At DigitalPM 2013 I had the chance to meet Dan Brown, who is a founder and principal at Eight Shapes, a Washington D.C. based user experience consulting firm. Dan is also the author of Communicating Design and Designing Together and at the conference he facilitated a session using a game called Surviving Design Projects that he developed to help improve communication with design on projects where there is conflict.
In the interview we discuss Dan’s perspective on the value Design brings to the team and how we can improve our interaction with them. Dan also shares his thoughts on the challenges facing the role of project management in the digital space.
One of my lightbulb moments during this conversation was that in many ways, it seems as though the design side of the house and the agile software side of the house are headed down the street in the same direction, but on opposite sides of the street. It raises the question of when/how there will be a convergence in how the two sides approach their work.
Day 1 of the inaugural Digital PM Summit is in the books and it was impressive. The event is being held in Philadelphia and is billed as "The first conference for a community of people who manage all things digital". I've attended and spoken at a lot of IT and PM related conferences in the past and there is definitely something unique going on here. There are a lot of conferences that focus on design and a lot that focus on development, and what they offer covers a wide range of subject matter and are delivered in a variety of formats. There are also a lot of PM conferences that focus on project management from the more formalized approach to managing work. And there are the Agile conferences which cut a slice across those areas. However, those conferences don't really speak to the audience that is present here in Philly this week. For the folks who manage projects at digital agencies, there is a different need. The agencies tend to be small to medium sized businesses with projects that can last anywhere from a month to a year (on average). The teams tend to be smaller in nature and many of them are caught in a space where a "just do it" can work for awhile, but it brings a lot of the pains you'd expect (stress, marathon last minute efforts, and technical debt). They could go the route of moving towards a more formal approach (like PMI), but the process burden doesn't really fit with the needs of the client or the work culture. They could also address a lot of their challenges with Agile, but this is not an ideal fit for many of their clients who are often more traditional minded and aren't compelled to change. So, what they end up with are a need to be able to manage work using a variety of approaches based on the needs of each specific project and client. At a larger organization (upwards of 50), it might be possible to bear the overhead of staff who are expert in different areas and approaches, but most of these organizations have a more lean approach that requires them to be able to develop a broader range of options in how they manage work. Coupled with that is the fact that the medium they work in is in a constant state of flux and they are expected to always be on the edge of what is the new, best way of designing things that leverage the latest tech.
The PMs in this space have to have one eye on design (maybe one and a half) and the other eye on technical practices. And somewhere in the middle, they still need to develop PM skills. Going back 10-20 years, my experience in this space was that the project management side of things involved a lot of floundering around, establishing a new approach every time things went really side-ways. The agencies that garnered all the attention back in the boom were places like Razorfish that kept a keen eye on the design side of the medium. That was, and remains, a valid approach, but this field has grown and evolved and is hungry for a better way. Unfortunately, none of the primary options can holistically solve the challenges they face.
What I have found to be truly unique about this event is the programming and the attendees. The way yesterday began offers a great example of what I believe makes this event a valuable and interesting alternative. The day started with Jeffrey Zeldman giving a talk that was rooted in design and UX standards. It was followed by Jared Ponchot that also skewed towards design as well, but dealt a lot with the creative process and how to approach creative work. The third speaker was the Conference Chair, Brett Harned, who gave talk called "How to be a Better Project Manager". Each of these talks would be at home in a variety of separate conferences, but putting programming like that together for this sold out event is what set the tone. These are not PMs who want/need to spend an hour learning about a better way to do Earned Value or, Critical Chain or managing projects that deal with Sarbanes-Oxley, CMM, ISO or (insert process here). These are design centric PMs who are deeply involved in the creative process who, while they may not self-identify as servant leaders need an approach that enables and supports their creative and technical leaders. Agile has a place here, but these folks are not Agilists. Traditional practices have a place here, but these folks are not PMPs (mostly). They are also not (mostly) designers or developers. They are creative PMs in the digital space. While it would be great to be able to develop expertise in each individual area (design, development, traditional PM and Agile), the years of work that could take would definitely be at odds with the realities of serving their clients.
One of the things I found most impressive yesterday morning was that for during the first 3 talks, there was the level of attentiveness and engagement of the people present at the conference. That is not to say that people who attend other conferences aren't engaged and attentive, but this was different. My experience has been that at a traditional PM event, career PMs look for a few new ideas and go to validate what they think they know. At an event like Øredev, technically savvy knowledge workers who are more on the advanced end of the spectrum go to be challenged with new ideas and ways of working that are often a few years ahead of the curve. At an Agile Conference or Scrum Gathering practitioners of Agile get together to work on how to get better at applying Agile. What I saw yesterday was a room full of people who were all there to find better ways to help the work that are fully respectful and supportive of the creative and technical process. They were not so much looking for ways to change how others work, but more for ways to change how they approach their own work.
Five or ten years ago, I'm not sure if something like this would have sold out so quickly to an audience that includes attendees from all over the US and some from Europe as well. But this community of Digital PMs is a segment of the PM community is definitely hungry for the opportunity to share and hone their unique spin on the field of project management.
Kudos to Greg Hoy, Brett Harned, Allison Harshbarger and the folks at Happy Cog for having the vision to create this event and for having done such a great job with it. #bigdamnheroes