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Welcome to the DPM podcast, where we go beyond theory to give expert PM advice to leading better digital projects. Thanks for tuning in, I’m Ben Aston, founder of the Digital Project Manager.
Have you ever found yourself on a project where you, as the project manager, weren’t made to feel particularly welcome? Insofar as maybe you’ve been told, “Hey, we don’t need a PM on this project, thanks.” Or perhaps you’re listening to this podcast trying to decide whether or not you need a project manager on your project at all. Well, depending on who you ask, project management is either dying out completely or becoming more important than ever before. So, which is it? Well, I might be biased, but I’m going to go with the latter. And in this podcast, we’re going to talk about why it is that you can’t afford to be without project management, and how we as PMs can address some of the negativity around what we do and how we do it.
Today, I’m joined by Tucker Sauer-Pivonka. Tucker is a director of project management at Crema, working with fund-up, start-ups and and enterprise clients and they do lots of prototyping testing and building out of their mobile and web solutions. And he’s responsible actually for leading and supervising the production teams, the product managers and managing and helping them with their development.
He’s also a keen hiker and likes vacations too, so we’ll talk about that. Tucker, thanks so much for joining us.
Hi Ben, it’s great to be chatting with you today.
I’m curious to know, last time we chatted we talked about your new house which I guess isn’t so new anymore. But are you still working on your new house project?
We are. I don’t think we’ll ever be done with it. We’re quickly finding as soon as you’re done with one project, a new project comes up that you want to get done. But yeah, we’ve got a lot done so far but we’re looking forward to 2019 and the projects to come at home.
Well what’s in the … what are the goals for 2019 for your home and vacation, I’m curious?
Well, for vacations we always take an anniversary trip in March, around spring break time. My husband’s a teacher, so it’s about the only time you can take off during the school year. And so we’ll probably be going to Palm Springs for that. And then we have a few other trips that we have planned. One going to Mexico, and then just some domestic travel, maybe up to Oregon, Washington. And then maybe also heading up the East Coast at some point, but we’ve still got to figure a lot of that out. It’s only January 7th, I still have a little bit of time.
That sounds like a lot of vacation to fit into … I don’t know how much vacation you get, but good luck with that. And what about personally? It’s the beginning of the year. Have you set yourself any professional goals or what kind of … where are you headed in terms of your career? You’ve kind of been promoted to heading up the team there. Where do you see yourself going from here?
Yeah. So I kind of set some intentions for 2019. None of them are solid, hard goals but more so just kind of what intentions I want to focus on this year. One of them, obviously with my new role is facilitating the growth of the Crema project management team. So as we grow as a company and then also as a team just making sure that my direct team has everything that they need to be performing at their best.
So with that I’m also working on growing confidence in my new role. So it’s effective, it was effective January 1st, so I’m pretty fresh in this new role and I’ve never been manager before. So just kind of growing confidence around that, which really just comes with practice. So I’ll be doing a lot of that. And then another one of my goals or intentions for the year is all around public speaking. Doing more engagements, both internally and externally so that I can grow that skillset and feel more confident when I’m getting up on stage or even if it’s just to a small group, just growing that overall.
Have you got any particular topics that you think you might be talking about in the year ahead?
I think …
Not that far?
I think there will be many many topics. But the kind of overarching theme of all of it will be around product management agencies. So I think there is a lot of room for content around that. Because a lot of the product management content that’s out there is around being a product manager at a software company. A company like Spotify, for example. Which is great, it’s really informative but it’s not exactly how product management works within agencies all the time. And so, I’m hoping to do a lot of speaking and writing around that particular topic in 2019.
I mean let’s talk about that for a minute. So I think you’re like everybody if you haven’t seen the Spotify videos on product management, they’re excellent, and I highly recommend watching those. But I want to … yeah. Let’s talk about that, though. How is product management at an agency different from product management at a software product shop? And what are the challenges? Because we have this mix of product versus project management, but where do you see the similarities and differences being?
Yeah. I do definitely see a lot of similarities. So when you think of your clients in our world, when you work at a software company like Spotify, really that’s just your internal stakeholders that you’re working with. But when you’re in more of an agency model, that does take a little bit of a different tone, you know? You do have to put a little bit more effort into that client management. And making sure you’re building that trust and making sure that everybody continues to stay on the same page and making sure that your clients continue to stay involved in your projects to the level that you want them to be involved.
And so, I think there’s many topics for me to flesh out there. But that’s probably the biggest thing that I see the difference in. There’s also some differences between how you go about developing it and how the projects are funded. When you’re a big software company like Spotify, you’re assigned a team and that’s your team to work on. Whereas in the agency world you’re doing a little bit more selling and making sure that you’re not only continuing to deliver value to the client but also continuing to show them that at the end of the day, this is still your team even though we’re not directly within your company.
And so just be there for the client and showing them that along the way is really important. And it maybe becomes a little bit easier, or maybe not, at software companies.
Cool. And I’m curious, whether you do lots of work in the product space? Can you tell us what’s in your toolkit? Like, there’s still budgets to manage, timelines to manage. But what’s in your kind of product PM toolkit? What are the tools that you’re using to kind of keep all this in check?
Yeah, definitely. So, there is still some crossover. This is one of the biggest differences, I would say also, between being a product manager at a software company and at an agency is that I still do some PM related tasks on a pretty regular basis. So in my toolkit I still have things that help me project forecast like harvest forecast. So that way I can see how our teams are allocated, upcoming projects that are coming in the door. How we’re going to allocate those projects. That’s still part of my job and it always will be. Things like Meetingbird, I think I mentioned in my last podcast for scheduling because frankly I don’t want to spend a whole lot of time trying to find spots on the schedule. I’d rather just send a link and have them choose a time.
And so I still use that on a pretty regular basis. Of course, your normal Slack, Dropbox, Paper, that kind of thing. And then one big thing that I’ve kind of found a gap in. Jira, Atlassian’s Jira has some solutions with this. And one of my clients we use Jira on but not all my clients. And what the gap is that being able to communicate the roadmap both at the 30,000 foot level view and also at the 10,000 foot view. And Jira does have the solution for that, but I haven’t found anything outside of Jira that really checks all the boxes that I’d like it to.
So what I actually end up using is I just use Keynote quite a bit to do all that communication and creation of artifacts. So that way we can always continue to keep the client on the same page with us in terms of how we’re trending. All of the things that we need to deliver on a regular basis but Keynote is just probably one of the tools I feel more comfortable in. Being able to quickly put things in a slide and get that over to the client.
Yeah. Now I think that is a really interesting talent, and there are some roadmap tools out there but how they actually integrate with Jira or whatever you’re using, I think it is weak. Because it’s happening that being able to show your client or your team, “Okay, here’s the big picture view. Here’s the roadmap of where we’re going. And then here’s the purpose or the goal for each of these sprints, and then within each sprint, what are the things that we’re doing, how does that deliver on that sprint goal which delivers to the product roadmap?” And the interface between those elements is something that I think is … being able to extract like, “Hey this is the big picture. We’re here, which is gonna get us there.”
That is one of the challenges of Jira and I think one of the weaknesses in it. But it’s so important to in that communication with the client like here’s why we’re doing these things in the next sprint and here’s why we’re not doing those other things that you really want us to get to. Because we need to do this before we can do that to do X, Y, and Z. So I’m intrigued that you’re using Keynote because that’s obviously a very manual solution to it.
I mean it looks nice, I’m sure. But it’s manual.
Yeah. It’s definitely not ideal but like you mentioned, there’s nothing out there yet that really checks all the boxes I want for it to check. I think Jira gets the closest and I will probably be experimenting with that in the coming year because they just released it not too long ago. But I’m hoping that it can do a lot of what I do manually, programmatically just so I can save some time there.
But once you have your templates down and everything, it doesn’t take a whole lot of time. It’s just more about making sure that it gets updated on a regular basis.
Yeah, yeah. Cool, well I want to talk about your post and actually combine it with a discussion about project management as a whole. And you’ve written a post all about the biggest lies in project management. And in that you talk about some of the biggest lies being that clients don’t need project management, that PMs only care about time, money and budget. That PMs aren’t honest with me. And basically the kind of net result of these three things can be this misconception by clients or even our peers, whoever, that project management isn’t important.
And I think actually there’s a discourse that would say, “Hey actually, project management is dying. Who needs it anyway? Why don’t we just kind of talk with the people who are doing the work and let’s just get this done. Let’s just work together and kind of hash it out.” But what I would argue as I suggested in the intro is that actually, project management is an important thing. And the role that we play as project managers is really important for a whole host of reasons that we’re going to talk about in a moment.
But let’s just start though by actually talking about this perception thing. And I’m curious as to actually, why should we care whether or not people value what we do? Do you think we should care? And if we should care, why?
Yeah. Yeah, I do think we should care. But I do think that we do need to take it with somewhat of a grain of salt, right? Because let’s be real. For the most part we’re not saving lives, at least directly. Right? We might be working on software that does occasionally, but we’re not. You know, in the midst of providing CPR to somebody. So you do need to take it a little bit with that. But I do suppose that most people tie how they’re valued to their own self-worth. So whether that’s right or wrong, that’s a different podcast. But I do think it’s important to feel valued in what you do.
Whether that is software development, whether that’s project management, product management, whatever, it’s important to feel valued in what you do. And at the end of the day, in our business, value equals money. And everybody has bills to pay. And so I do think that there’s value in what we do, and I know we’ll get into some of these other topics as to why that is. But in short, yes I do think that there is a lot of value to the project management process and project managers in general.
So if … I’m curious as to why you think it is then that people do believe this perception, and why is it that this kind of comes time and time again that project management is this added, worthless expense. You kind of talk about this in your article and that’s Tucker’s provided an excellent email that you can just copy and paste when a client suggests that you don’t need project management.
But there’s no smoke without fire, right? So why is it that people have believed this lie that project management is this worthless expense? And how can we … and what can we do to negate that?
I think more and more what we’re seeing is that people, whether that’s our direct clients or the people that we’re working with the negotiation process during contracting is that people are pressured to negotiate with the vendors, us, so that they get the lowest cost for the highest value, or at least the perceived highest value. So I think out of all the roles on any given project, particularly digital projects, project managers usually have the least tangible work product when compared to designers, developers, copy writers, you name it.
I think there’s a similar parallel with test engineers or what sometimes other people refer to as quality assurance engineers. Because we don’t have something that directly the client can see, right, it’s more of just okay, here’s the end result. And, it’s kind of hard to show that, and show that work. But, that doesn’t mean that it’s not valuable. I think you mentioned it in the intro.
Usually, more seasoned clients that have built products before, done websites, will know that those roles are needed on every project. And the reason they know that is because they’ve probably done that before. And then they’ve had to have a PM come in and “save the day”. And then they realize that they actually blew their budget because they didn’t include the PM to begin with. Or in some cases quality, or test engineers.
And so I think that’s why we see it the most is two parts. One, the negotiation process wanting to cut out costs where they can or where they think they can. And then two, not being able to see anything tangible in what we’re doing.
Yeah. Yeah, so I think I mean let’s talk about some of those lies about project management. And yeah, I want to talk about … let’s start with this. Clients don’t think that they need project management, but I’m suggesting 10 reasons, we can talk about some of these in a second.
The 10 reasons why project management is important and why clients do need project management. And you touch on some of these in your article. But we’ve got strategic alignment. Leadership for the project, having a clear focus on objectives. Realistic project planning, not just pie in the sky. Quality control, risk management, an orderly process. Continuous oversight. Subject matter expertise and also managing and learning from success and failure. Now, I want to just touch on a couple of these topics.
But one of them I think, that’s really important is leadership. And you touch on this in your article, where you know as project managers we can … there needs to someone there who is leading the team who is doing the strategic alignment, who is providing a focus. Who is setting a kind of direction and setting the course for the project or the product. They might not be the product owner themselves but someone who can kind of galvanize the team. But how would you kind of help the client understand the value of that? And why do you think that leadership kind of aspect is important? And how do you try and explain that to a client?
Yeah, that’s a good one. You know, I think with every project I think we all know that somebody’s got to be there to keep moving the ball forward. And by that, what I mean, somebody needs to be there every day or nearly every day to keep moving the ball forward. Because you never know when you’re going to run into a blocker that needs to be removed. And often times, our clients are busy people. This isn’t their only project that they’re working on. This is just one of their priorities. And so, they’re kind of leaving it up to us to make sure that that continues to happen and that we keep moving that ball forward and that we’re raising things to them when things come up that might impede the progress of the overall project and could be tied to their performance and how they’re rated on their performance internally.
And so I think just making sure that the client understands that they can trust you to keep things going. And making sure that they understand that that’s your purpose of being on the project. And so that way they don’t have to be in it every single day and making sure that they do that. Because quite frankly they probably also don’t have the time or the skills to do it. And so that’s why we as project managers need to make sure that we are providing that leadership and that we’re speaking up both internally and externally to keep that moving forward.
Yeah. And I think you mentioned this in your article, but it’s kind of like that aspect that good project management, you shouldn’t notice good project management. It’s kind of like air quality, you don’t notice air quality until it’s bad and it’s the same kind of thing with project management as well. And I think there’s other things that I talked about. Things like quality control, risk management. That continuous oversight I think is really important. And I think clients can sometimes think, “Hey, we’ll just get away with it. We’re working with really … if we’re working with the developer and they should be the best in class because they’re coming from this agency or working with the designer. Then surely they know what they’re doing so then it shouldn’t need much management, right?”
But the reality is, yes, somebody needs to be leading the project and providing that oversight in order to kind of keep the project on track. So, I think yeah. Clients need project management. That’s kind of where I’d end that. But one of your other arguments that you talk about is you know, PMs only care about timeline and budgets and that can be something, a criticism that’s leveled at us because we become not strategic, where we’re not providing leadership. And we kind of become too focused on this continuous oversight thing.
And in your article you talk about actually what you try and spend your time on is relationship management, communication and negotiation. So I understand kind of at high level themes what that looks like. But day in, day out, what does that look like for you? How does that impact your day?
Yeah, this is one of my favorite topics to talk about, actually. So it does differ a little bit based on any given client or project and where you’re at with that client, kind of in your relationship or your engagement. But it can look like anything from one on one check-ins with your client and your team to ensuring that helpful artifacts are getting shipped out to communicate to the client and to maybe their stakeholders. And then it can also include making sure that you’re challenging the client and making sure that your team is on the path forward that makes the most sense for the best possible product idea.
And so, I think really where I find myself spending the most time is, the reason I spend the most of my time on these three things is because these three things combined, no matter how the project goes, wrenches are gonna get thrown in it left and right. But if I have a good working relationship with my team, and with my client who I frankly consider part of the team. If things are getting communicated well and if I’m constantly challenging both the team and the client, I know that no matter what comes up in the project, no matter what gets thrown at us, we’re all gonna be pretty much on the same page on kind of how we should move forward. There’s not going to be any finger pointing, not this person did this thing wrong or that thing wrong.
It’s going to be a much more productive conversation about how we keep the ball moving forward because I have spent that time on those three things and invested my time there.
Yeah, I think for me that comes back to that you know, the first thing actually that I mentioned in the list of things of why we should care about it is that strategic alignment and we get to that strategic alignment with the client and with the team when there’s communication that whether that relationship management, that kind of ongoing negotiation is happening rather than a big disaster happening and requiring this disastrous negotiation. But if negotiation and communication is a regular part of the relationship, then we can kind of when issues do come up, we’re much more aligned and it’s much easier to get to a resolution. So yeah, our focus can’t be just be on timelines and budgets and I think what you talked about in your article is that if you are just focused on timelines and budgets, then you’re doing it wrong. But one of the things that you talk about as well, creating optimal working conditions for the team.
And you know, it kind of plays into that scrum master role which is like removing blockers from the team. But how else are you … what does creating optimal working conditions for the team, what does that look like?
Yeah. I mean like you just mentioned, making sure that you are acting in a role where you can remove any blockers that do come up so that way your team can keep moving forward. That’s a given. But for every project it will look a little bit different. But that will come up no matter what. I think the other piece of this is when you’re thinking about creating the optimal work conditions for your team and also for your client, you really need to give everybody space. And that’s space to make sure that they can do their best work possible and that you’re not …
They don’t have this feeling that you’re constantly breathing down their neck or checking in with them on a too regular basis, too frequently to the point where it feels like you don’t trust them to do their job. Really what I kind of, what I think of when I do this is that I want to treat my team like adults, right? We all have a job to do. We all make money doing it. So I should trust them to do their job. I shouldn’t be breathing down their necks to make sure that they’re getting things done.
Or same thing with the client, right? I’m not … it’s not my job to babysit or anything like that. So I need to trust my client and trust my team that they are going to deliver on what they need to deliver on and if something isn’t being delivered on, that’s another conversation. But that’s really what I think of when making the most optimal working conditions, just making sure that I build that trust and I let the team go and let them do their job.
Yeah. I think that’s helpful. And also in your article you talk about PMs aren’t honest with me and that’s one of the criticisms of Project Managers is that the PM is just trying to cover their arse, they’re trying to make their life easy and so they’re you know … not having the conversions that they need to. But what are your, thinking about what you just said about you don’t want to be a micromanager. And you want to kind of let people get on and … enable people really to do their best work. How do you then strike that balance with being able to provide the client with timely and correct updates? Because often it can be the case that maybe it wasn’t that the PM wasn’t deliberately dishonest with you.
It’s just that based on the information that they had from their team, that was, you know what they understood to be the situation or the currents status. So how do you balance that micromanagement with being able to provide accurate and I guess realistic updates to clients so they don’t get this sense that oh, the PM is being dishonest. Any tips on that?
Yeah. Yeah I think it’s just to make sure that they don’t think you’re being dishonest, it’s just making sure that you’re constantly communicating in real time, honest things that are coming up with the team. If your team is struggling for any given reason, there’s really no … you’re not really benefiting from not delivering that news to the client, other than expectations not being set properly down the road. And that ends up damaging the relationship even further. So if your team is honestly having some challenges and that’s affecting any results that you’re moving towards, just be honest with the client about it.
And also the same goes for your team. If you’re having some challenges with getting information from your client or maybe some blockers have come up that you haven’t been able to remove, let your team know that you’re working on it, but be honest with them. “Hey, here’s what I’m working on with the client. Here’s why the client’s having trouble getting this to me.” It just helps everybody know that you’re not trying to be a gatekeeper of any information and you’re not trying to be malicious about anything. You’re trying to make sure that everybody stays on the same page.
There’s really … I’ve had very few times where I have felt like I’ve needed to protect my team from any kind of knowledge or my client from any kind of knowledge. There’s whenever any time that any of those things have come up, I don’t really see the benefit in not telling them. And just making sure that they have that information. Most often they’re not, it’s gonna be fine. Sometimes it might cause a little bit of an awkward conversation but I will tell you for sure that that one awkward conversation is much better than the much more awkward conversation down the road because you didn’t say something that you needed to say earlier on in the project.
Yeah. So kind of wrapping up this bit then, what would you … I mean you’ve talked about three of these kind of the biggest lies in project management. But for you, overall, what tends to be the biggest challenge of making a case for project management? What’s the thing that you kind of think clients actually have most issue with and what can we do about it?
Mm-hmm (affirmative), yeah. I think it kind of gets back to the beginning of this whole thing is I think the biggest challenge that I have seen out there is that clients have or some clients have gotten in their head that some of my projects don’t need project management. I don’t need it because I have my own project management team. So why should I have to pay for your project manager? You know that is a thing that continues to come up. And so I think the best way to get around that is just making sure that they understand why project management is important. That you contribute to the team beyond just giving updates and being a low level paper pusher.
And that you don’t withhold information from your team or your clients. I think all of these things really lead up to making sure that when the clients are trying to make the case that they don’t need project management that you have that in your back pocket. And I think that all goes to showing that you deliver value to your client on a very consistent basis.
Yeah. I think that’s helpful. And I think one of the things, I mean maybe this plays into it but I think with the growing popularity of scrum and obviously the role of scrum master and product owner but no project manager, do you think the … well I mean what’s your kind of view on the kind of evolution of the project management role? Do you think project management is becoming redundant or how do you see that kind of playing it because you’re not director of project management. And as digital shops try to pivot to do more product development work where there’s ongoing, recurring revenue, it’s kind of a safer bet. Where do you see this kind of, the evolution of the PM role going within agencies?
Yeah, this is a really good question. I do think that, or I should clarify. I don’t think that PMs are becoming redundant, I do think that there is, there will always be a need for digital project management, but I think some of t might shift. What I mean by that is I mean that it really depends on the type of work that you’re doing at the end of the day.
The type of the work that we’re doing at the end of the day at Crema is a lot of product development. Product development lends itself best I think to the skillsets of what we consider product managers. But, you know, some digital projects are some of your more traditional digital projects. Email campaigns, marketing websites. Those kinds of things that are you know, the details differ at the zoomed in level but you zoom out and really they’re kind of the same type of work.
And so I think that we’ll still see digital project management in regard. But I do think as we see more and more companies need complex digital products that those require somebody to have the ability to zoom all the way out, or sorry zoom all the way into the nitty gritty details and then zoom all the way out and communicate how those details relate to the overall product strategy.
So I do think there is a shift happening, but I don’t necessarily think it means that the PM is becoming redundant, it’s just more so about the work that’s being done. And at Crema you know we’ve seen a lot of growth. So we see a lot of product managers at digital agencies being more commonplace in the future, because nearly every business has product ideas that they need to have designed and developed but they also recognize that they might not have the skillset internally to handle that in the best way. Which is I think one of the reasons why we’re doing so well.
So yeah, I do think that there’s a shift happening but I don’t think that it necessarily means that digital project managers are going away any time soon.
Yeah. And do you know I think maybe the way I see it is that the aspect of product management that project managers I think need to be cognizant of is this more strategic part of the role. So if we kind of think of project managers as the product owner, I know there’s a big difference between the two but what a product owner does is understands the business. They understand what’s going to deliver strategic value. Yes, they’re kind of thinking about the sequencing of what needs to be built in what order to provide the most value. But if that strategic lens that I think is the really important part of project management that I think we can often forget about. And you talked about PMs only caring about timelines and budgets, well the product owner or the product manager has a more strategic lens.
And I think every project manager should be thinking about okay, well how can I be ensuring that I’m delivering strategic value? How can I make sure that I’m not just focused on delivering this project? But actually that the client is getting value out of this as well and how am I going to be delivering value and I think regardless then of the change of you know, whether or not you end up being called product managers or project managers, and depending on the work that we do, it shifts.
I think having that more strategic lens is going to be useful, regardless of what happens.
Cool, so I just want to finish by asking you what would you say for someone listening to this podcast maybe who is a … maybe they’re a client and they’re thinking oh, well I’m still trying to decide whether I need to get paid for project management on my projects or maybe advice for a PM thinking okay, what’s the most important thing I need to do to make a client feel like they’re getting value. What would be, what for you is the most valuable thing that we can do? What’s the most important thing for us to take away here?
Yeah, I think the running theme in all of this is building trust. So, on only doing that with your client but also doing it with your team. Get to know them as humans first. It really does help a ton if you get to know them as a human first. Because then there will also be more grace given throughout the project and as I said earlier, as wrenches get thrown into the plan, if you know each other as humans it’s a much more productive conversation. Rather than trying to point fingers. And I think part of that, building trust, those are the two words out of anything in this podcast you remember, those are the two words to remember.
But to just elaborate on that a little bit further I would say when you’re doing that with your clients, so obviously first you get to know them as humans but second one way to build trust very quickly is challenging their thinking. They’re hiring you to be the expert and so that’s what you should be doing. Don’t feel like you can’t challenge their thinking just because they’re paying the bills. They probably want that. Most clients do.
And then that will build respect really quickly amongst your team members and amongst your clients. And so that way you’ll have that trust kind of pretty quickly out of the gate.
Cool. Sound advice. Tucker, thank you so much for joining us, it’s been great having you with us.
It’s been great talking to you. Thank you, Ben.
So what do you think? Do you agree? Is project management important or is it not? Tell us what you think. Comment on the post, and head to the resources section of thedigitalprojectmanager.com to join our Slack team where you’ll find all kinds of interesting conversations going on about all things digital and PM and you’ll probably find most people there would say project management is important. But feel free to add your perspective too. And if you liked what you heard today, please subscribe and take a couple of minutes just to leave an honest review for the DPM podcast on iTunes or wherever you’re listening. Ratings and reviews are really appreciated and really helpful because it helps us take the show and make it better. It’s greatly appreciated. But until next time, thanks for listening.