DPM Podcast

DPM Podcast: Project Manager Responsibilities (With Patrice Embry)

By 12/06/2018 No Comments

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

Audio Transcription:

Ben Aston:

Thanks for tuning in. I’m Ben Aston and this is the Digital Project Manager podcast. This podcast is brought to you by Clarizen, the leader in enterprise project and portfolio management software. Visit Clarizen.com to learn more.

So, today I’m joined by Patrice Embry, one of our resident DPM experts at the Digital Project Manager. Patrice, thanks again for coming on the show.

Patrice Embry:

Absolutely.

Ben Aston:

So, I wonder if you know what you’re really supposed to be doing beyond all those responsibilities that are listed out in your job description; keeping the project on time, organizing on budget. How do you go one step further? How can we separate ourselves from the pack? It’s not so much about what we do, it’s about how we do it.

So, today, we’re gonna be talking about how we can take those everyday responsibilities of a project manager to the next level and do them better. This is really about what you should really be doing with your time. But just on the off chance that you’re a new listener, let me introduce Patrice properly.

Patrice is on our team because she’s a great writer, she’s got stacks of really interesting experience, and somehow magically, she seems to be all over Slack all the time. And if you haven’t joined our Slack team yet, you could be talking to Patrice right now. So, head to the resources section of the Digital Project Manager and join more than a thousand other digital project managers talking about all kinds of interesting things.

So, Patrice has worked for all kinds of different people, agencies, corporations, and everything in between, and also is one of our DPM experts, Patrice is going to making a special guest appearance in our upcoming course which is called Mastering Digital Project Management. And if you are not sure what I’m talking about and you need some PM training, well, check it out. It’s a seven week crash course that includes interactive videos, weekly assignments, and group discussions, as well as the option of coaching sessions. So, head to digitalprojectmanagerschool.com and get yourself signed up. There’s just a few spots left.

But, Patrice, tell us … I know you’re remote project manager but can you tell people who are listening a bit about some of the different projects that you’re working on right now?

Patrice Embry:

Sure. Sure. Right now, I’m doing some governance work for one of my clients, running some interference between marketing and, you know, developers, which is always a fun thing for a project manager to do. It’s less about one single project and more about workflow and process. I’m also wrapping up a project that is an android version of an ios app that was created to help folks who are looking for short term projects around their house or errands to be run by someone who has a little bit of extra time.

I’m also working on helping some really great end clients update their sights. A lot of Drupal work. And helping with some really great nonprofits to get information in front of important folks, like the United Nations, so that project is right in the thick of it and is one of the most rewarding things that I’ve done so far in my career.

Ben Aston:

How many projects is that? Is that like six projects, seven projects that you’ve got going on? Or more?

Patrice Embry:

Well, yeah. Well, there’s three main projects and then the governance work is more time box. But it’s like everything that we do in four hours a day, though.

Ben Aston:

And in that governance piece, so you’re being brought on as an external consultant to try and help people what, to get the better?

Patrice Embry:

Yes. Yes. Exactly. And trying to help them, you know … I’m establishing process and I’m the link between an external vendor that’s doing development work and their large internal marketing department and helping not only get the work done but to tell them, you know, give them best practices and help set up the workflow and making sure that the agency developers, you know, have what they need. So, it’s a little bit of everything all put together. The best part is, because it’s a corporation and not an agency, I don’t have to keep a time sheet. So, that’s always wonderful when you don’t have to track your time.

Ben Aston:

A luxury.

Patrice Embry:

I know. I know.

Ben Aston:

What other kind of techniques you use to try and help these two groups interface with one another better?

Patrice Embry:

You know, it’s also complicated by the fact that the developers that they’re using are in another country and the marketing department is also global. So, there’s making sure that people are literally speaking the same language and understand the exact wording that other people are using because you learn quickly that, you know, what is a little bit of colloquial slang in one country is completely unintelligible in another one.

So, sometimes it’s literally making sure they understand each other but for the most part, it’s a lot of making sure that things are accurate, people are thinking about the entire piece of what they’re asking for. Because quite often people will say I just need a page. Okay. All right. Well, we can start there, you know. So, it’s kind of talking them through that kind of thing and each time we do it, they get a little bit more savvy about what they’re doing and, you know, the process is getting better and better as we keep going.

Ben Aston:

Yeah. I guess it must be quite rewarding as you see actually things starting to work better.

Patrice Embry:

Absolutely. Yeah. I mean, it’s nice when someone says I remember what you said before about x or y.

Ben Aston:

I’m doing that thing.

Patrice Embry:

Right. And I say, oh, you know, you get your gold star. And if it’s someone from Southeastern Europe, they’re like, I don’t even know what that means. What’s a gold star? So …

Ben Aston:

We don’t have gold stars here. Yeah. Nice. So, and what’s tough? What are some of the challenges you’re dealing with right now?

Patrice Embry:

Well, it is hard to, you know, with context switching between different … it’s hard enough when you’re at an agency, context switching, just between your own roster of clients if you’re at an agency. But the context switching is intense when it’s between different agencies that you’re doing work for. I have the luxury in at least two of the projects I’m sorting on where I have set up the workflow so I know what it is. But when you can’t set up the workflow and you’re sort of, you know, one company uses Trello and they use it in this way, and they use flags in this way. You know, another company uses Zendesk in this other way, you know, so it’s really hard to say I’m gonna stop doing this and I’m gonna start doing that. Especially when folks say they only want ten hours of your time over a week but they really want that time to be in fifteen increments that span the entire day.

So, I find that keeping that together and keeping my head in the right spot and not confusing myself or calling clients by the wrong name, that I think is the hardest part of doing the freelance job that I’m doing now.

Ben Aston:

Yeah. And what are you trying to improve? What are you trying to get better at at the moment? What are some of your goals for the things that you like.

Patrice Embry:

Well, that. You know, I think, for me my long term goals right now are to start attracting the type of work that I would like to do, where I am coming up with the workflow and I’m not just plugging in to something else and having a little bit more say about how things should be done. And I feel like I’m on a good trajectory for that. So, it’s just sort of weeding out the clients that maybe don’t mesh with me and getting more clients that do. So, that’s sort of my long term goal.

Ben Aston:

Nice. So, and you talked about, like, context switching and different workflows and different tools … is there anything you’ve come across recently, like any tools or software or even just a workflow that you’re like, oh my gosh, this is changing my life?

Patrice Embry:

You know, it’s funny because a lot of the things … I’m a very digital person. But there are a few things that I do that are very much not digital. I still am one of those people that carries around a paper notebook and a pen. But I also use a lot of physical cues to keep me on track so I think once a long time ago, I wrote an article for Digital Project Manager about how to handle remote work and one of the things that I had said was that when my shoes are on, that means I’m working. Shoes on means working, when I’m done for the day, my shoes are off, that’s something, you know, as a remote worker I use as a little trick to keep myself on task.

What helped with the context switching, I actually move locations. I do.

Ben Aston:

I thought you were gonna say you changed your shoes.

I changed my shoes. But it’s actually … the idea is sort of the same. So, I have a time box client, you know, where I do that governance work? I work in a different area of my home office for that job because it is time boxed and I really do need to focus on that at that time. When I’m ready to switch gears, I literally move to a second desk and then I’m able to do that work. And by the way, a second computer, second laptop … so, yeah. Because the work I need to do in the morning is work where I’m using company provided equipment. So, I switch from their equipment to my equipment, so that really helps. But I still have context switching to do even when I move to my other desk and that for me is just being really focused on getting one chunk of something done at a time before I switch gears. I usually will time box myself even though they’re not buying blocks of time from me, I know that from 12:30 to 2:30 I’m working on x. And you know, from 3:30 to 5, I’m working on y.

So, I do try to keep myself in line that way. But it’s not easy. It’s not easy.

Well, good luck. It sounds like … I like your idea of different work spaces. I’m imagining this kind of hexagonal desk system where you could have, like, six different set ups and you just wheel yourself around as the day progresses.

Patrice Embry:

It’s not quite that much fun but yeah, that’s the goal someday.

Ben Aston:

Nice. Cool. Well, let’s talk bout the article you wrote about project management responsibilities. And it’s a bit of a misnomer because you know, you do talk about responsibilities, but the article’s about really how we go from good to great as a project manager. And you make the point that a project manager responsibility’s have changed a lot in the past ten years or so, whereas we used to be tasked with executing stuff, now we’ve got a larger role. We’re often more strategic. We take more of a leadership position. So, I’m just wondering how is that transition kind of worked out for you and what does that kind of more strategic role look like in comparison to what you used to be doing?

Patrice Embry:

Well, I’ll tell you, it’s a heck of a lot more rewarding as a project manager that has a more strategic role. And I feel like I really worked my way up to that and what I see with some new folks coming into the field, they don’t need to put in that time. And I’m happy about it. I’m happy for them.

I feel like the amount of time it took for someone like me and some of the peers that have been in the business as long as I have as well. For us to sort of fight to get to where we were, I don’t want to see anyone have to do that. Because I know that project managers just by the virtue of them doing the jobs that they do are almost always a strategic mind. Because that’s how you can make sure that things get done. We’re not robots kind of sitting there and just doing whatever is put in front of us. We have strategic minds. That’s the way you do your job. That’s the way the project manager does their job.

So, I’ve very happy that the role is evolving, even before someone steps into it, they don’t have to sort of fight for that like they used to before. What you do have to do, though, is live up to a different set of expectations, which brings us to the article and the job descriptions may not have sort of caught up with the actual job is.

So, just checking off the boxes in the job description and getting yourself through an interview and getting hired, you really then need to step up your game to rise to the occasion that other project mangers before you have blazed that trail. Now you need to make sure that you’re doing what you need to do to keep that same level of strategic thinking for project managers.

Ben Aston:

Yeah. So, yeah. And in your article, you talk about five responsibility’s but I guess these are more … they’re kind of a lens through which we can look at, okay, how do we go from good to great and what you’re really talking about that it’s so much the responsibility’s in and of themselves, it’s not about the things that we do because we all do the same kind of things. We’re all, you know, keeping projects organized with, trying to stay on top of a project, logging requirements, motivating the team.

ut it’s not so much about those, the kind of … the nuts and bolts. It’s about the way that we approach those. So, let’s talk about the first one. I mean, you talk about logging requirements. Now, obviously, this is … you know, on the face of it, a simple kind of executional kind of task. But tell us about, if we look at this from more of a strategic perspective and kind of through that lens of, okay, well I’m a project leader. What does that then look like for you?

Patrice Embry:

Well, you know, requirements gathering is something that a lot of project managers kind of hate to begin with. So, this one might be a tough one to just even work on for anyone. But when you see in front of you a document, and a statement of work … or you’re sitting in on a meeting where requirements are being gathered for a project, if you are just sort of writing down everything you hear, you’re technically fulfilling what you’re supposed to be doing, but what you really need to be doing is thinking about the business case for some of these things.

So, if you see something in these requirements that either doesn’t make sense from a business perspective … which you first need to understand. And hopefully you have a really great business development team that’s giving you the insight that you need to be able to make these decisions. But if you are looking at it and saying I think that what they’re trying to do is x, and what they’re saying in this requirement is y, so maybe we should look at that. Or, you know, these two different requirements are sort of at odds with each other. In this area, we’re saying this and in this area, we’re saying that.

I think a lot of this is good instincts for most project managers but I think newer or maybe even mid level project managers are often afraid to speak up about it. So, it’s more than likely you’re seeing it and you might be saying to yourself, wow, that’s funny or that’s odd. But what you need to do is feel empowered to be able to say, like, my job is not just to write these things down and collect them. My job is to tell you here’s an idea that would make these two things easier. Here’s something I’ve done in the past that worked really well for this. Here’s some things you might want to consider for this other thing. And just really just sort of understanding the business reasons for everything that’s being done and making sure those requirements fulfill those business reasons that you know.

Ben Aston:

Yeah. Yeah, I think that’s really helpful. I think, yeah, so often we start off projects with requirements gathering. We’re trying to understand, okay, what exactly is the thing we’re trying to create. But it is so important that we take that step back and we ask why. So, there’s a reason for all these requirements and it’s because we’re trying to fulfill a specific business need.

We’re trying to solve a specific user problem or challenge, and you know, there has to be a viable business case for it. So, yah, thinking of ourselves as not just people who are documenting everything and then making a bit of a mess because we realize, like you say, these things are at odds with one another. And instead, being more strategic and being like, hey guys, there’s a better way of doing this is so critical.

And I think so often people can get a bit myopic in terms of focusing on the requirements and clients particularly, when they issue an RFP, or they issue the requirements at the beginning of the project, they’ll have done a lot of work ahead of time and they’ll have this big, long list of things that they think they want. But actually, sometimes they lose sight of the bigger picture as well. So, I think you’re so, so right and true in saying hey, keep asking why and keep asking how is this contributing to what the client or whoever it is we’re doing the project for, what they’re actually trying to achieve strategically.

Patrice Embry:

Yes, absolutely. And the best way to do that and the way to do that in the smartest way possible is to get as much information about what those business needs are ahead of time so that you’re not … so, you can point out some discrepancies but if you are really immersed in what the strategic direction of the entire project is, you won’t just be coming to the table saying there’s a discrepancy, you’ll be able to say there’s a discrepancy and we should go in this direction rather than this direction. That’s really what you’re trying to do there. So, it should levels of being more than just a person whose taking down notes about requirements.

Ben Aston:

Yeah, that’s really helpful. So, let’s talk about next. This kind of classic responsibility that you’ll see in job description. You know, staying on top of the project, keeping the project organized. So, you know, the kind of lowest level its creating folders, putting things in the right place, being a kind of secretary, a project secretary. But how do we apply that strategic lens and be more than just a note taker, a secretary, and apply that strategic leadership lens to that kind of role of keeping things organized?

Patrice Embry:

Yeah, I mean obviously you need to make sure that things are able to be found easily by the people who need them. And I used an example in this article that is still, every time I think of it, is so painful for me. But just when we had this project where one of the facets of the project was taking old pdf’s and transferring them to this new site where we were going to make them available and then not realizing until you open up and look at them that there were three different branding iterations to them. And they just were not what we thought they were when they were given to us. If I had not opened a few of them, that would have been even worse than we found out when we got them. Because it was bad enough that we found out then. It would have been horrible if we would have found out later in QA or even worse UAT or even, even worse after we launched.

So, you know, something actually like this just happened to me two weeks ago. I was working on something and I realized that the graphics that we were provided for this really important project that we were putting together all had widder] marks on them. So, when you look at the thumbnail, it looks fine but when you open the actual asset, they had … I know, I’m from Philadelphia so I say widder mark … water marks on them. They say have … so they’re not the end, final graphics. Clearly they weren’t purchased yet or if they were purchased, they gave us the pre-purchased photos. You know, that was really important too because that wouldn’t have been something that we would have caught until development was actually using them and did take quite a while to get us the right stuff.

So, that kind of thing, not just taking what you have and putting it where it’s supposed to go but really sort of opening it and getting immersed in it. And you know, if you’ve got copy that you’ve got from someone, read it. It’s gonna help you understand what’s going on. You know, you don’t want to spend a ton of time because you have a budget. But you want to spend enough time where it’s meaningful to you and you can use that to help you continue to make the project a success.

Ben Aston:

Yeah, I think it’s interesting, isn’t it? I think you’re hitting the nail on the head, though, with the importance of being thorough and yeah, again, it’s that shift from being a secretary and just moving things along in the process and, you know, you could have just passed those pdf’s on and just let the project happen.

Patrice Embry:

Hope for the best.

Ben Aston:

And let the project happen around you. But it’s that trying to take a bit more ownership, taking responsibility for actually the strategic goals of the project. And you know, ensuring that everything that you’re doing is gonna hit that throughout the whole process. Because it’s one thing to understand the objectives but then it’s keeping the ship on course as we’re going through the project which requires just these little, small adjustments or reviews of stuff as we go along. And I think sometimes we can just assume that everyone else is doing their job and we kind of think, oh well of course the copywriter read the brief properly and of course the creative director checked it and knows what we should be doing. But so often we can be that fail safe because we sometimes know the client and the project better than anyone else. So, I think we do ourselves a disservice when we just become project secretary’s who are scheduling things and moving things along without actually engaging in the work.

So, let’s talk about the one other thing … I mean, you talk about five different things but let’s just talk about lastly, motivating the team. Now, obviously, at the very basic level, we’re just trying to get the team to do the work and deliver the goods. But what does kind of project leadership and to kind of taking this to the next level look like to you in terms of leading a team?

Patrice Embry:

You know, it’s funny because motivation can be at an individual level, which I talk about in the article. And my best friend, candy … candy is a PM’s best friend. Candy makes friends for PM’s. So, if you don’t have candy at your desk, and you are not a remote worker … doesn’t really work for remote work unless you want to eat it yourself to feel better and it’s totally fine. No judgment  but …

Ben Aston:

You can say I bought you a chocolate bar but I’m eating it.

Patrice Embry:

But, you know, it’s really about individual motivation. What makes some people tick. Some people like to be talked to, they don’t want you to just sort of interrupt them whether it be on Slack or in person and ask them questions. They want to be treated like they’re a person who has personal stuff going on. And you want to remember what they said last time. You know, how’s your dog doing? Or, you know, how was that wedding that you went to? Or you know, whatever the case may be.

So, there’s that individual motivation and then there’s the team motivation, where you’re just doing your best to try to make sure that everybody is motivated. When you talk about leadership, I think that leadership is a little bit different than motivation because when you’re motivating, you’re sort of trying to focus on the positive. Once you get into leadership, you really do have to also address the negative.

But if you’re doing a good job of motivating as you’re leading, that job becomes a lot easier because they know that underneath it all, you’re rooting for them and you’re rooting for the project. And so if you have to say to someone, as you know I’m in a leadership role, I need to correct course on something. If you do need to have a difficult conversation with one of the people on the project. If you’ve done a good job at motivating overall and individually with that person, that’s gonna go a lot smoother. You know, because they’re gonna know that you really do care about them and you care about the project and the work that they’re doing.

So, motivation is a really big part of being a PM. And sometimes I like to think of being a PM as not project manager, but a psychologist manager. So, there is a lot of psychology to this, to try to make sure that the people who are working with you are sort of motivated. They trust you. They know what you’re going for. So, it’s not so much you get everybody in a room and you have your meeting and you always do your follow up notes. So, people can trust that you do follow up notes. You need to make sure that they trust you to really be able to lead the project and to motivate them. And when times are tough, you’re gonna be the one that they’re gonna look to to help them get to the next level.

Ben Aston:

Yeah. Yeah, I think that’s really useful. And I think one of the things that … you kind of touched on leadership there. And I think helping our teams in terms of their motivation, one thing that I’ve found is trying to link people back and help them to understand the purpose of what we’re doing. So, the teams have got to really believe in the why. Like, why is it that this project matters? Why should they care? And actually helping them understand … like, translate the purpose. Like the purpose has got to relate to them in some way.

So, we have a role as PM’s in helping people understand why they should care about the project. Like, we have to find some nugget in there to get them to believe in the why of what we’re doing. Because otherwise … because we want them to care. We want them to be able to apply their craft. We want them to care about the project. But if they don’t really believe in the purpose or the why and we’re kind of giving them the impression that oh, well it doesn’t really matter, they’re not going to be very motivated.

Patrice Embry:

Yeah, you know it’s funny because I’ve worked on a couple of projects where shortly after we started, we realized that the project itself was really not as aspirational as we might have thought when we started. And that’s when motivation gets hard. I’ve found that what I can do then and say, look, I realize that the meat of what we’re trying to do here is not what we thought, or is not really what we want to be doing. So, I’ll focus instead on the fact that if we do a kickass job on this project, there might be additional work. Or we’re just trying to get to the finish line. Or think about the money that you’re making right now.

So, it might not even be the project itself that you can get people behind because sometimes there are just some projects where if you try to motivate people just by what you’re doing on the project, they’re gonna see right through that. Because there are some projects that just aren’t great. Period. And you’re gonna manage some of them some time in your life. You’re gonna come across one, at least, some time in your life. So, you need to have something in your back pocket that you can draw on when the project itself isn’t motivational enough for you.

Ben Aston:

Yeah. I think that we have a responsibility there, right? So if our heads are going down and if the team sees oh, well the project manager doesn’t really care about this. Or as soon as they kind of see us losing hope, then the whole thing very quickly unravels because they feel like all of a sudden, oh well actually no one’s really holding me accountable. Because I mean, they don’t care about it. So, I think it’s so important that as the PM’s, we’re the ones that choose to hope, that we’re the ones that choose to believe and as much as possible, we retain some of that positivity about something. And I like what you said about being positive about … it could just be you’re still getting paid. Or it could just be you’ve got a job. There’s gonna be another project when we finish this one. Like, they could be those things but we need to retain some positivity about it otherwise the whole thing … the team is just gonna follow us. They’re gonna follow our lead and things are gonna go from bad to worse.

Patrice Embry:

Yep. Absolutely.

Ben Aston:

Good stuff. Well, Patrice, thanks so much for joining us. It’s been great having you with us today.

Patrice Embry:

Super. It’s been great being here.

Ben Aston:

Cool. And if you’d like to contribute to this conversation, comment on the post itself on the Digital Project Manager.com and if you’d like to chat to Patrice, I’m sure she’d love to chat to you. She’s very good. She’s the one that does the hearts … what would you call that emoji?

Patrice Embry:

It’s called gif heart.

Ben Aston:

If you see the gift heart, you know Patrice. Patrice is around. So, look out of the gift heart. She’s everywhere. And it’s great having her with us. So, yeah, thanks for listening and come and join us on Slack. But until next time, thanks for listening.

Ben Aston

Ben Aston

I’m Ben Aston, a digital project manager and VP of Client Services at FCV, a full service digital agency in Vancouver, Canada. I've been in the industry for more than 10 years working in the UK at London’s top digital agencies including Dare, Wunderman, Lowe and DDB. I’ve delivered everything from video virals to CMS’, flash games to banner ads 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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