DPM Podcast

DPM Podcast: Don’t Keep “Doing The Project Dishes” (with Patrice Embry)

By 23/10/2018 July 26th, 2019 No Comments

This podcast is part of an article published on The Digital Project Manager.
You can read the article here.

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Audio Transcription:

Ben Aston:

Welcome to the DPM podcast where we go beyond theory to give expert PM advice for leading better digital projects. Thanks for tuning in, I’m Ben Aston, the founder of The Digital Project Manager. Now, I wonder if this sounds familiar to any of you. “Hey, can you just set up a meeting for us?”, or “Hey, could you just sort out a conference line for me?”, or better still, “Hey, could you just book my flights and hotel for me?”.

So the question is: how do you reply? “Um, sure.” But, should you be agreeing to that? Should you be doing everyone’s dirty work? And that’s what today’s podcast is all about. How and where do we draw that line between what’s legit project management and what is everyone else’s project or personal admin, that they should just be doing themselves.

This episode is sponsored by Resource Guru, the resource scheduling tool used by teams at companies like Apple, Ogilvy, Deloitte, and Publicis. DPM listeners can get 20% off for the lifetime of their account with the coupon code DPM2018.

Learn more at resourceguru.io/dpm

Here’s the conundrum us PMs, we’ll we’re pretty awesome at making stuff happen and people recognize that, they know we’re the people to go to. We’re awesome, we’re organized, but if we’re not careful, everyone can just start thinking that they can use us as their own personal assistants but are they just taking advantage of us? And, what can we do about it? So today, I’m talking to Patrice Embry, Patrice is a remote DPM, she’s a certified Scrum Master, one of our resident DPM experts at the Digital Project Manager and Patrice has got some pretty strong feelings about this project admin thing, so we’re gonna talk about how we can manage ourselves and our teams better so that we can get our teams to take ownership of their own admin. Sounds good, right? Well, hi Patrice.

Patrice Embry:

Hi!

Ben Aston:

It’s good to have you with us again today.

Patrice Embry:

Always a pleasure.

Ben Aston:

Patrice and I were just talking offline, Patrice is about to perform, I think we’re gonna call it perform, perform at the DPM Summit with her lightning talk. Patrice, can you give us a sneak peek into what you are talking about?

Patrice Embry:

I am talking about postmortems, and I’m calling them postmortems even though everyone keeps telling me it’s too morbid and you should call them retrospectives. So there’s your sneak peek. I am refusing to conform and I will call them postmortems.

Ben Aston:

Is there any reason why you prefer the mortem?

Patrice Embry:

I don’t know, I mean, I think it’s actually fitting. People think it’s morbid but actually it’s dissecting –

Ben Aston:

… the project is dead, right?

Patrice Embry:

The project is dead and you need to figure out what killed it, so, yes, I think it’s apt.

Ben Aston:

Well, there’s a project lifecycle. The project is born and then it comes into life, it matures, and then …

Patrice Embry:

It dies.

Ben Aston:

Yeah, so, I think that’s fair. So, apart from your rather morbid talk, could you tell us about any of the other things you are working on at the moment?

Patrice Embry:

I’m sort of at that weird spot that freelancers can definitely, probably relate to where some larger projects of mine are coming to an end and I’m at that spot where I’m trying to figure out what the rest of my year looks like. I think freelancers can probably, definitely understand what that sort of does to you and when you’re a little bit nervous about doing a talk at the Digital Project Management Summit plus you’re wondering if you’ve got some extra work coming your way it’s a little bit of a stressful time for me, but you know your making –

Ben Aston:

So does that mean there is a digital PM for hire, coming up?

Patrice Embry:

Possibly, possibly, possibly.

Ben Aston:

Well, there you go, if you want to hire Patrice head over to her website and get in touch. It’s Patrice-Embry.com right?

Patrice Embry:

Yes, Patrice hyphen Embry dot com.

Ben Aston:

There we go. Cool, so, what are the kind of projects that you love working? What do you feel like is your sweet spot? I’m curious as a remote PM how you … you know what your best at, you know what kind of projects you love most, so what are they and how do you decide whether, or not you’re going to take a gig, even if it doesn’t quite hit that sweet spot?

Patrice Embry:

I think I might have mentioned this last time we did a podcast together, but through no extra effort of my own I have been doing a lot more non-profit work, which I really love ’cause it makes me feel like I’m doing something good for the world. So, non-profit and academia. It’s just kind of like you put it out to the universe, I guess, and it comes back to you, so I’ve been doing a lot of that lately. Of course, it doesn’t … the projects don’t have the same type of budgets as maybe some other projects do so that also puts me at a bit of a disadvantage but I really enjoy the work, I enjoy feeling good about what I’m doing. It doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t ever do anything else but that’s kind of where I’m at. So what’s happening with the project, what we’re actually doing, is sort of immaterial to me because I really enjoy the end clients that I’m working with. So I’m kind of doing everything.

Ben Aston:

Apart from the budgets that you … I mean there’s that budget challenge when you are working for non-profits or academia but what are the other … I mean, how do you work around those challenges? Firstly, there’s the challenge that, obviously, there’s not as much budget for a PM or for you but in terms of managing the project what are some of the things that you’ve learned as you do your postmortems? What are some of your learnings from the world of academia and the world of non-profits that other people could learn from if they’re taking on a project like that?

Patrice Embry:

I mean, I think most project managers are always looking for ways to streamline things and find efficiencies, it’s just magnified when you are working with any project with a small budget and when you … sometimes you’ll work with a small budget but you know that they have some extra money in the coffers. With the work that I’m doing now there isn’t, I know that there isn’t. For some of these end clients I know how they’re even raising their funds and I know it’s just not there so, finding efficiencies and stuff like that, you are finding every efficiency possible and you’re constantly telling the people that you’re working with who are doing the work, you only have this much time and if you can’t do it in this amount of time I need you to tell me within this amount of time. If you can’t do this job, this particular small task, within 3 hours I need you to tell me within fifteen minutes that you can’t do it. It’s very exacting.

Ben Aston:

I think it’s good, isn’t it?. It forces us to be a bit more disciplined in the way that we manage and control the projects. You have to know that granular detail otherwise things are going to fall part really quickly. Let’s talk about your article and here’s the reality. We just end up doing odd jobs for our teams and we were talking about this when you were writing the article but it seems that the PMs always seem to be the ones that get tasked, for whatever reason, with setting up meeting rooms, cleaning meeting rooms, getting the water in the meetings. Even something as silly as dialing in the line, the conference line, when you’re sat in a meeting room, for some reason everyone expects it’s the PM that should be the one that hits the numbers on the phone. We’re the ones that take the notes, we’re the ones that go and get the donuts, so we’re the ones that grease the wheels so that the work can happen around us but, should we be doing that? And is that really something that’s within our PM role?

Patrice has written a really good article about this that you should all read and I think one of the points that you make within the article is that, is this something that we end up doing because of our gender? And I’m talking about … I’m obviously a guy and you’re a girl, but … or is this something we end up doing just because we’re too nice? This is obviously something that you feel passionate about and I feel passionate about it from a different perspective, you obviously feel that often if you’re a girl you’re more likely to end up doing these jobs. As a guy I can definitely say that I’ve certainly been the one doing those things as well but … First of all let’s talk about these kind of requests we’ve got. What are some of the worse things … What’s the worst request that you’ve ever had from someone who just assumes it should be your role to do that thing?

Patrice Embry:

Nothing that has been asked of me has been particularly egregious, that I can remember. I think it’s just the sheer magnitude of how many times I’ve been asked to do the same thing.

Ben Aston:

Right yeah.

Patrice Embry:

You know what I mean?

Ben Aston:

Yeah.

Patrice Embry:

So, there is nothing that sticks out as like, oh my god, this one guy was like “cut my toenails.” There’s nothing like that, you know, but there is … the amount of times that I’m asked to do some of these things is really astounding.

Ben Aston:

Yeah, yeah no, I think for me personally I think it’s definitely the volume and the repetitiveness of it, and I think it often happens when if we’re not careful, there can be … we can support a culture in which we’re taken advantage of, right?

Patrice Embry:

Yeah.

Ben Aston:

So when we conform to the request “hey, can you just book me a taxi to pick me up to go to the airport for my flight for a client meeting?” Or something like that, and you’re like “Sure. I’ll help you out this time because I know you’re busy, and I don’t want you to miss your flight, ’cause I want you to get to the meeting, because if you don’t get to that meeting, the whole project falls apart.” And it’s that balance of hey, we’re trying to help our teams do their best work, and help them stay focused on the work, but also “hey, why shouldn’t they book their own taxi?” So, lets get down to the crux of the issue, though. Is this about us defining our job description better, or about not being such a pushover? What’s your thoughts on that?

Patrice Embry:

Well, I mean I think a lot of what you just said is absolutely right. I mean, our job … it’s not written in our job description, but it’s inherent in the work that we do, is we remove the obstacles that people have so they can get the work done that we need them to do so that this project can move forward. That’s our job, is to remove all the road blocks, pave the way for work to get done, and if that means that they’re working right up until the meeting time, and they need someone to come and knock on their door and say “yo, it’s time for our meeting.” To remind them in person that it’s time for a meeting, I’ve had that happen many times.

Ben Aston:

Yeah, yeah.

Patrice Embry:

They had a calender reminder. That’s what you do, but I think what the defining line is, is whether, or not they’re doing it because they need it, and they still respect your role, or they’re doing it because they don’t respect your role, and they think it’s your job. So it’s the different between am I helping someone out, and they would not ask me otherwise, and they respect my role as leading a project, or do they think. “I don’t have to do this because this other person … it’s their job to do it.” That’s when ii get a little bit … I have some ways to gracefully point out to someone that I’m not doing that.

Ben Aston:

Tell us about those ways. What are those ways? How do you … so, okay let’s role play. So, Patrice I’m running a bit late for my meeting today, so I’m wondering if you can just make sure that the conference room is all set up, and just make sure that it’s dialed in, so that as soon as I get there we’re good to go?

Patrice Embry:

I would probably say something like “I can help you out this time with that, sure no problem. I don’t have anything scheduled right beforehand, so good news, I’m able to help.” You know. I mean, so I’m hitting the point home that I might not be able to do this in the future. If I had something that I was doing right until the time that I had to be in that same meeting, I wouldn’t be able to help you out, and that’s the truth.

Ben Aston:

Yeah.

Patrice Embry:

When you do that subtly, the message does, for most people, the message comes through. You might have to do it several times, but the message comes through, and they realize that when you do that, you’re doing it for the project, and you’re not doing it for them, because you’re the lackey.

Ben Aston:

Yeah, yeah definitely. So, tell us what your perspective is. I mean for some people, for some of us we’ve been the lackey for years. That’s something we’ve kind of embraced in our role, and I think for me, personally, I started out as a … I was an intern at an ad agency, so as an intern-

Patrice Embry:

So you were a professional lackey.

Ben Aston:

Yeah, exactly, and so I think something … It makes you very humble right? Because you realize hey, you’re at the bottom of the ladder here, and there isn’t anyone lower than you, and so if there’s any dirty work that needs to be done, it’s you. And I feel like, as I’ve gone through my career, actually it’s hard to shake off that mindset where you’re like hey, when people around you want stuff done, and you’re just not … you’re trying to grease the wheels. You’re trying to just … whatever it takes to let them do their work. Either way it’s kind of air on the side of “hey, well, do you know what? Okay fine. If that’s gonna keep you happy, if that’s gonna keep things rolling, sure let’s just go for it.” So I guess my question is around where is this a principle thing? To what extent is this a principle thing that hey, we shouldn’t just be doing everyone’s dirty word? And to what extent is it hey, well no one else is going to do it. Why shouldn’t I do it?

Patrice Embry:

Yeah, I mean I think if you’re worried about it, if it makes you feel angry, and you’re like … you kinda feel like you wanna tell them to go F-off. I think you just need to stop and ask yourself if you’re doing that because you feel taken advantage of, or are you a little bit insecure, and how much leadership you have in the project, or in the agency, or in the company.

There’s lots of reasons why you might feel that way, and you just have to examine why that is. It might be because you just don’t feel like you have the right leadership position, and you feel a little bit unsure of yourself. That’s not a right reason to push back. You being unsure of your position is not a great reason to get back, you know, push back on something like that, but what is a good reason to push back, is if a, you’re not getting some of your stuff done, because you have to do these things.

Ben Aston:

Yeah, yeah.

Patrice Embry:

That’s an immediate red flag, or frankly, if you’re in a senior position, and the person asking you to do something is a junior designer, the amount of time, 15 minutes of your time costs the agency more than 15 minutes of their time.

Ben Aston:

Yeah.

Patrice Embry:

So you could also think of it that way. It would cost them $50 to ask you, but it’s costing them $100 to ask me. You should be doing this work. So, that’s a good way, in your mind, to kinda frame it too, so you know whether on not it’s a good idea to push back. Conversely, if it costs a $100 for me, but $200 for a vice president of whatever, then I’m gonna do it. So, there’s some more concrete ways that you can navigate this as well.

Ben Aston:

Yeah. No, I think that’s good. I think that’s helpful, and you’re helping to draw that line, helping to draw that distinction, ’cause yeah, I think there’s … if we can think of this okay, well there might be some things that we and only we can do, because we’re the only ones that have access to something, or we’re the ones with the credit card information, so that’s why we keep on being asked to order the sandwiches, or something like that.

Patrice Embry:

Sure, yeah.

Ben Aston:

But I think that’s a really good point about thinking about okay, but is this the most valuable use of my time, and is my time more valuable doing something else? So, yeah, I think that’s really helpful. So, for those people, though, who are thinking, “okay, well this is all well and good. Okay, we need to assert ourselves. We need to draw the line, but if this is being you, you’ve been doing it for years. You’ve kinda been caught up in this cycle of being everyone’s lackey. How do you make it stop?” You kind agave us that scenario of a one off way to say “hey, I’ll do it just this once, because I’ve got nothing better to do right now, but I might not next time.” How do you do it though, if you suddenly turn around and tell someone that they might be a bit surprised.

Patrice Embry:

Sure, yeah.

Ben Aston:

… change management. How’s the way you change the culture, ’cause I think that’s what we’re talking about here. It’s changing this cultural understanding of what it means to be a PM, and particularly, maybe what it means to be a PM as a guy, versus being a PM as a girl?

Patrice Embry:

Well, what you can do, if you’ve already been doing this, this whole time, and you feel like “you know what, Patrice, you’re right. It is impacting me getting my other work done. I really can’t be doing this, this often.” You can say “I know I usually do this, I know I usually book these meetings. I know I usually order the lunch, but my schedule … I just can’t, so it might be a good idea for us to maybe each take a piece of this, you know? Or Jane can do this part, and John can do this part.” If you say I used to be able to do this, but my schedule has gotten so busy, people can relate to that. That’s a really good reason to not do something again. You can fall back on that, and you can fudge it a little bit, but that’s how yo get out of it.

Ben Aston:

Nice.

Patrice Embry:

Yeah.

Ben Aston:

I think that’s good. That divide and conquer, and I think what you’re saying about okay, well let’s get everyone to take some responsibility for this, is really sound advice. So, what would be your first step, though, in identifying whether, or not you’re being taken advantage of? Or whether, or not this needs to change? You’ve talked about identifying what are the urgent things that I keep on being asked to do that aren’t necessarily important, but is that a good place to start, or where would you start in terms of trying to draw the line?

Patrice Embry:

I think it would be the easiest thing to change, change that first. I’m a big believer in low hanging fruit, and starting to do anything, starts with the first step. Make your first step the easy step, and do the easy thing. That’s personally how I would do that, especially since, if you start off pushing back in a respectful way, with something small, as you push back in a respectful way with larger things, it’s not gonna be so out of the blue. They are gonna realize that you’re starting to assert yourself, and they’re not gonna be taken aback when you do it. So I say start small, and then work up to the bigger things.

Ben Aston:

And so, tell us, in terms of your experience of this, is this something you’ve always fought against, or something that you’ve recently realized “hey, I shouldn’t be doing this. This needs to change.” What your personal experience of being taken advantage of and then fighting it?

Patrice Embry:

Well, I didn’t start off as an intern, but I did start off as someone fairly junior, and anybody who has ever looked me up, I didn’t graduate from a regular college. I don’t have a bachelors degree, so that always … now I’m 400 years old, so it doesn’t really matter anymore.

Ben Aston:

Wow.

Patrice Embry:

Yeah, but you know … so you started as an intern. I started with an inferiority complex, and a chip in my shoulder that people probably didn’t think I could do a good job. No one I was working with knew that. People … might be a bit of new information for some of the people listening, but it doesn’t really matter anymore, but … so I started off at a place where I was like “I have to do anything I can to make these people take me seriously.” And so I literally would do everything, so that people … I thought, mistakenly, that people would think “Patrice is super on the ball. We can really trust her to do everything.” And all I was really doing, was making it easy for people to take advantage of me in certain ways.

So, I think this advice probably resonates the most with people who are just starting out in their career, but I do think, and I know that you … I know that we have a difference of opinion here. I do think it happens more to women than it does to men, because we’re used to … there’s societal norms, and there’s unconscious bias, which is something you hear a lot in the news nowadays. Unconscious is the important word, because I think a lot of people get their backs up, immediately saying “I am not a sexist. I respect women. I don’t do this.” And it’s this unconscious bias, or the fact that maybe you see it happening, and you aren’t really sure if the person that’s making it happen … you don’t really wanna rock the boat, so there’s this, either unconscious bias, or this unconscious buy-in of this cultural norm that I think causes this to happen more often than others. I mean when you think of these menial tasks, the word secretary comes to mind, right?

Ben Aston:

Yeah.

Patrice Embry:

I’m not the project Secretary. When you say secretary, what comes to mind? A woman sitting behind a desk. So, there is this weird unconscious bias that makes it harder for women to be able top push back on these things.

Ben Aston:

Yeah, no, obviously I’m a guy, and I’ve experienced-

Patrice Embry:

And you’re a good guy. You’re a good guy, and this is why it doesn’t resonate with you, because you don’t … because you’re a good guy, and I’m sure you would speak up about it, so I get it. I get it.

Ben Aston:

I think it’s also possibly a part of this has to do with the fact that. Particularly within digital project management, this might be a sweeping statement, that’s wholly untrue, but the impression I get, and this is partly because of the people that I’ve had on my teams over the years, but also when I look around the industry, who seems engaged? Who’s there? There’s a lot more girls than boys, is the impression I get. It just –

Patrice Embry:

There’s a lot more girls than boys in digital project management. There’s a lot more men than women in development roles, and by far the more people that you have on your team, as your project team, you’re gonna have a bunch of developers, maybe you have a designer. I feel like designers are pretty split evenly between men and women. We still haven’t really gotten to that point with developers, and you might have one designer, but you may have five developers. You might get five dudes on your team, and maybe one other woman, and you are one of two, and so yeah, the dynamics can change.

Ben Aston:

Yeah.

Patrice Embry:

They can, so …

Ben Aston:

I think that’s … my point there being that I think therefore that does make it harder, as a girl, trying to push back against that, but yeah, I think what really resonated with me in terms of what you’ve been talking about, is just thinking about here as project managers, we’re trying to deliver value for our teams, for the projects, for the clients, and really thinking about “okay, well sure it’s okay to do some of these things sometime.”, but really, if we think about what’s important? What should I be prioritizing? Thinking about that urgent versus important conundrum, and really we should only be doing these medial tasks for people, if they’re urgent, but also important. Important for the project, important to ensure that we make sure we deliver on budget, on time. It’s gonna keep the project going. There we can make concessions-

Patrice Embry:

And if you’re literally the only person who’s able to do it. There’s that big thing too, ’cause you know, one thing we haven’t talked about is note-taking, and that’s a real hot button issue with a lot of … , so anyone is capable of taking notes in a meeting. Anyone is capable of doing that, and so there’s no shortage of people, unless you’re in a meeting with just you and one other person, and the other person is literally doing all the talking, and you’re literally doing none of it, someone else can be taking notes, other than the project manager. I always take notes. Io don’t car who else is taking notes ’cause I’m taking notes for myself, and that-

Ben Aston:

That’s what I was gonna say right? because as a project mana-

Patrice Embry:

And that’s what I do, I say that-

Ben Aston:

We could talk if you-

Patrice Embry:

I say I’m taking this for myself. I’m good at taking notes for myself, but I can probably take notes for the project. I say that, that’s one of my go to’s. Whenever anyone says “are you taking notes?” “Yeah, I’m taking my own notes, but I’m not taking notes for the project.” Or I’ll start the meeting by saying “I’m gonna be doing a lot of talking during this meeting, so, so and so, who’s not doing a lot of the talking, would you mind taking the notes for this meeting?”

Ben Aston:

Yeah.

Patrice Embry:

And it just makes sense. No one’s gonna push back on that. It makes sense.

Ben Aston:

Well, unless everybody knows that that person doesn’t write good notes. ’cause I think what … the interesting thing for me is that yes, everyone can, and could write notes, but I think the difference that a project manager brings when they write notes, is that maybe they’re a bit more structured.

Patrice Embry:

Better.

Ben Aston:

Yeah, that makes sense.

Patrice Embry:

Maybe they’re a bit more good.

Ben Aston:

So, yeah, but maybe after a few times of writing bad notes, people start saying “hey, Frank, or whatever your name is, your notes really suck. You should talk to Patrice and find out how to do them properly.”

Patrice Embry:

Yes, yeah. I mean, it’s just … I think with notes, or with anything, if what you’re doing isn’t contributing to you being able to have a leadership role, and people seeing you … You don’t want taking notes all the time, or making travel reservations, or doing that to diminish you being able to say to someone “you’re not doing the work that I’m asking you to do, and I need you to do it differently.” If you had put yourself, now, in the position where you don’t … it would be weird for you to tell someone what to do, that’s your job. That’s inherently your job. If you’ve put yourself in this medial task position, and you can’t do that anymore, then you realize you’ve gone too far.

Ben Aston:

Yeah.

Patrice Embry:

You’ve been too accommodating, that’s the big litmus test. If you’ve been too … Can you tell a person that they did something wrong? No? Well then you probably did too much on the other side.

Ben Aston:

Yeah, yeah. Is this having an impact on your ability to properly execute that … as a PM, yeah, yeah that’s great. Patrice, thank you so much for joining us, it’s been great having you here with us today.

Patrice Embry:

Thanks.

Ben Aston:

And as one of our DPM experts, Patrice will not only be making an appearance at the digital PM summit, coming up, and she’ll be giving a lightning talk there, but also an appearance in our upcoming course starting in September. It’s called Millstream digital project management. If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, but you know you really need some PM training, check it out. It’s a seven week crash course. It includes interactive video lessons, assignments, group discussions, also the option of coaching.

Head to the DPM School and get yourself signed up, we’ve got a few spots left before the course fills up, and if you’d like to contribute to this conversation, I think this is a really interesting conversation. Where do we draw the line? How do we draw the line with our roles as PM’s versus project administrators? Well, comment on the post, and also head to the resources section of thedigitalprojectmanager.com to join our Slack team, and you’ll find lots of interesting conversations going on there, but until next time, thanks for listening.

Ben Aston

Ben Aston

I’m Ben Aston, a digital project manager and founder of thedigitalprojectmanager.com. I've been in the industry for more than 15 years working in the UK at London’s top digital agencies including Dare, Wunderman, Lowe and DDB. I’ve delivered everything from film to CMS', games to advertising and eCRM to eCommerce sites. I’ve been fortunate enough to work across a wide range of great clients; automotive brands including Land Rover, Volkswagen and Honda; Utility brands including BT, British Gas and Exxon, FMCG brands such as Unilever, and consumer electronics brands including Sony.

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