges in the agency world. We’re dealing almost with products, like if you think of a retainer as a product where there's a backlog of things that the client wants to have priorities, they're all priorities, how do you manage the conflicting priorities, and help them, guide them through that process of making the best decisions about what they spend their retainers on.
I said that they get value at the end of it and I think that's why the kind of agile side of things come into it like how are we delivering value, and delivering value incrementally, so that we don't just do these huge big projects by the way incrementally delivering value to our clients.
Kelly: And I know I mean you touched upon some of the topics and some of the things that you cover but I know that you actually author and oversee some of the content itself on the site. So can you talk a little bit about the breadth of topics that are available for PMs in the form of the articles and some of the other, you mentioned how-to guides but specifically maybe with the articles. What's the gamut of that kind of things that people are learning?
Ben: Yes, so we could try and position things across the entire project life cycle. So from project initiation, project planning, which is a really key part of this. I think there's a lot of mistrust of project planning especially within an agile world but project planning is really important. And then managing and controlling projects- so in that middle stage where things go wrong all the time how we how we deal with that and then closing projects as well.
So the complete project life cycle and there's things in that, everything from how to run projects using a hybrid agile waterfall methodology right through to kind of softer things around leadership. And actually we just published something on mental health and burn-out so if anything, it is content really that's applicable for anyone who's leading projects in a digital world whether or not they’re called a project manager or whether not they’re just by de facto project lead who hasn’t got that title, that one when this kind of picks up the slack so yeah it's for people who are managing projects.
Kelly: It's funny that you touched upon mental health and balance wellbeing and things like that. Are you starting to find that that's becoming more of what the audiences actually asking for? Are we talking more about emotional intelligence and those softer things that you're talking about? Because I'm seeing that in my world as well.
Ben: Yeah, I think that I mean obviously it's vogue right now but I think also there's, if we kind of yeah think about that progression through our careers, I think at the beginning you'll just focus on trying to get your job done and I guess Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in terms of hey, I just need to know what I'm supposed to do and then I think through that process you can get burned out and that’s why this kind of yeah…
Kelly: The human side.
Ben: The human side becomes more important and we actually run a webinar on how to run projects with emotional intelligence and that was massively popular. We got some great feedback on it and I think if people are having this realization that actually it's not just about getting the job done but how we do it is important as well.
Kelly: Yeah, I love that. So for the agency leaders that are considering sending their PM's to some type of professional development or training, can you share a little bit about the DPM school in particular?
Ben: Yes, like we've been talking about, we published a whole bunch of content, but what we kept hearing time and time again was actually people just want to learn, okay, what is the best practice and to learn in a short amount of time, and to kind of get up-skills and give them confidence in their ability in the way that they’re leading and managing projects.
So yeah last year, we launched the Digital Project Manager School. And our first course on that is called mastering digital project management and it's a seven week course that covers the whole project life cycle. Like I was saying before it is right from, actually we talked about methodologies and how we approach agile and waterfall and this kind of minefield that it seems to be currently with- clients want agile, but does it really work in the native environment? So we tackle that.
We tackle how to kick off projects with clients and your teams. Then we go through the project planning process, creating timelines, estimates, and statements of work and then we talk about managing, controlling projects and what happens when they go off the rails…
Kelly: How we get them back on.
Ben: How we get them back on, how we approach these difficult conversations. And then finally in week seven we talk all about project leadership. And really I think that's kind of fundamental of what I'm passionate about, which is leading not just ourselves but our teams and being not just project administrators.
But I think the role of the project manager, the digital project manager, is changing to be more of a strategic role in steering this ship of the project, which is all about thinking about how am I delivering value, how am I delivering that for my agency, for my team, obviously the clients, but thinking about the end user as well. And so, there's a UX focus to this as we think about, okay, what does project leadership mean, and how do I lead myself and my team through that so that we get to that place where we’re delivering projects well.
Kelly: Right. And I think it's so important to talk about this, because I think the role of a digital project manager is one of the most important roles at an agency. I mean it's almost like a central hub, or like if you think about it in a restaurant term it's like the expediter. You have to make sure that your cooks in the kitchen know exactly what they need to prepare, you need to get that out in a timely manner, you need to make sure that the clients are happy or the customers are happy.
It really is such a critical role, and I feel like there is not enough emphasis put on the training, which is why I was super excited to connect with you. And just bring this to more people, because they don't think that a lot of agencies understand how important it is and the fact that there are these resources like yours out there. So just appreciate that. And as we're wrapping up, I know you also have a DPM podcast and I’d love to hear a little bit more about that, where can we find it, what kind of things are covered in that?
Ben: Yes, so if you go to the digitalprojectmanager.com, it's just the primary. We unpacked different things. So we often talk about the articles that we've published. So in the podcast we kind of get the story behind the story. I talk to the authors to find out about what lead them to say what they said and trying challenge them a bit to get different perspectives on that.
We've also started a video class recently as well. We have two and a half thousand people in our slack community and what we try and do is tackle some of the tricky questions the people in the community are asking us. So it's kind of just tackling some of those thorny issues or questions that kind of remain a bit unanswered. So we're trying to provide a resource to the community and this community is growing really fast.
We’re growing probably like ten percent month on month so our growth is really quick and it's just interesting as more people are becoming, I mean, they might not be called digital project managers by job title, but effectively that’s what they’re doing and they’re looking for guidance on how to do that well. And I think with the pressure on budgets, clients are constantly trying to get things done. But how do we manage projects in that kind of environment, while still having integrity to ourselves and helping the people around us I think is really key.
Kelly: Well said. So I will definitely post the digitalprojectmanager.com in the show notes and is the webinar that you mentioned earlier, is that also available online somewhere?
Ben: It is online. We have a YouTube channel and you can check it out on there.
Kelly: Okay. I'll post a link to that YouTube channel as well, because I think that would be a really great resource to add into the show notes as well.
Kelly: Thank you so much Ben. I really, really appreciate your time. Very grateful for it.
Ben: Oh, thanks for having me.