“”
DPM Podcast

Making Your Value Visible As An Agency Project Manager (with Pam Butkowski from Hero Digital)

By 01/09/2021 September 13th, 2021 No Comments

Galen Low is joined by Pam Butkowski, VP of Delivery Management at Hero Digital. She’s spent the majority of her career in client-facing organizations leading digital project management teams at organizations including The Nerdery, Wunderman Thompson, and AIM Consulting. Listen to learn how to make your value visible as an agency project manager.

Interview Highlights:

  • Pam Butkowski is a digital delivery leader who is particularly passionate about building strong PM teams within a client services setting. She has a strong track record of fostering high-performing teams at organizations like The Nerdery, Wunderman Thompson, and AIM Consulting. And today, she’s the VP of Delivery Management at Hero Digital where she’s looking to continue her winning streak of building up teams of high-performing digital PMs. [0:51]
  • Outside of a professional setting, Pam is a mother and chauffeur to two young’uns, an avid golfer, and an expert consumer of fine (or box) wine. [1:13]
  • Pam spent years on the agency side and then moved over to consulting for a little bit at AIM. [2:22]
  • Pam just started at Hero Digital and she’s leading the delivery management or project management team for the west side of the country. [2:33]
  • Pam started as a PM and spent a few years in traditional campaign advertising agencies where she played every role right out of college. She was on the account side, public relations, and a media buyer. She did everything and ended up clicking the most as a traffic manager. [3:46]
  • Pam’s first project management job was at The Nerdery. She started as a PM there and then quickly moved into a senior position. She had five or six project managers on her team and that was in 2014 when she started leading teams of PMs. From there, she progressed into director roles and now into VP roles and leading large teams of PMs. [4:25]
  • The kinds of projects that Pam’s teams have managed in the past were everything from $20,000 campaigns to multimillion-dollar products. She also had teams of program managers and project managers all working on $10 million engagements. [5:19]
  • As a leader of project managers, Pam’s leadership style is considered ‘tough but fair’. [6:31]

“I like to lead my teams in a way that I want them to lead our clients.” — Pam Butkowski

  • The most important quality for a digital project manager to bring to the table is being able to understand the client’s business, being an advocate for both the agency or the team and the client. [9:55]
  • When hiring PMs, Pam asked just a few questions about a normal timeline scope budget, and then moved into scenario questions. That way she can understand how they do in times of crisis, what they do when they’re faced with tough decisions, how they partner with clients when there isn’t a strong relationship there, or something has happened to diminish a relationship with a client, and how do they build it back. [10:38]

“Every project manager has different ways and different triggers for them to realize that something is off.” — Pam Butkowski

  • Every PM has a different spidey-sense. For Pam, she watched the body language. Tactically, she looks at JIRA and if something has stayed in the same column for multiple days, she digs in. [18:16]
  • Understanding which hats to put on every PM needs to figure that out for themselves. And so, Pam spent a lot of time with her teams helping them figure out what their spidey senses are. [19:17]
  • One of Pam’s favorite training that she’s ever done with her team was ‘conflict resolution training’, understanding when conflict arises and how to lead people through that. It’s something that they started doing at Wunderman Thompson. Pam had all of her PMs go through the Enneagram test. [20:02]
  • Enneagram test is like StrengthsFinder or any of those. But it’s focused on relationships and how you communicate, how you interact with other Enneagram types. [20:57]
  • The role that we’re missing in large scale development is a product owner. We sometimes have something that might resemble a product manager on the business side of the client. A lot of times we’re lacking for a product owner, and so the client will give you a stakeholder. [30:06]
  • The Product Owner/Product Manager role is hard sometimes because you have to simultaneously track velocity and value. You have to weigh them against each other and then decide what’s more important. [30:47]
  • Pam likes to have some of her team members go through product owner training, get them CSPOs, understand what that role means because that’s really where you start driving value for your clients. [31:10]
  • Some of the things that Pam has done in the past to help provide clarity and reduce defensiveness is to make sure that everybody understands that their role is valuable and that her team isn’t trying to stomp on anyone’s toes. [32:36]
  • Pam has a gray sheet and she makes her PMs fill it out. It’s a literal piece of paper that they have to fill in like a test. There are bubbles to fill in for if the PM is going to own the task or the client service person is going to own that thing and they have to start the project by filling it out. [34:14]
  • Some of the most common challenges that Pam sees her teams facing when it comes to managing clients and delivering value are the kickoff meetings. [36:50]

“This side of my job is to make sure that we are building the right thing at the right time as efficiently as possible.” — Pam Butkowski

  • If something is going wrong on the development team, a PM sees the solution and they know how to get them out of it. [44:28]
  • When you look at project management as project leadership instead of management, the account gets bigger, the clients are happier, your account team is happier. Your developers are happier and the quality of the product is better. [53:32]

“As a digital project manager, you have two jobs. You have the job of managing scope, timeline, budget, and making sure that the iron triangle is taken care of, but you also have the job of making sure that we’re doing the right thing for the client.” — Pam Butkowski

Guest Bio:

Pam is the VP of Delivery Management at Hero Digital. She’s spent the majority of her career in client-facing organizations leading digital project management teams at organizations including The Nerdery, Wunderman Thompson, and AIM Consulting.

Pam is a self-proclaimed “process junkie” and loves solving problems through process. She’s particularly passionate about building strong PM teams and answering the age-old question about how to deliver agile projects in a client service organization.

Photo Of Pam Butkowski

“I view our team as the middleman. We’re the bridge between the client and our team producing the work.”

— Pam Butkowski

Resources from this episode:

Related articles and podcasts:

We’re trying out transcribing our podcasts using a software program. Please forgive any typos as the bot isn’t correct 100% of the time.

Read the Transcript:

Galen Low

Project management. A lot of the value it brings is often referred to as “invisible work”. You know, when things are going well, nobody notices. But “invisible work” can also mean “invisible value”. Clients don’t want to pay for your time. Your teammates aren’t sure what you do all day. Your leadership team isn’t even sure if they really need a PMO at all.

If you’ve ever struggled to prove your value as a digital PM, keep listening. We’re going to be lifting the lid on how client-facing PMs can demonstrate indisputable business value beyond the “invisible work” of making sure the project is running smoothly.

Thanks for tuning in, my name is Galen Low with The Digital Project Manager. We are a community of digital professionals on a mission to help each other get skilled, get confident, and get connected so that we can lead our project with purpose and impact. If you want to hear more about that, head over to thedigitalprojectmanager.com.

Hey everyone — thanks for hanging out with us on the DPM podcast.

My guest today is a digital delivery leader who is particularly passionate about building strong PM teams within a client services setting. She has a strong track record of fostering high-performing teams at organizations like The Nerdery, Wunderman Thompson, and AIM Consulting. And today, she’s the VP of Delivery Management at Hero Digital where she’s looking to continue her winning streak of building up teams of high-performing digital PMs.

Outside of a professional setting, she is a mother and chauffeur to two young’uns, an avid golfer, and an expert consumer of fine (or box) wine.

Folks, please welcome Pam Butkowski. Hello, Pam!

Pam Butkowski

Hi. How are you?

Galen Low

I’m doing well. How are you doing?

Pam Butkowski

Good. Good. Thanks for having me.

Galen Low

Um, first of all, I just want to say congratulations on the new role.

Pam Butkowski

Thank you. Thanks.

Galen Low

Are you able to talk a little bit about it?

Pam Butkowski

I can talk a little bit about it. I don’t start officially until next week so I can absolutely talk about it, but what I say might be wrong. Um, so. No.

Yeah, I’m starting at Hero Digital next week. So I, uh, I spent years and years on agency side and then, um, moved over to consulting for a little bit at AIM.

Uh, and I’m going back to agency land. So, uh, yeah, I start at Hero next week. Um, and I’ll be, uh, leading the delivery management or project management team for the west side of the country.

Galen Low

That’s awesome. That’s exciting. And isn’t it funny how agency always slips you back?

Pam Butkowski

Oh, I know. You think you’re free and then back we go.

Galen Low

Exactly. And how about life outside of work? What’s, uh, what’s something that’s been interesting or inspiring you lately?

Pam Butkowski

Yeah, so I’m currently in my, uh, my, my work hiatus week, uh, in between gigs. So I’ve got the week off spending a lot of time at the pool. Drinking my box wine on my patio. Uh, no, we actually, uh, my husband and I just got back from Sonoma.

So, my boxes are retired for the time being while I drank my Napa Valley wine. But, uh, yes. Yeah.

Galen Low

Awesome. Very cool.

Alright, so let’s get into it. Let’s talk about some of your expectations that you have of the senior members of your team when it comes to delivering meaningful and highly visible value for your clients.

But to start, I wondered if maybe you can just tell us a bit about the professional version of you. Like, how long have you been leading teams of digital PMs?

Pam Butkowski

Yeah. Yeah, so I started as a PM myself. Um, I actually spent a few years, uh, in traditional like campaign advertising agencies, uh, where I played every role right out of college.

I was on the account side. I was in public relations. I was a media buyer. Um, I did everything and, um, I ended up clicking the most with, uh, like old school advertising folks out there. Uh, I clicked the most when I was a traffic manager. Uh, but I wanted more control over the work instead of just kind of tracking everything along and making sure that we were hitting all over deadlines.

Like I wanted to be more involved in the work. So that’s how I found my way into project management. Um, and so my first project management job was, uh, at The Nerdery and I, yeah, so I started as a PM there. Um, and then quickly moved into a senior. And then, uh, shortly after I was a, what we call the ‘team lead’.

So I had, um, five or six project managers on my team. Um, and that was in 2014 when I started leading teams of PMs. Um, and from there, I kind of again, progressed into director roles and now into VP roles and leading larger teams of PMs. So, uh, yeah, I, when I, when I start at Hero next week, I believe my team is something like 25 or 30.

And yeah, so it’s, it’s gonna, it’s good. I’m excited.

Galen Low

I’m excited for you. What a cool arc.

And, tell me what, what kind of, what kinds of projects have your teams in the past managed?

Pam Butkowski

Yeah, everything from $20,000, like Facebook campaigns back in the day, right? Um, to a multimillion dollar, uh, products. So, um, a lot of, and everything in between. Um, typically the teams I’ve led in the past, our sweet spot has been around the million dollar mark, uh, for projects.

Um, but, uh, we’ll, we’ll fill, fill the cracks in between work with $50,000 things. Uh, and then I’ve had teams who’ve, um, teams of program managers and project managers all working on $10 million engagements. So, um, yeah, we’ve kind of run the gamut on everything. And then, um, all of my teams I’ve ever led, we like to say that we’re tech agnostic.

So, uh, my teams don’t specialize in mobile or specialize in, uh, .NET, right? Um, we, uh, we can take on anything.

Galen Low

Wow. Bold.

Pam Butkowski

Bold.

Galen Low

Bold indeed.

And I know the answer to this question sort of, at least I’ve got a sense, but just for our listeners, how would you describe your leadership style as a leader of project managers?

Pam Butkowski

Uh, okay, so I’m stealing this from you, because I didn’t know how to answer this question before. And then when we did an AMA last fall, uh, you said that you would talk to people who were previously on my team and they said that I was tough but fair. And I feel like that’s true. Um, so I’m stealing that back. Uh, tough, tough but fair.

Galen Low

There you go. Tough but fair is, is, is, is not a bad M.O. when you need to control multi-million dollar projects or teams of people controlling multi-million dollar projects, for sure.

Pam Butkowski

No, I like to, um, I like to lead my teams in the way that I want them to lead our clients, right? Um, and lead their teams of developers and designers and everybody. Um, no surprises. Um, see what’s coming, um, clear expectations, uh, and straightforward and honest. Um, if there’s something that they need to improve upon, let’s talk about it, but there shouldn’t be any surprises, uh, in what I expect of them to be doing. So, um, clarity upfront, uh, and then partnership through the end.

Galen Low

There you go. I love that.

And from the people I’ve talked to, it all comes from a place of love, and this is very this, like a very human approach. Uh, it’s like, uh, from, uh, from a place of caring, I guess.

Pam Butkowski

Oh, tough love. Yes. Tough love.

Galen Low

Tough love indeed.

Pam Butkowski

Mama bear comes out. No, um.

Yeah, no. I mean, obviously there are, there are always going to be tough conversations. Um, but it’s, I don’t ever want it to come from a place of discipline. I want it to come from a place of growth, right? Um, let’s talk about the things that we should be doing differently. Um, tell me what kind of support you need to improve upon those things and, uh, let’s do it together so that you can be better, faster, stronger.

Galen Low

I love that. Very cool.

All right. So, let’s give folks their bearings and just to level set for our listeners, like Pam and I, we’ve been pulling on this thread about the value that a digital PM delivers and how managing the iron triangle, you know, scope, timeline, and budget. That’s the core of a project manager’s role, but also because of that, it’s also the bare minimum of doing the job.

It’s not necessarily the thing that separates a great project manager from the rest of the pack, especially in the eyes of the clients. Uh, so in other words, for all of our agonizing about scope and timeline and budget, that’s often the invisible work or the baseline expectation rather than what our clients and stakeholders appreciate and value about our role.

Uh, so as someone who has been successful at building up teams of delivery specialists that deliver like true, palpable, tangible value in the eyes of any clients, I thought I’d asked you straight up. Uh, what in your mind is the most important quality for a digital project manager on your team to bring to the table for your accounts?

Pam Butkowski

Oh, there’s so many things. Um, no, like you said, uh, the iron triangle triangle, it’s just it’s table stakes now. Um, and it’s not enough to deliver a project on time, on scope and on budget. What if it’s the wrong thing for their business? What if their needs have changed, right? What if their customer base has evolved, um, over the last nine months that you’ve been building this gigantic product, right?

Um, and so being able to understand the client’s business, uh, and being an advocate for both your agency or your team, and the client. Uh, I view our team as kind of the middleman. Um, we’re the bridge between the client and our team actually producing the work. Um, that means that we have to understand both sides. We have to speak both languages. We have to understand both priorities. We have to understand what’s best for both teams, right?

So being able to take a step back and saying, okay, I’m going to take a look at the entire lay of the land here and figure out where we’re going to go in the best interest of everybody.

Um, that’s, that kind of, uh, instinct is I think really important. Um, I think we’ve talked about this before, too, that, uh, when, when I’m hiring PMs, um, I asked just a few questions about a normal timeline scope budget, right? Like tell me how you start a project plan. What does your discovery process look like, right?

Like the normal, show me you can do your job. Uh, and then I move into scenario questions. Uh, so that I can understand how they do in times of crisis, um, what they do when they’re faced with tough decisions, how they partner with clients when maybe, uh, there isn’t a really strong relationship there, or something has happened to, uh, diminish a relationship with a client, how do they build it back?

Um, and I’m, I’m really looking for the things that I can’t teach, right? Cause I can teach anyone to build stronger project plans. I can teach anyone to reconcile a budget. Um, I can’t teach people and I’ve, I’ve said this a thousand times in my life. I can’t teach people to run towards the fire when they smell smoke.

Um, and, uh, so I need teams of people where like, we always say the project managers wear many hats, right? I need one of those hats to be a firefighter. And, uh, so that’s, that’s one of the things that I think everybody needs to have. Is just that, that drive to solve the problem to, um, be there in the thick of it, uh, to like get your hands dirty.

Um, you’re going to understand the work better. You’re going to understand, like build client relationships better. Your teams are going to trust you more if you’re in it with them. Um, I don’t, uh, frankly I don’t want a team of people who kind of sit on the sidelines and, uh, update Smartsheet. That’s, that’s only part of our job. Uh, we need, we need to do a lot more.

Galen Low

I like that framing of not just the bridge, which I a hundred percent agree with. Um, but also that willingness to run towards the fire. And like, in my mind, not necessarily just like building engulfed with flames or entire forest on fire, but like that even just that willingness to be that bridge to run towards, you know, like as project managers, we, especially on in a client services setting, we’re going to be dealing with a lot of different types of projects and a lot of different types of clients.

Um, and I’ve seen a lot of folks, they’re just kind of a bit hesitant to like try and dive into the business side of things.

Pam Butkowski

Yeah.

Galen Low

In order to be that bridge, you really do need to do that. You need to take that plunge and run towards your client’s business and their business goals and understand their business strategy and wrap your head around that.

And yeah it’s extra work, and yeah, it’s not, you know, whatever, uh, you know, the first page of the PMBOK or anything like that, but it’s things that you need to do to deliver that value. And to your point earlier, like that instinct of knowing, are we still doing the right thing for the clients? Um, and as I, you know, as someone who now has been on client side, like that is what I value the most like, and I get it.

It’s palpable for me. I can see that. That’s fine. Your status update is fine. Smartsheet is fine. Thank you. I do need to know this. I do want it to be, you know, under control, but I also want to know that you have my back. That you’re vouching for me, that you’re an advocate for me. And that you’re being honest and transparent with me throughout a project so that we’re making good decisions.

Pam Butkowski

Well, and that you understand why we’re doing this, right? You understand why I’m spending millions of dollars to create this product? Uh, you understand the impact that it’s having on my business. You understand what’s at stake. You give a crap, um, right? Like, uh, this isn’t to us, it’s, it’s just a project.

It’s one of many projects that we’re going to run. Um, but to a lot of our clients, this is, this is a career-defining moment. Um, this is like, their job might be on the line, uh, and they need their partner, us to care about that.

Galen Low

And I think that that career-defining is a really good way of looking at it, um, to build that empathy of what your client is actually feeling and going through.

Yes, they spent a lot of money, uh, and also like there’s politics on their side that you kinda need to at least be aware of, like, I don’t think, you know, you don’t need to, you know, get in there and, you know, be part of the Game of Thrones, but as your partner or as their partner rather, um, you do need to kind of understand what they’re up against.

Like what, like, what is the like inter departmental dynamic or like, how is this, like, where does this sit in the big strategic plan? Like, is this the top of it? Because it’s going to get a lot of eyes, um, and you need to kind of help your clients, frankly look good, really. Right? Um, it’s, it’s a bit of that, uh, in terms of, you know, the way you communicate it. Um, and just like the, the actions that you take.

Pam Butkowski

Yeah. We, um, I had a project once, uh, on my team. I wasn’t leading it. One of my team members was, but, um, we were, the project started very budget-focused, right? What we would call budget backwards, uh, and every dollar mattered. And, uh, we wanted to make sure that we were using all of the funds and all of the budget, uh, as wisely as possible.

And at some point over the project, priorities changed, but we weren’t asking the questions, uh, to make sure that budget was still number one. We weren’t talking to them about, um, what was the most important to them along the way, right? We started the project saying, okay, what’s, what’s the most important thing to you?

What does success look like, right? Uh, but then we never revisited it. And at some point along the way, and we didn’t know, uh, our client had been given a timeline mandate that it needed and their job was on the line. And we weren’t asking the questions and this is uncomfortable for a client to come to you and say, I will lose my job if we don’t launch by October 30th, right?

Um, and so they were kind of being subtle and they weren’t being very directive of really focusing on timeline now. Uh, and we, we kept saying, we need two more weeks. We need two more weeks because it’s going to save you money. Um, and finally it kind of came to a head where we said, oh, hold on. What’s going on, right?

Um, you’re, you’re telling us to get it done quickly. We’re trying to use your budget wisely with what’s happening. Uh, and he said, oh, we haven’t talked about this. I have all, I have all this budget. That’s just been unlocked. I can pay whatever we need, but we have to launch it by October 30th. Um, and we weren’t asking the right questions.

Uh, we weren’t making sure that what we were focused on and what our top priority was, was actually delivering value to the client. Um, and that happens all the time. Uh, and for, for that client, um, they could’ve lost their job and we, to us, it was just another project that was going two weeks over, over timeline, right?

But the, the stakes were higher for them and we need to, we need to be locked in on that.

Galen Low

I think that’s a really good point. And it kind of takes me to my next question, which is, you know, um, in terms of like behaviors and things that, uh, folks on your team are doing on a day-to-day basis, like, what do you expect them to be doing?

Like what kinds of things should they be making happen? What kind of conversations should be, should they be having to like tease out some of this information? Um, and what should they be sort of preventing, um, in terms of like, just the way they conduct themselves and these interactions that, are that sort of layer above and beyond, you know, managing the iron triangle and making sure the team is doing what they ought to do.

Pam Butkowski

Yeah. Um, every PM has a different spidey-sense. Uh, and we all need to figure out what it is, right? Um, so every project manager has different ways and different, um, like different triggers if you will, for them to realize that something is off or that they need to do something different.

Um, and so for me, I watched body language. I, um, I like tactically, I look at JIRA and if something has stayed in the same column for multiple days, I dig in. Um, and, uh, and then I watch people’s tone, right? You have to know your team well enough to understand when their body language is telling you something, when they’ve shifted their tone, if they’re always positive, and now they’re saying it’s fine. It’s not fine, right?

That’s what I told my husband, um, that when I say it’s fine to him, it’s not fine. Uh, and our teams are the same way. Um, but we have to know our teams well enough to understand when they need help, uh, when you have to like pull them aside, they might be embarrassed to talk about it and stand up. Uh, they might feel like they’re failing.

They might feel like they don’t have an advocates. Uh, and it’s our job to make them feel comfortable, um, and put them in a situation where they can open up, right? Um, we need to be their advocates, their leaders, their friends, their therapists, uh, everything. Um, and so understanding which hats to put on every PM needs to figure that out for themselves.

Um, and so I spent a lot of time with my teams, helping them figure out what their spidey senses.

Galen Low

I really liked that sort of nonverbal, but then also nonverbal JIRA, right?

Pam Butkowski

I mean, I’ll say it again for the people in the back. If something stays in in-progress for four days, something is wrong.

Galen Low

And then, I mean, does that extend to like clients as well?

Like, are you kind of, as your team at a point where they’re reading the nonverbal cues from their points of contacts and their stakeholders as well, and trying to sort of piece it together from the other side?

Pam Butkowski

Yeah. Yep. Um, one of my favorite trainings that I’ve ever done with my team was conflict resolution training, um, understanding when conflict arises, how to lead people through that.

Um, and because clients tend to be a little bit more vocal when something’s going wrong, right? More than your lead developer. Um, and so when that happens, how do you do deescalate? How do you find the path forward? How do you wrangle everybody together and rally the troops, uh, and then keep going? Um, and so that’s something that I always spend a lot of time on with my teams is in, in times of conflict, how do you stay the glue?

Um, and then we also, uh, this is something we started doing at Wunderman Thompson. Um, I had all of my, uhm, my PMs go through, we all did our Enneagram test. Are you familiar with Enneagrams?

Galen Low

Sort of?

Pam Butkowski

Okay, so it’s yeah, so it’s a, it’s like StrengthsFinder or, um, any of those, right? But it’s focused on relationships and how you communicate, how you interact with other Enneagram types.

Um, so there are nine types of Enneagrams, but then you can wing off into one of the other numbers, right? Um, and so we did some trainings, uh, actually one of my, um, program managers kind of led this, uh, discussion and facilitated this on, um, helping everybody understand what our Enneagram types are and then how to, uh, kind of quickly assess what other people might be so that you can understand how, if, if so I’m a three, which is the achiever. Shocking.

And so we tend to not have feelings. Um, threes are like, I just need to get this done. Um, and, uh, but if, if one of my team members, uh, is another, like where that might be off-putting, uh, that might be, uh, it might be intimidating. Um, I need to know that. So we went through some training specifically for our team members, like our development teams and our design teams, and then our clients on how to assess what other people might be so that we understand how they might, uh, how they might want to interact with us.

Um, things that we might do that could put them on defense, um, so that we can change and, uh, be a better partner.

Galen Low

I’m just picturing you walking into a room or walking into a virtual room going like 2, 9, 8, 3, 3, 9. Okay, let’s go.

Pam Butkowski

Right. And when you give an achiever a challenge like that to assess, we rise to that challenge.

So, um, yeah. No, it’s, uh, it can backfire, but it helped a lot because it also just gave us, it was like, it really let us flex our empathy muscles, um, and understand that, uh, but not everybody cares about the same stuff that we care about. And, um, building relationships is not as easy as saying, I like golf, do you like golf?

Right? Like that’s, uh, that’s, that’s not what it means.

Galen Low

And would you say that relationship building, like whether you’re a one or a nine, the person you bring on to your team is someone who’s going to run towards the fire, but also who’s going to put in the effort to build a relationship and that might mean changing their behavior a little bit so that they’re not behaving like a three all the time.

Sometimes they can flex and, you know, put on the number eight hat. I’m just calling out numbers right now because I don’t know all so far.

Pam Butkowski

That’s fine. No, you’re, you’re like a pro, um. No, but at a minimum understanding what other people need.

Galen Low

Right.

Pam Butkowski

Um, and it’s, it’s less about changing ourselves and more about serving others, right? Um, if I really need this person to do something, understanding how to communicate that in a way that they’re going to understand, uh, in a way that they’re not going to feel defensive, um, that they’re going to be motivated to do it faster, uh, or whatever you need.

Um, yeah. So.

Galen Low

I love better than some of my traditional framing, which is like around social engineering. I’m always like, project management is kind of social engineering cause you kind of need to manage without the authority you’re managing through influence. You know, you are, uh, taking into account people’s behaviors to kind of get your way and steer the project, you know, in the direction that you feel it needs to go.

But really it’s not as much social engineering as it is just having really good people skills, like having the wherewithal to, you know, think critically about how we conduct ourselves and the communications that we’re having to make things go well.

Pam Butkowski

Yeah. Well, and it’s about building strong relationships, right? A lot of social engineering is, um, it feels a little bit manipulative, right?

Uh, like I’m, I’m going to do these things so that I can get what I want. I mean, that’s our job, truly. Um, but, uh, especially when you’re working with, um, long-term clients, when you’re working with, uh, long-term teams of developers, right? Uh, you need to have strong foundations, um, and social engineering doesn’t build a really strong relationship.

Uh, it, it has its short-term goals.

Galen Low

Yeah. Micro and tactical, but I think you touched on something really interesting which I think is very applicable or at least applicable to some folks in a client services setting. So in an agency or a consultancy, you know, you’re thinking of whatever, let’s come back to the iron triangle, right?

So scope, timeline, budget for a project. But really what you’re managing is actually more than a project. You’re managing a longer-term relationship. Maybe you’re not the project manager on every project for that account, but like there is this sort of like take a step back, a bigger picture to manage. Um, and I kinda like, I don’t know, I guess in a way it takes me to this next question, which is like this notion of like, is this part of managing a project or is this over and above managing a project?

I know that’s probably clear as mud, but like in other words, you know, is it part of managing the iron triangle? You’re gonna hit scope, timeline and budget by practicing these behaviors? Or is it sort of an elevation of project management in terms of relationship management?

Pam Butkowski

Yeah, no, I, uh, I think that it is depending on where you are in your project management career, uh, that, right?

So if you’re an associate PM, it’s above and beyond. Um, but for my program managers, for my senior PMs, for my director level, uh, like program directors, um, this to me is part of the job. Um, relationship management, uh, value-driven delivery, um, this is, uh, this is a part of the job. Um, maybe not for my associates and my, my standard, like PMs, um, learn, learn to manage the triangle first, and men will work, work into the rest of it.

Uh, but when you’re at the point in your career where you’re managing multimillion dollar projects, um, I do think that this is just kind of table stakes.

Galen Low

You, you actually raised something in our earlier conversation. So, one of the things that you had mentioned in one of our previous conversations was this notion of like leading a client through a project.

Um, and we’re talking about, yes, like maybe as an associate PM, you’re just minding the iron triangle, the triple constraint. That’s fine. Um, but then when you’re leading a large program, a large project, like that is really what your clients are expecting of you. They’re looking for a partner, but also a leader in a way. Someone who’s going to make them feel comfortable and tell them what they need to know, um, help make decisions and really kind of hold their hand through it.

And that is something worth paying for beyond. I’m just going to make sure that people do what they’re supposed to be doing. Nobody really wants to pay for that. That kind of, that’s kind of like other people should do their jobs. Um, but when you get to a certain level, it’s like, no, you are actually like the person leading the charge.

Um, the person that is the trusted individual for that client.

Pam Butkowski

Yeah. It’s, so in agency land or in a client service setting, clients are coming to us because they either don’t have the expertise to do it themselves. They don’t have the capacity to do it themselves, or they just don’t want to do it themselves. In any of those situations, they’re looking for someone else to be the expert, uh, somebody else to lead them through it, make the right calls for them.

Uh, and so really again, understanding their priorities, understanding what’s at stake, understanding why they’re doing this, it’s going to allow us to do that, right? So, um, I always tell my PMs, for example, when we always talk about like, don’t just state the problem, right? Give them a solution as well. Um, and we always want the solution to be options, right?

We can either do this or we can do this. Um, I have always told my teams, you should also have a POV on which one you would do. Uh, which one they should do, right? We can either do this one and it’ll cost this much, this one and your timeline looks like this. Uh, I think we should do this one because of these reasons.

Um, still let the client make the decision. Uh, but they, again, they came to us because they either can’t or don’t want to do it themselves. Uh, take that pressure off. Don’t just give them all of the tough decisions to make. Don’t give them the hard parts of the job, right? Um, make it easier for them, tell them what they should do.

Uh, I have very rarely had a client say, I’m not going to do that thing that you think that I should do. I’m going to do this other thing. Um, that that never happens. They trust us. Uh, so have a perspective and have a reason for why you’re recommending a certain path. Um, and it shouldn’t be because it’ll save this much money, because my team told me to.

Uh, right? It should be because based on a conversation that we had three months ago about this thing that your customers are asking for, I think this is the best solution for them, right? Know their business, um, get in their heads a lot of times, uh, on the agency side again, because they don’t have the capacity or they don’t want to, or they don’t have the expertise.

The role that we’re missing in large scale development is a product owner, uh, in a lot of cases, right? We sometimes have something that might resemble a product manager, um, on the, the business side of the client. Uh we’re a lot of times lacking a product owner. And so the client will give you a stakeholder, right?

And they’ll say, this is your person, they’re your product owner, but they’ve never done it before most of the time. They don’t know what’s actually expected of them. So I like to have my teams think of themselves as product owner, project managers. Um, understand why we’re doing things, be able to prioritize, understand the value, right?

Um, we’re, it’s, it’s kind of like this product owner, product manager role, um, is hard sometimes because you have to simultaneously track velocity and value, right? You have to weigh them against each other and then decide what’s more important. Um, and then bring it to the client and say, I know that this is going to take three times longer, but I promise you it’s a good idea.

Um, and so I like to have some of my team members go through product owner training, get them CSPOs, um, like really understand what that role means, uh, cause that’s really where you start driving value for your clients. And that’s unnecessary role, especially in large scale development, having somebody who is the advocate for the product, not for this, not for the iron triangle, not for the development team, not for the business, but the product.

Um, and somebody looking out for the integrity of what we’re building. Uh that’s I, I believe that falls on my team’s job or on my team’s shoulders.

Galen Low

I love that framing. And I’m also thinking, cause I was gonna ask like in an agency setting, you know, and talk to me about it like a Wunderman Thompson, like does this mindset sort of start to collide with like the account team? But I think you actually just tease it out there, which is that it’s the product and the product value, the account team can think about the overall sort of like business strategy of which maybe this product is a piece.

Um, but I don’t know. Have you have anyone on your team ever kind of run into like, uh, issues where the account team feels like they’re stepping on their toes?

Pam Butkowski

I mean all the time. Uh, and no, but that relationship with the account team, uh, the, the project management, the client service team need to be in lock step, uh, even more so I think then the project management and the development team. Um, everybody needs to understand their role because there’s so much crossover.

Uh, and so, um, it was actually just talking to a couple of people at Hero about this, uh, about, um, some of the things that I’ve done in the past to help provide clarity, um, like reduce defensiveness, uh, make sure that everybody understands that their role is valuable and that my team isn’t trying to like stomp on anyone’s toes.

Um, we’re trying to make sure that everything is covered, right? And so, um, I like to do things like stakeholder mapping with our client service team, right? Uh, these are the day-to-day stakeholders and I’m going to own those relationships. You own this level and above, right? And let’s meet once a week so that we can talk about the conversations we’re having.

We make sure that we’re always in lock step. We were sinked up. Um, but this is my relationship. These are your relationships. And then everything is covered. Um, or, uh, we also do, uh, I’m a huge fan of client service, uh, project management, gray sheets.

Galen Low

Do tell.

Pam Butkowski

Yeah. Yeah.

Galen Low

Tell me more.

Pam Butkowski

So there are, I mean, even status reports, right?

Uh it’s no, no argument. The project management should be creating the status report. Uh, but depending on your team, your client, your agency who delivers it, is it project management? Is it the client service team sitting down and walking through the program status with the client? Um, and so there are a lot of things like that where it could go either way.

Uh, and so at the start of any project, especially if it’s, uh, a relationship that hasn’t been established yet between a PM and a client service, um, team member, um, I have a gray sheet and I make them fill it out. It’s a literal piece of paper that they have to fill in like a, like a test, um, and, uh, all of those things that could go either way are along the side.

And then there are bubbles to fill in for if the PM is going to own that thing or the client service person is going to own that thing and they have to start the project by filling it out.

Galen Low

They do it independently and compare, or they do it together?

Pam Butkowski

Oh, I’ve never seen that, but that’s a great idea.

Um, no, uh, it’s typically an hour long gray sheet meeting, um, at the start of the project to sit down and talk through all of them, talk through why the account person likes to talk through status reports. Like, why is that important to you? Why is it important to me and then decide who is actually going to be there?

Or is it a shared responsibility? Um, and we’ll do that for things like, uh, status meetings, right? Um, things like, uh, invoicing, right? That’s one that sometimes goes either way. Um, who’s, who’s responsible for that? Discussions about budget, um, who should be in those meetings? Uh, and so any of those things that could go either way. The teams talk through it together.

Galen Low

I like that. And that could be a whole another session. I am not familiar with that practice, but it sounds like a wonderful idea. And I think it’s actually a good segue into just the section I’ve titled the juicy stuff. Um, which is that, like it or not like the project manager role is a role that can actually cause a lot of strife across client relationships.

Um, we’ve talked about things like sometimes the client doesn’t think it’s necessary. Like I don’t want to pay for a project manager. Sometimes it’s used as a bargaining chip. Um, arguably I would say that the right project manager, and we’ve been talking about this all along the way, the right person can be, you know, the wind at the project sales, but the wrong person could actually be just that like anchor weight that prevents like an account or a project from thriving.

Um, so I mean, some of these things, like the gray sheet is about, you know, how to find the clearest path forward, but what are some of the most common challenges that you see your teams facing when it comes to sort of managing clients and like delivering value?

Pam Butkowski

Yeah. Um, so a lot of times clients who, uh, don’t see the value in a project manager role, or think that it’s overhead, um, or say I’m not going to pay for that, right? Uh, they have either been burned or they haven’t seen what a strong project manager can do.

Uh, and so we prove it early. Um, so things like the kickoff meeting, right? Traditional kickoff meetings. Um, let’s clarify scope, let’s clarify budget, let’s talk through roles, um, let’s talk about priorities, right?

Uh, and then let’s establish our meeting cadence, right? It’s very box checky. Um, we like to shift those a little bit. Um, I’ve even, because you know ahead of time before you kick off if the client is on board with project management or if they need a little bit of selling, right? Um, I’ve even separated that stuff before and had a separate logistics meeting.

And the kickoff is about, let’s talk about the things that, uh, how, let’s talk about how we got here. How did conversations start in your organization about building this thing? Why is it important? What problem are we trying to solve? Um, why, why is this important to your customers? Uh, now let’s talk about priorities.

Um, you just told me these things that are important to your customers and these things that are important to the business.. If we’re ever in a situation where we need to choose one, how do we want to go about that, right? Um, let’s, let’s establish how we’re going to collaborate together. And the kickoff meeting becomes, trust me, I promise.

I’m here for you. I am your advocate. You can trust me to lead us through this and then we’ll hold a separate logistics meeting. Um, and in the kickoff meeting, say, okay, I’m going to schedule 30 minutes with you. Just one-on-one to check off some of the logistics stuff, right? Um, and I’ll even tell them because that’s the other side of my job.

Uh, this side of my job is to make sure that we are building the right thing at the right time as efficiently as possible. The other side of my job is scope, timeline, budget. Uh, so let’s have another meeting to talk about that stuff. Uh, but this is more important right now.

Galen Low

I love that two side of the job.

Pam Butkowski

And yeah, yeah. It’s, um, it like I’ll, I’ll tell them as transparently as that, that that’s only a little piece. Right? Cause a lot of times, uh, if they’ve been burned in the past, it’s because their PM was only focused on the iron triangle. And then they got something that was completely wrong or the designs were crap, or we didn’t resolve our technical debt at the end because we didn’t have the budget to do it.

Nobody told them. Um, and, uh, so if they’ve been burned by project managers before it’s because they didn’t have a project leader, they had a project coordinator. And um, so we, we want to show them what it feels like to be led.

Galen Low

I really liked that. And I imagine that, I mean, some of the things we’re talking about, like the gray sheets and kind of, you know, what we know about a client or an account or a project beforehand, um, what about even before that?

Like how do you go about pairing the right project manager to, you know, the right client and like, what are some of the things that factor into your decision?

Pam Butkowski

Yeah. I mean, I’m not going to lie. Some of it is who has capacity, right? Who has the vailability to take on a 20 hour week project. Like that, that’s a huge piece of it.

But, um, sometimes we can’t map the perfect person to the right client. Um, sometimes we can’t move mountains to get the right personality fit and the person who’s done a hundred mobile projects onto this health care mobile app, right? Um, it’s sometimes we can’t do it.

Um, because ideally we would match industry, we would match personalities, we would match technology types, right? Um, we would, uh, if, if it’s a client who’s been burned in the past or doesn’t see the value in PMs, we’ll give them a more senior one. Uh, somebody who really focuses on product, um, or really focuses on value. Um, and, uh, it just like, so we’ll pair like that.

That’s how I write like a number of different things, but sometimes you can’t do that. Sometimes it’s, everybody’s full. I have this one person who could step in tomorrow. I’m not going to transition 92 things in play project Tetris. Um, and then it’s all about, uh, support. Um, making sure that both the client and, uh, the PM feel supported and have what they need to be successful.

So I might be more involved then, um, and get to know the client a little bit better and then start to step back when that trust is built.

Galen Low

I like that though, that the, like the, the thread of steel throughout this has been like arming your team with the skills, like, like you said, um, okay. Maybe I can’t train you to run towards a fire.

Um, that’s something that I might want to evaluate when I’m hiring you, but once you’re in, we’re going to do these things. We’re going to work on, you know, you’re going to go through like product manager training. We’re going to talk about, you know, personality types and how to navigate relationships and build relationships.

And it strikes me that as I asked that question, I was like, it sounds to me like you’ve built a team where no one is going to come to you and be like, Pam, like, I don’t feel comfortable running a kickoff meeting where I’m like a product person, you know. Like, I don’t think I’m the right fit. It sounds to me like, they’d say, okay, I’ll put on, you know, the, the product hat that I’ve learned by being a part of this team.

Um, and, and yeah. Challenge, challenge accepted. Let’s go.

Pam Butkowski

Yeah. Well, a huge, um, so when we talk about not running toward the fire, right? And we talked about people like kind of staying on the sidelines, uh, what I’ve seen in leading teams is that most of that isn’t because they don’t want to. Most of it isn’t because they don’t have it in them.

Um, project managers, myself included, we all suffer from imposter syndrome. We’re, we’re not developers, we’re not designers, we’re not analysts. Um, we don’t work for the client. Uh, we don’t really, like, we’re not account people. We don’t understand the whole client landscape. Um, we don’t know how to do QA. We try, we try.

Right? Like, we were really annoying about like, Hey guys, I found a thing. Um, but we’ve never done any of those jobs. Uh, but for some reason we have to be the glue between all of them, right? And, um, that is, especially for more junior PM’s, it’s a very, very uncomfortable to step into a meeting of people where you don’t actually know what they do.

Right? Um, I have never written a line of code in my life. My eight year old has written more code than I have. Um, But I still have to walk into a room of developers and help them through their problems that relate to something I don’t know how to do. Um, and that’s, it’s really intimidating. Uh, and so helping PMs understand, like, no, you do have a right to be there.

You, you it’s, they’re looking to you to show up, uh, they need you to run toward them and help them through their problems. Um, because while you don’t write code and you don’t know how to use sketch and you don’t write like, well, you don’t do these things. Um, what you do have is flawless organization and attention to detail that they don’t. Interpersonal skills.

Um, but more than anything, you see everything. You know where everything is and that’s the missing piece. That’s the value to your team is the view that you have of everything else going on. Um, you are this, this is a terrible analogy, but like project managers are puppet masters, right? Like they’ve got everything.

Um, and like, I’m gonna move these legs over here. I’m going to, uh, I’m gonna move these legs over here, like this, this puppet over here, and then I’m gonna move this one. And then they’re all going to do a little dance over here together. And, uh, the puppets don’t see where the other puppets are. Um, only we do.

And so if something is going wrong on the development team, um, we see the solution and we know how to get them out of it. They don’t in most cases. Uh, but PMs don’t feel like we have the right to go in and help them through it. And that’s wrong.

Galen Low

I mean, it’s like coming back to that bridge analogy, right?

If you’re a bridge, you’re not, you’re on neither side, right? You’re neither on the client side, nor on the team side. You don’t know what’s going on, like in detail in, in the ditches on, on either side, but Hey, you stand on the top of that bridge? You can see from miles.

Pam Butkowski

Yeah. Well, the other analogy that I used, um, at AIM for a while too, when I was explaining what project management is. Um, all of the other disciplines kind of live on islands, right?

You’ve got developer island, you’ve got data island, um, and we live in boat. Um, we don’t, we don’t have an island. Uh, and so we, we get to go from data island, to dev island, to design island, to client island. Um, and we bring bananas from one to the other island that has no food. Uh, and then we bring whatever resources they have and bring it somewhere else.

Right? Like we are, we are the boats that make sure that all of the islands can thrive. Um, but like, I don’t live on developer island. Why should I go to developer island? Um, we need to get over it, then go to developer island.

Galen Low: And see the value of being in a boat.

Pam Butkowski

Because when they’re starving and you show up with the bananas from data island, like I promise you will be welcomed.

Galen Low

That is fair. That is fair. Uh, I wonder if we can talk a little bit about, you know, the, like the tough situations. Um, you and I we’ve talked about this in the past, you know, um, that moment where a client comes to you. As an escalation it says, this is not working the PM that I have on this project. I want to, I want to, I want to trade them out.

I want to swap, I want a new PM. Um, and it, it, it, it seems to happen more often than one might expect to actually, which also kind of highlights the importance of, of demonstrating the value as a, as a project manager to your clients, to your stakeholders. But how do you go about addressing a situation like that?

Like when someone on the client comes to you and I was like, I want a different PM. This isn’t working out. How do you, how do you start addressing that?

Pam Butkowski

Yeah. Um, I ask why, uh, and I dive in. Um, sometimes it’s a personality clash, sometimes, uh, the client, um, thinks that something wrong and then it isn’t really wrong.

Um, sometimes the RPM really has dropped the ball either they’re overloaded or they didn’t know how to do something and didn’t ask, or they just messed up, right? We’re humans. But I figured out kind of what the red problem is. Um, and then we’ll figure out a plan from there. If it’s really, if it’s a personality clash, uh, I might make a change because of that.

Um, that’s, that’s something I’m going to ask anybody to change. I’m not going to ask a client to work with somebody that they just don’t like, and I’m not going to ask a PM to try to build trust with someone who just isn’t going to get along with them. Uh, that’s not putting either of them in a situation that’s fair.

Uh, we might figure out kind of what those personality things are that are rubbing them the wrong way, right? Are they too blunt? Are they, um, right? Uh, are they not blunt enough? Uh, and then we’ll work through some of those things separately, but if that trust is already broken, let’s not try to rebuild it.

Um, but if they’re not getting status reports, if they’re, uh, like things like that, um, I don’t like to make switches like that. Um, I wanna, I wanna earn their trust back. Um, and so then I might get more involved or, uh, I might clear other projects off of that PM’s plate and have them only focus on this one instead of transitioning, right?

Like show them what it feels like to have the client, what it feels like to have a dedicated PM. Um, so I, in situations where we’ve broken trust because of performance, I like to earn that back. Uh, in situations where we’ve broken trust because of personality clashes, um, that that ship has sailed. Uh, we’ll get you a new PM.

Galen Low

I like this sort of like notion that keeps coming up of the things that are easy to change and the things that are very difficult to change. And as humans, we need to recognize what those are like, that you can be a personality type three and sort of stretch and work with other, you know, other different types of personalities, but you might not overnight become a nine.

Like it’s not like tomorrow and come back on Monday and be a nine and don’t be a three anymore. No more achieving, okay? Be a completely different person. Uh, and even what you were saying about, uh, you know, you can’t overnight just become somebody who runs towards a fire like that. There’s this core thing.

And it doesn’t mean that someone can’t become that over time. So anyone listening, uh, I think I, I would hazard to say, you could develop that instinct to run towards a fire and be a firefighter, but it won’t happen overnight. And it’s our core than just a thing that you think about and do on a day to day basis.

Pam Butkowski

Right. Well, and you need to be a sponge. Um, the people who do instinctively put on their fire hats and run, watch them. Watch when they take out their hat, watch how they run in, um, watch what their team does when the PM gets there with their hose, right? Um, it is, see, see what it’s like to be a firefighter and watch other people do it, right?

Because it’s not, um, it is an art. Firefighting. Um, and nobody needs like Miley Cyrus coming in on her wrecking ball when things are on fire, right? You need, you need a delicate touch and you need to like build back. Uh, and so, um, it, it is really easy, especially for people who are saying, like, trying to grow into that, to just say, I’m I’m here.

Let me add it. Uh, that’s not what people need. People need a leader.

Galen Low

Yeah. And people think of fire-fighting, when you say the word firefighting, a lot of people are like, oh yeah, that was it with water, you know, just get the big hose out, do whatever it takes to put out that fire. But it’s not, it’s actually a delicate art that requires leadership, good instinct and judgment.

Um, it’s not just taking a hose out, connecting it to the hydrant and going to broke.

Pam Butkowski

Right, right. Exactly.

Galen Low

I wonder if we could talk about the impact of when things go really well. So, you know, we’ve kind of been navigating like challenges and how to deliver value, but I think taking a step back just from a client services perspective, like as a consultancy or as an agency, um, like what does it look like?

What impact can a good project manager have on like that broader client relationship?

Pam Butkowski

Oh, so much, um, I, I mean, we can see the broader client relationship, we, we can maintain it, we can grow it. We can, I mean, if it’s stable, we’re doing our job. Um, and, uh, but that trust piece, right? But I, the last project or the last program that I led myself or that I project managed was back in 2018.

Um, and, uh, it, it, it, it was one of those projects. It was a $6 million project, something like that. Um, but it was one of those projects where they were looking to us to tell them what was the right thing to do. Uh, but we had to earn that trust. They didn’t come in first saying, and you guys get to be the experts now, right?

No, we were there to build a product, uh, but we had built up the trust that by the end of this, um, by the end of the project, when we were getting ready to launch, it was a, for an event. And so it was kind of time box. And we only had so much time because we needed to have an iOS app and an Android app and the entire, uh, conference experience site launched by a specific date.

Otherwise we didn’t have an app for the conference. Um, and, uh, by the end of it, I was going through JIRA and I would call the client and I would say, I just moved, uh, seven tickets into, uh, back into the backlog. We’re not going to do it. Here are my reasons why. And they said, cool. Um, I just pulled this enhancement.

We’re not going to have time because this thing is more important. Cool. Uh, because I understood the person. I understood what was important, right? Um, and I also understood which of the things that we thought were stupid were really important to them, right? So one of their requests, for example, was we need all of the, uh, all of the speaker images for this conference to be black and white.

They’re currently color. We need all of them to be black and white. Um, that feels really dumb to the team, right? Like go to your developers and tell them to change all of the pictures to black and white when they’re drowning in bugs. Um, but it was really important to them. Uh, and so, um, that’s how we kind of built that trust now because of that, that account grew from, uh, it started as a half a million dollar account.

And by the time I left, it was like 10, 12 million, something like that because of one project. Because word spreads, right? Uh, and building trust with clients, when you look at project management as project leadership instead of management, the account gets bigger, the clients are happier, your account team is happier. Um, your developers are happier and the quality of the product is better. Um, it’s it impacts everything. Bad project management is, I mean, I don’t know. It’s, I’m, I’m dramatic about it now, right? Like without, without a good PM, nothing is good.

Galen Low

Well, I mean, you hit on so many things there in terms of like how trust is built.

And some people will think that building relationship is just telling the client everything they want to hear, but it’s not. Like you just described this balance of like, okay, my team thinks it’s stupid, but the client thinks it’s important. So there’s, you know, there’s something to be said there, but also.

I’m going to tell them that I’m putting things back into the backlog and I ain’t going to, you know, like give them a good reason. Um, and that’s that sort of type of judgment and leadership that is demonstrable, right? Like they see it, we’ll see it. It’s not like this invisible work, um, you know, managing the iron triangle, which in some cases is very invisible, invisible, and your team might, he might not even know what you do, but when you’re doing things like that, the team knows what you’re doing. The client knows what you’re doing, everyone’s seeing the impact it’s having.

Pam Butkowski

We, um, that was also the project where I came up with, um, the chips analogy and I have so many unknowns. Um, so many, no, but, uh, this is another example though of a way that you can talk to the client about the value that you provide, right?

Um, so in, in that project, um, I told the client, like there is a deadline for this, right? Uh, so I said, we have a finite number of things that we can do. Um, and so every time you asked for something, I need you to give me one of your poker chips, right? We’re starting with equal chips, or you start with all the chips.

However you want to think about it, right? Every time you ask me for something new, give me a chip. And at some point I need to cash them all in. At some point, I’m going to say, we’re done here. Take them all back. I can’t do any more for you. Um, but I’ll fit things in and I’m going to take your chips. And I’m going to ask the team to do extra as long as we have capacity.

But when I sit you down, because I will at some point and say, I’m cashing in my chips, you have to stop asking for things. You have to be okay with it. Um, and when that day came, where I said, okay, here it is. This is like, this is the conversation that I warned you about. I need to give you all your chips back.

Uh, I, I need to cash in all of my chips. We’re not doing this giant feature. He said, okay, you told me this was coming. I wish it wasn’t that thing, but I’m good. Um, And like prepping them for this is, this is a balance. Like we have a finite number of things that we can do, or a finite, a budget that we can spend or a finite amount of time to do things.

Galen Low

And I think that’s like, I love that sort of managing expectations through relatable analogies, right? But, you know, I think a lot of people, again, it’s one of those things where people think managing expectations is telling somebody that they’re not getting something all like basically all the time, but it’s not, it’s actually about explaining the mechanics of how this dynamic works.

How does the machine work? Here’s how the machine works. Um, and this is going to happen. And when it happens, you’re like, okay, this is how the machine works and your client was okay with it because it wasn’t the expectation of this feature. You’re not going to get it. It was the expectation of at some point there’s going to be something where you have to stop asking because it won’t fit in the time or the, you know, the, the budget or whatever box that we have.

Pam Butkowski

Or we’ve asked for too much. And now we need to cut something else.

Galen Low

I like that mechanism of, of expectation management. I was going to say control, but really expectation management.

Pam Butkowski

And that’s all right. Um, again, like going back to what we were talking about earlier with, um, PM’s who, or clients who don’t trust PMs or don’t see the value in PMs, um, they, they need a little bit of like understanding how the sausage is made, right?

Um, a lot of times to your point, uh, when they’ve been told no before, it came out of nowhere, it was a thing that they thought we had time for, we’re removing scope. Um, but they don’t know how we got to that point. They don’t know what impacted this. Um, for all they know, we just totally screwed up and spent way too much time on other things.

That’s not usually what happens in the background, right? There are trade-offs, the client’s asked for things. Um, the design team slipped stuff in like things of, uh, things have happened in the background. Um, and they don’t have that full picture. So showing them how the sausage is made a little bit, right? And saying, Hey, this one thing took a little bit longer, but also you asked for these four things, let’s decide what we’re going to do here.

Are these really important? Are you willing to maybe sacrifice stuff down the road? Like give me a chip.

Galen Low

And I love that. Uh, the thing you mentioned earlier that I thought was really key and really resonated with me was just this notion of like technical debt that might sting the relationship later because nobody told them. Nobody told them how this works.

Pam Butkowski

Yeah, yeah, no, absolutely. I think, um, I think transparency is key, right? So, uh, yeah. Understanding or helping the clients see why, why you’re being the bad guy when you’re being the bad guy.

Um, technical debt is a great example of that. I, when I left, um, when I left my last role in consulting, I said, I’m going back to agencies. And they were like, why? And because, um, they had gotten so many projects when, when I was at AIM. So many of our projects that came in were rescue projects that were done by agencies who weren’t fully transparent about, um, hard coding things that shouldn’t have been hard-coded for the sake of time.

Right? And so then, uh, we were getting a lot of projects, asking to fix it. Um, and, uh, that, that hurts. That hurts in my soul. There are projects like that out there. Um, because there are absolutely times when you maybe need to hard-code something to get it out the door in order to hit a timeline that is immovable, right?

But the client needs to know that, um, you need to tell them that this is the thing that we’re going to do, because you’ve told me that timeline is more important. We need to go back and fix it later. Um, or this is a, this is a thing that’s going to be present if you don’t want to fix it. And then here’s the impact of that a year down the road.

Um, they need to know those things, no surprises.

Galen Low

No surprises. No surprises might be the title of this podcast.

Um, last question. If there’s anyone kind of like struggling to advocate for the value that they’re bringing to the table as a digital project manager, like what, what advice would you give them?

Pam Butkowski

Um, I mean, we kind of touched on this earlier, but the same way that we, um, that we prove it to clients, right?

You have two jobs. You, you have the job of managing scope, timeline, budget, uh, and making sure that the iron triangle is taken care of. Um, but you also have the job of making sure that we’re doing the right thing for the client. Um, making sure that we’re actually providing value to their business and their customers. Um, making sure that your teams are happy, healthy, and taken care of that, they understand the value that you’re providing.

Um, talk to people about your two jobs. Uh it’s okay. Like what you said earlier about, um, like I think you said not to toot our own horn. It’s okay. To toot our own horn. It’s it’s okay for us to say, yeah, I do that stuff, but I do it in my sleep. This is the stuff that I’m actually doing to provide value and to make sure that we get this out the door and that quality is there and that our clients are happy, right?

Um, if everybody, if, if we get across the finish line of a project and we’ve gotten the entire scope of work done, we hit the budget and we got it done before the timeline, but everybody’s bloody and bruised and hates each other. Like that’s, that’s not success. We didn’t win. Um, you didn’t actually do your job.

Like you manage the iron triangle. Uh, you also lost a client and everybody you work with hates you. So, um, that’s, that’s not all we do. And it’s okay to say I am the glue, right? I live in the boat that travels between all of your islands. And I make sure that you all have what you need. So use me, tell me when you need something, because I can’t, I’m not a mind reader, but I want to help you in any way that I can. Um, talk about it, right? We all know that that’s not all we do. It’s okay to tell people that.

Galen Low

Boom. I love that.

There you have it. Awesome. Listen, Pam, thanks so much for coming and having this conversation with us. Uh, I literally learned something every time you open your mouth. It’s great having you on the DPM experts team. Uh, and, uh, it’s just such a wealth of information and knowledge in that brain of yours. Uh, and I think there’s like three other episodes we should do based on some of the things you mentioned in this episode. So anyway.

Pam Butkowski

Sign me up.

Galen Low

There you go. We’re gonna do this. We’re going to make it a Pam series.

Pam Butkowski

Oh boy. I’m so sorry, everybody.

Galen Low

Now, I think it’ll be a hit. Awesome.

Anyways, thanks again. This has been a lot of fun and uh, yeah, we’ll do it again sometime.

Pam Butkowski

Yeah. Thanks for having me on. This was great.

Galen Low

Very cool.

So, what do you think? Is it fair for digital project managers to be expected to go above and beyond their responsibility to the iron triangle of scope, timeline and budget in order to have recognizable value? Or is that just how it’s always been?

Tell us a story. Have you ever had a client who tried to take you off of a project? Has your ability to build trust with stakeholders that were saved a client relationship? And if you want to hone your skills as a strategic project leader, come and join our tribe.

Head over to thedigitalprojectmanager.com/membership to get access to a supportive community that shares knowledge, solves complex challenges, and shapes the future of our craft together. From robust templates and monthly training sessions that save you time and energy, to peer support offered through our discussion forum, community events and mastermind groups.

Being a member of our tribe means having over a thousand people in your corner as you navigate your career in digital delivery. And if you like what you heard today, please subscribe and stay in touch on thedigitalprojectmanager.com.

Until next time. Thanks for listening.

Galen Low

Galen Low

I am a Client Services Professional and Agile Delivery Specialist with progressive experience driving human-centered digital transformation in government, healthcare, transit, and retail verticals. I manage large, cross-functional teams and executive-level relationships within boutique agencies and large consultancies to drive tangible business outcomes and strategic growth. A few of my specialties: digital strategy, agile web application development, project management, human-centered design, design thinking, innovation & growth, digital government, career coaching, professional development.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.