The Key Takeaways From The Ground Control Conference 2017

By 24/05/2017 October 13th, 2021 No Comments

Ground Control, a conference for digital project managers, was held for the first time at The QEII Centre, in London on April 21st 2017. In case you missed out, or just want a recap on all the great content, we’ve compiled a jam packed post full of all the highlights from the conference so you can have your very own Ground Control (belated) conference in the comfort of your own home.

We’ve included a handy summary of each talk from Ground Control 2017, along with videos, slides, and helpful takeaways.

Portia Tung – Play For Your Life: Going From Good To Great In A Digital World

Summary: The day kicked off with a fun-infused session by School of Play founder Portia Tung, who taught us how to introduce play into our workplaces in order to increase creativity, collaboration, communication and resilience in our teams.

Shahina: Portia had us all moving, singing and interacting with each other from the start of her talk, demonstrating how working together can help you do your best work and working together is exactly what we as project managers have to do with our teams. I am a believer that work (and conference talks!) can and should be productive and fun, so was easily inspired to add a mood lightening activity into my workshop later in the afternoon… I’ll also be taking suggestions for the scientifically backed Recommended Daily Allowance (10 – 15 mins) of fun back to the office!

Carson: I’ve always advocated having fun at work, so it was great to hear that there are proven benefits to it. Portia didn’t just say “you should play at work because it’s fun,” but rather listed out the benefits of it: breaking down barriers, facilitating learning, and creating connections, amongst other reasons. I also loved how she brought some brain science into the mix, talking about how we need to feed our “chimp brains” (see Dr. Steve Peters’ book The Chimp Paradox here)



Follow Portia Tung on Twitter: https://twitter.com/portiatung

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Yvette Pegues – Digital Diversity – Leading Multi-sensory & Multi-ability Audiences

Summary: Yvette Pegues (https://www.yourinvisibledisability.com/) was next, giving us a firsthand account of someone who went from abled to disabled, conveying a memorable message about the importance of accessibility and inclusion as we build our projects.

Carson: Right from the start, it was obvious that Yvette was going to do more than tell us her story; she was going to drive the point home in a way that we would never forget. She started by asking everyone to stand up. Then sit down. Then stand up and sit down again. She went on to explain how just a few years ago, she was able to do that and couldn’t now. It put us all in a place of understanding and readiness to learn more.

Shahina: I think Yvette’s title summarises exactly why this was a great talk for the Ground Control audience. We have to talk about inclusion. We are surrounded by people who are different to us, and as project managers we have to use our position of influence and leadership to make a world that is more accessible for the benefit of all. The live captioning at the conference was actually a great example of this (shout out to Amanda Lundberg, thank you for your excellent work!). For example the captions helped when you couldn’t hear a word or two, when you get momentarily distracted and need to get catch up.


Follow Yvette Pegues on Twitter: https://twitter.com/whatsyourid

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Sam Barnes – It’s All About The Little Things

Summary: In the day’s third session, the ever popular Sam Barnes (https://www.thesambarnes.com/) brought us back to the basics, emphasizing how important it can be to get these simple things right to ensure bigger picture success.

Shahina: I like Sam and I like what he has to say. In this topic he talks not about ‘big’ ideas, but more about small, regular things that can help to maintain the emotional well-being of team members and yourself. There was also a word or two of tough loving from Sam that I personally needed to hear – that actually, it’s not okay to leave a person hanging on waiting for a reply to an email or message they’ve sent. And it’s especially not okay to let them know when you’ll get back to them and fail on that. This is a talk I’ll be going back to revisit.

Carson: Little known fact: I actually like Sam even more than Shahina does. Sam’s talks are always direct and pragmatic, filled with common sense things that tend to be rather uncommon in everyday practice. I always leave with several things I can use right away. This time, my favourite takeaways included:

  • Check people’s preferences when booking meetings – not everyone loves early morning meetings.
  • Try using regret to make decisions. As Sam’s dad’s advised him about asking a girl out: “It’s better to shit your pants than die of constipation.”
  • Being professional doesn’t meaning being boring. It’s important to bring your personality to work.



Follow Sam Barnes on Twitter: https://twitter.com/thesambarnes

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Lightning Talks

We didn’t make it to the lightning talks, but Shahina caught Stephen’s a few days later at DPM Cope, a meetup in Copenhagen. The videos for each are also posted online.

Malie Lalor – Scrum success tips: Dos & don’ts for distributed teams

Summary: Mailie Lalor started the lightning talks with her successes and failures from running Scrum with a team distributed across India, Sri Lanka, and the UK.


Follow Mailie Lalor on Twitter: https://twitter.com/malielalor

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Helen Hosein – Sod’s project (and how we fixed it)

Summary: Next, Helen Hosein told us how she helped take a project from the brink of total failure to a be a client-thriller by redefining success.


Follow Helen Hosein on Twitter: https://twitter.com/helthegreat

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Stephen Thomas – Through the looking glass: Reflections on transparency

Summary: Rounding out the lightning talks, Stephen Thomas talked about the importance of transparency – not just with your clients, but also with your internal teams and even yourself.

Shahina: Stephen’s talk covered a topic that, when applied to real projects, clients, and teams, can be very blurry indeed (I tried to make a pun there). I’m trying to saying that transparency has a very loose definition in practice and that’s what Stephen said we need to avoid. We may not think we hide information necessarily, but sometimes rather than giving clients, bosses or peers the raw truth, we worry about the conclusions that have yet to be drawn and pass information through an “optimism filter.” Avoiding that gives all invested parties a chance to deal with the facts of the situation more effectively, which is especially important when we’ve messed up.


Follow Stephen Thomas on Twitter: https://twitter.com/dubaussi

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Betty Chan – Living With Imperfection

Summary: In this breakout session, Betty Chan reminded us that no matter how carefully we plan our projects, bad stuff will happen. She then shared her successes and failures at dealing with these surprises.

Carson: When she’s not managing projects, Betty enjoys boxing and she quoted fellow pugilist Mike Tyson: “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” She applied this reality to her personal experiences of project successes and failures in dealing with these inevitable situations. The lesson I took away are pretty straightforward:

  1. Understand the project goals and keep them top of mind with everyone.
  2. Document things thoroughly but efficiently.
  3. Treat your clients like you would a friend (in terms of respect and communication).


Follow Betty Chan on Twitter: https://twitter.com/boxboxbetty

Rachel Gertz – Hunting Down Red Flags

Summary: In this breakout session, Rachel Gertz taught us how to identify, classify, evaluate and respond to warning signs that things might go sideways with our projects.

Shahina: Red flags are those things that act as a forewarning of danger. In this interactive talk (there was some fun improv!), Rachel took us through identifying red flags by looking at how they can be conveyed through body language, tone of voice, behaviour, etc. We then went several steps further to assess and classify red flags so that the potential for an issue down the line can be evaluated for areas impacted and to what extent. Recording red flags is advisable, so as to try and help detect patterns, and give focus to areas for improvement. A useful system for that could be as simple as keeping project logs, something I want to get into the habit of doing.


Guide: https://louderthanten.com/burn-those-red-flags-down

Follow Louder Than Ten’s on Twitter: https://twitter.com/TheStrayMuse

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Adrian Howard – Failure Swapshop

Summary: In this interactive breakout, Adrian Howard ran a live Failure Swapshop, where attendees got to talk about their failures in a safe environment and share the lessons learned from each.

We both missed this one (it was at the same time as Shahina’s session), which is a shame because by all accounts, it was fantastic. Adrian used a model developed by Luke Williams that follows the format:

  1. Introduction and confession of failure
  2. Everyone cheers
  3. Explanation of failure
  4. Sharing of lessons learned

This model is being used all over and can easily be introduced to your work as well.


Follow Adrian Howard on Twitter: https://twitter.com/adrianh

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Shahina Patel – Teams Are Products Too

Summary: Shahina Patel led an entertaining workshop about taking what we already know about the process of product development (e.g. user stories, prototyping, continuous feedback) and applying it to our teams.

Carson: Shahina took a page from Portia’s “play”book and set the tone for her session with an interactive fart joke. The remainder was equally engaging & innovative, as she provided a practical framework for how to improve how our team’s function using techniques we already have in our toolboxes. My favourite thing was how easy I think it is to take this back to work and start applying it with our teams immediately – I know I’ll be using the example of the team user story right away:

Because I am looking for [a particular desired outcome], I require [some kind of specific information] By [a particular time or activity]

(Also, Shahina is a super nice person off-stage and an excellent co-blogger.)


Follow Shahina Patel on Twitter: https://twitter.com/shhh_hina/

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Carson Pierce – Your Brain Hates Project Management

Summary: In this session, Carson Pierce explained – and demonstrated – how our own brains can be the biggest barrier to project management success due to issues with information overload, cognitive biases, and faulty memory.

Shahina: I liked Carson’s presentation because of the advice that anything I do that makes me fail as a project manager isn’t really my fault. I’ve been waiting to be told that for years! This topic has a lot to it and this introduced a few concepts and facts regarding our brains, what their biological and physiological limitations/predicted behaviour is and how to do better with that information in mind. It is good to understand that any kind of “multitasking” between different “thinking” tasks is in reality the very ineffective and inefficient “task-switching.” I’m now more disciplined: I turn off email notifications when writing project plans and also try to interrupt developers less (or at least in a way more sympathetic to their persistently problem-solving pre-frontal cortices).



Follow Carson Pierce on Twitter: https://twitter.com/carsonpierce

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Natalie Semczuk – Make Post-launch A Success

Summary: Natalie Semczuk’s presentation picked up where most leave off, addressing the questions of what happens after launch: How is the client going to take care of this thing and what is our role in making that situation successful?

This is another session we both missed, despite Natalie being one of our favourite people in the world. So we asked Rachel Gertz what she heard: “It was honestly awesome: thorough and full of valuable info about the things you tend to forget, like who is going to manage things on the client side, how many resources are available, where will the content live and how often will it change. Natalie unhinged the black box of post-launch dependencies to help the audience consider these things in a completely fresh way.”

PS. Be sure to sign up for her DPM newsletter at: https://talkanatalka.com/newsletter/


Follow Natalie Semczuk’s on Twitter: https://twitter.com/talkanatalka

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Meri Williams – Modern Management: Creating Space To Be Awesome


Summary: Popular management speaker Meri Williams talked about what makes for a good work environment, with a focus on diversity and inclusion. In short: “how can we create space for everyone to be awesome?”

Carson: Meri took a couple of my favourite management books (‘First, Break all the Rules’ by Marcus Buckingham and ‘Drive’ by Daniel Pink) and remixed them to give us an idea of what’s important at work. But then she added her own bit: inclusion, which she defined with the question “can I be myself and succeed here?” On our projects, it’s our job to ensure that this is the case for everyone on the team – to give everyone the space to be awesome. This is an especially important point for me as a white male to be aware of and apply, as that privilege can obscure the reality of the situation for others.

Shahina: I loved the point in Meri’s talk when she described organisations with “a front door problem.” This is the concept that even though organisations try to hire with diversity in mind, they don’t end up with any diversity in applicants. Meri pointed out that potential applicants are looking to find out the answer to “can someone like me be successful here?” The organisation may need to consider the message they’re putting out about themselves – such as what they communicate on their websites or Twitter. As a organiser of meetups and a conference I’d like to know how I can do better because this needs more hard work.



Follow Meri Williams on Twitter: https://twitter.com/Geek_Manager

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Michael Lopp – The Impossible Job


Summary: Michael Lopp – aka the internet infamous Rands – closed out the conference by telling us that we’re all leaders and that while leadership can feel like an impossible job, there are ways to make it easier.

Carson: I’ve been a fan of “Rands” since I read his book Managing Humans, which is filled with practical management advice that is clear and easy to implement. He carried that on here, with 16 leadership hacks to make our jobs a little less impossible. Some only applied to people managers, but most could be extended to work at a project level as well. My favourite was “smile as the sky falls”; that is, keep calm and of good humour when things go wrong. This has served me well on many projects.

Shahina: My favourite takeaway from Michael’s talk was something that I personally find hard to do sometimes: When there is a massive target or looming deadline to focus on, it’s worth it to “not underestimate the compounding awesomeness of continually fixing small things.” As a project manager that might be writing up a tickets for bugs you’ve spotted, changing the location of the stand ups based on office environment, or adapting project reports to better suit your clients. I think that’s so important to remember and to realise that great value in our work can come from fixing many small “broken” things.


Follow Michael Lopp on Twitter: https://twitter.com/rands

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Hopefully this gives you a feel for what Ground Control 2017 was all about. The folks at White October did an amazing job putting this event together and we had a fantastic time, both as presenters and attendees.

Photo credits: White October Events

Carson Pierce & Shahina Patel

Carson Pierce & Shahina Patel

Shahina's spent her career managing projects across different industries until finding her true calling in digital a few years ago. She loves learning new ways to get the best out of people and working together with multi-disciplinary teams to make good things and create experiences that make a positive difference to users. She hails from Manchester, UK where she doesn't spend any time following soccer but does instead organise monthly meetups with Northern DPM and the annually held DeliverConf. Carson has been working in the digital space for over 15 years, mostly in managing mid- to large-scale website projects. Over the past several years he has been connecting project management and brain science to help people get better at doing knowledge work and delivering successful projects.Outside of work, Carson enjoys listening to music that no one else likes and playing hockey poorly.

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