Galen Low is joined by Courtney Johnston, the Director of Community Engagement at The Digital Project Manager, to talk about why keeping humans at the center of digital project management is so important and what results you can expect if you do it right.
- Courtney became a digital project manager completely by accident. She went to school for business marketing. Her very first job was at an advertising agency in Waterloo, Ontario. [1:31]
- Courtney did microsites and did a bunch of banner ads with Google. She got into digital in the 2000’s. [4:25]
My hypothesis of human-centered project management is really about being aware, being present, and being a better human to the humans around you.Courtney Johnston
- The practice of human-centered design, at its baseline on that side of things is trying to find the answers by including the human perspective and the human experience in all steps of whatever the process is that you’re trying to solve. [15:12]
- Joy is one of those human emotions that is Courtney’s favorite. Joy is one of those big, juicy, magical human emotions. And if you can elicit joy from your team, they’re going to stick around. They are going to work harder to solve something because they’re happy. [19:52]
- Courtney shares her ketchup chip story. [20:44]
- Courtney shares some of the core skills that a project manager should probably hone in order to lead projects in a human-centered way. One of this is staying on the path to learn. Practice, listen, read, absorb, steal. It’s Courtney’s number one thing, steal everything. [29:37]
- Listening in on someone’s conversation is what Courtney used to do in her early days. She would listen to folks who were more senior than her in a meeting. She would write down verbatim what people were saying. [29:58]
- Spend time with real people in their environments and follow their leads and their needs. [30:55]
- Identify your super users, just watching how they speak, their body language, those types of things. [32:31]
You’re not supposed to know everything and it’s okay. And I think you have to be okay with that ‘not being’ okay.Courtney Johnston
- Don’t put expectations that everyone knows all the things, because we don’t know all the things and that’s okay. It’s okay not to know all the things. [41:31]
Don’t be vulnerable for the sake of being vulnerable. Be vulnerable because you feel like it’s an authentic fit for who you are.Courtney Johnston
Meet Our Guest
Courtney Johnston is a seasoned agency and consultancy PM who has worked on nearly every type of digital project under the sun. Her clients have included global insurance companies, large financial services organizations, and top retail brands. She takes pride in being a connector, an empathizer, a cheerleader, and a storyteller.
You just show up as you. Bring ‘you’ to your projects, because ‘you’ is what makes this project amazing.Courtney Johnston
Resources From This Episode:
- Join DPM Membership
- Subscribe to the newsletter to get our latest articles and podcasts
- Follow Courtney on LinkedIn
Related Articles And Podcasts:
- About the podcast
- How To Manage A Project With Empathy?
- Don’t Just Manage Your Team, Manage Your Client
- Storytelling For Project Managers
Read The Transcript:
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.
Galen Low: Hey folks, 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 amplify the value of project management in a digital world. If you want to hear more about that, head over to thedigitalprojectmanager.com.
All right. Today, we are talking about why keeping humans at the center of digital project management is so important and what results you can expect if you do it right. With me today is DPM's very own Director of Community Engagement, Courtney Johnston, or as we affectionately know her, CJ!
Courtney Johnston: Hello, Galen! I am so thrilled that I got to watch and listen to that intro be done live. You don't know this, but you are, I think I'm going to put you on like a voice talent register so we can like have another revenue stream because that's all, it's just amazing to listen to.
Galen Low: That'd be so much fun to have a profile on one of those websites. Some of our team actually has been going through these voiceover, uh, sort of, talent databases, which has been listening to it on the speaker.
I'm flattered that you think I'm at that level. I think with all good things, right, I think my voice sounds nasally and like is actually very quite abrasive. But I'm, I'm glad, I'm glad that you, and maybe some other people don't.
But why don't we dive in. I thought maybe, first of all, would you be able to tell our listeners just a little bit about how you came to be a digital project manager in the first place and maybe just some of the types of projects you've worked on?
Courtney Johnston: Yeah. So, it's a funny story. As most things are. I became a digital project manager completely by accident. Not something that my 12 year old self woke up and is like, I'm going to do this thing. So I went to school for business marketing. My very first job was at an advertising agency in Waterloo, Ontario.
And folks who are familiar with the space will probably know what agency I'm talking about. Absolutely magical place to work, but my first job I was on reception. It was the only job I could get, but I was just so happy to have a foot in the door. I opened mail, if you remember getting mail of the office, I opened other people's mail at the office, put into folders into a mail cart and delivered it.
I like paged people if they were late for meetings, that kind of stuff but I was also always walking the halls being like, do you need help? Can I do a thing? What can I do? And I was so enchanted and I fell in love with like watching the creative team brainstorm and like put these beautiful print ads together.
And even if it was like for an agricultural tool or something along those lines, I just thought the process was amazing and I was in the hammered watching that all kind of come together. And so finally someone was like, Hey, CJ. And actually fast fact, this is where the name CJ started was actually at, nobody called me CJ until like that, that year which was so random.
They're like, do you know how to do HTML? And I said, absolutely, I do not, but I can learn how to do it. And so then they taught me how to open and close a tag. And then they're like, here's some data that needs to get chucked into Dreamweaver. You remember Dreamweaver? So this is again I'm dating myself. But I loved it.
I absolutely loved it, it was so thrilling to be a part of a team. Again, this was my first like real ish job in that space. And I just fully embrace it. So my best friend and I had gone to school together. We both got a job at the same agency, two paths diverged in the wood. I went into the digital side of things and she was very much stayed in the traditional side.
And then she, her and I still speak different languages often in our current roles, which is always interesting, but my love for digital really lies in, forever my favorite word and Galen you'll know this because I use it every single day, is hypothesis. And I love the experimentation and the ability to throw something up.
See what happens almost instantly, and then be able to change like directions if you have to. Also if you muck up a print project, which I have done, that is a lot harder to fix than if you muck up a digital projects. I always love that flexibility because again humans, you know, we make mistakes constantly. So my career has taken me through all kinds of different projects.
And I've done everything from, and I did do some full service work. So I've done radio, still my favorite thing to produce was a radio ad. Absolutely fascinating process because then when you leave the radio studio, your project is done. Like it's already, like you do the script, you find the voice talent, you go in and you record it.
You watch like the mixers or whatever their names are on the board. And that they're magicians. Like they are actual magicians. They pull it together and you have a little 32nd project that's like done in like off to the world it goes and it's magic to watch that happen. Anyway, radio, super cool. And I did outdoor.
I did bus shelters, I did, my, I've done everything. So I did, I've done microsites, et cetera and my claim to fame is, did a bunch of banner ads with Google way back in the day and I was on an email thread with Sergey Brin. So there's my name drop for the day. If you remember him, he's one of the co-founders of Google.
Galen Low: I wish we had like a horn to honk. Some of those, some podcasts out there whenever they'd name drop, they honk the horn.
Courtney Johnston: Yeah, Sergey Brin. And that was back when like banner ads were ruling the world in digital. So it's been really cool to watch the trajectory also of digital along the way cause I started I, I graduated and got into digital in like the 2000's and watching how things have changed so much has been like, wow, kind of mind blowing.
If you think about where we, where we started, which again was making like motion, motion graphics, and banners being like, this is revolutionary. And now we're like, Hey cool. Like websites can do all these other things. And there's, here's some cool technology and here's AI and here's some really cool like robot dogs, like digital has really, it's just been amazing to kind of watch a change.
And I don't think that like print ads have really evolved as much as digital has, so that's kind of a cool thing. So, so I think I took the right path way back in the day. Opening and closing the tags.
Galen Low: Well, isn't that the crux of it all, right? It's kind of like this willingness to jump into something that's fast paced, a willingness to learn, to learn how to open and close tags.
And this is passion for creating and, and, and, and being rapid and experimenting with a hypothesis and just seeing where it goes. And not having a big typo on a billboard that's like 67 feet wide.
Courtney Johnston: Great. Yeah, and I, I, it never got that far, but it got pretty darn close. And I never forget that moment in my life.
I'm like, I don't want to be a print anymore. It was not my thing, but I'm just, and I'm still learning like the tools as, you know, like we are always learning and leveraging new tools and new ways of thinking and new ways of working. And it's, it's just, it's, it's a constant firehose, but in the best way. It's like the fire hose in the summertime when it's super hot and you're like, oh, this is so great.
Cause this is a super fun and there's like so much good stuff that's coming out of this. So I think that's a much better way of looking at it than just like a firehose hitting you in the face.
Galen Low: You know, we should do this again and we'll do a separate episode on things that we miss about Macromedia Flash.
Courtney Johnston: Oh my gosh.
Galen Low: That'll be, that'll be your next episode.
Courtney Johnston: And subscribe, Galen.
Galen Low: Our younger listeners are like, wow, these folks are old. And also like, probably picturing like the picture you painted at the beginning, like with the mail room and like picturing this like madman scene, right? Like Madison Avenue coming up in your mail room, climbing the ranks.
Courtney Johnston: I had like my own like letter opener for, it was cause you would get, you would get paper cuts, it was a real hazard.
Galen Low: Occupational hazard.
Courtney Johnston: Crazy.
Galen Low: All right. Well, one other thing I know about you that I wanted to kind of share to contextualize this. So, people who know you, they describe you as a very empathetic person.
They also described you as like a natural born storyteller. And I'm wondering, a) are those things true? b) how has that helped you and how has it hurt you throughout your career as a project manager?
Courtney Johnston: That's a really great question and I would love to tell you. Empathy has always been a part of my, my DNA as a child. I can go back to like my, my nursery school, reports that came home and it was like, Courtney was so distracted because she was too busy taking care of this other child who came in and who was like missing their mom.
And I was like, it's okay, your mom's going to come back. And so that has always that nurturing caregiver mom business has always been a part of my life and it's not something I've ever been able to drop. Even when I thought that I had to be someone different at work, I've never, never, never been able to drop it.
So sometimes it's too my, it is not necessarily always a positive thing because I can often take on other people's emotions and all that kind of jazz and I can carry that with me. But I love it about myself. I'm old enough now to be like, ah, this is who I am and I'm into it. And it, it makes me feel good to, to care.
And I just, it's just that, that's just the way it does. And then storytelling is, am I good at it? I don't know. I tell stories. I love to just shoot the breeze. And just regale people with ridiculous things that have happened in my life and hear stories of theirs in an, and also watch other storytellers live.
And, and, you know, we've seen folks that we've worked with in the past that are just, it's like a magical skill. Something that I'm always, always, always going to try to get better at. But those two things, storytelling and being empathetic are, are great at long weekends with cottage, right? They're great in all kinds of other situations.
They're great at making friendships and those types of things. They haven't always been readily accepted in workplaces. And I think because there's always, there has been the sense of this facade that you have to have this very, you have to always be professional, but in that you can't tell stories about, you know, some deep, crazy family dynamic and those types of things, because it's too personal.
And God forbid, we bring in our personal lives into work. And I definitely agree that work is not necessarily a family, like I don't, I think we are the sports team analogy, I think is far more appropriate these days.
But I do believe that working with other human beings, making a connection with other people means that you have to bring some of that vulnerability to the table. And I'm never going to change. So people are like, CJ, sometimes sings her to-do list and that's super annoying. And, but it, or she'll go off and she'll take way too long in a meeting telling some dumps story.
I'm not going to change. This is who I am and I'm pretty sure Ben would also, I'm thinking he maybe would agree because I think that the reason I got this job over here at the DPM was probably because of an Instagram story or maybe a set of Instagram stories and pens, like that's cool. She should come over and do some mystery stories on our side.
I was like, that sounds like fun. So I, if, if it's something that people are telling you about yourself that you should be less like something, you know that you're too much, then they should go find less and you should just stick with who you are. Cause then that's my, that's my story, I'm sticking to it.
Galen Low: Boom. I love that. I love that. And then inside track for folks who want to work at the DPM, just be great at Instagram.
Courtney Johnston: Or just being yourself and kind of stupid. That's, that's what I did. That was my approach.
Galen Low: I really liked that. And I was like, you know, like, especially like the context in the context of project management, you know, those, those, those moments. I'm sure our listeners can relate as well, where they're like, oh look at you being such a project manager. Usually it's because you were like being rigid on time.
Like, oh, you got to wrap this meeting up, meeting up in the next five minutes. Or because you had like taken really good notes or because, you know, you were like talking about the budget. And honestly, a lot of those like robotic processes that get, you know, stereotyped into the project manager role. Whereas in fact, guess what, it's just one of those jobs where for the most part, we're working with people.
Courtney Johnston: Yep. And those I'm going to air quote, robotic. Those, those components of being a project manager are still incredibly important. And by no means, should you not pay attention to your budget and report on your budget and that kind of stuff. But I think that there's another layer of being a project manager. And I think that's, I actually don't think I'm a great project manager, to be quite frank.
I actually think Galen, you, if we went to like a project manager competition and you and I had to, like, you would kick my ass a thousand percent. Because I, there's, so like a lot of the technical components and theories and methodologies are not areas of project management that I necessarily participate in.
My focus is like, how is my team doing? How are my clients feeling? Do they hate my guts? And can I make them not hate my guts? Right? Those types of things, that's where I shine. Like you give me a problem child and I will like un-problem a fight, right? But, I still think that those two things can very much co-exist.
You can still be all of these great, you know, line items, 1 through 10 of being a PM. And then there's the nebulous soft, softer side that also needs to be, you know, bring those two things together and, and I do think that's really where again, magical, magic lies in so much of this conversation, but I do think that magic lies in there as well.
Galen Low: I love that. First of all, we must do PM battles. That sounds intense and hilarious.
Courtney Johnston: Also unsubscribe.
Galen Low: And I mean, won't it be great that moment when someone is like, look at you being such a storytelling project manager. Or look at you being such an empathetic human being project manager. Those are characteristics that are important.
I do not think that you'd win in a battle against me in project management. And I think let's explore this a little bit more deeply about how just being a good human can affect the performance of your team, the way you deliver projects and generally, your success as an organization. So you and I, we've been, we've been talking around this notion of, of human centered project management. And now it's kind of a thought that you've got going in progress, work in progress.
But I'm wondering if you could tell us a little bit about where your head is at in terms of what is human centered project management? Is it a completely different approach? Is this a new philosophy? Is it a new religion? How are you thinking about it?
Courtney Johnston: Yeah, that's a great question. I, so I think for me, having had access and having been gifted and the privilege to work with incredibly smart people in other agencies and other consultancies, um, watching folks work in that human-centered design space was fascinating to me.
I, I came from my design, an agency work was very traditional, even, even the digital work is still very, felt very traditional. And then, you know, I got exposed to human-centered design and I was like, what? Humans first? That's so cool. So I loved the, the ideas behind human-centered design, but then it didn't feel accessible to me as a project manager because you're like, well, I'm not a designer.
So like, how can I make this super cool methodology in this like really magical space? I also overuse the word magic and I am unapologetic about it. How can I bring that magic into my own self? Or am I already doing some of that already? And the feedback that I always got from folks who I worked with was that, I was empathetic.
And, a few times I did get people saying, CJ is a greatest project manager I ever worked with. And I was like, well, why would you say that? I'm like, I feel like I'm kind of terrible. And they're like, no, you were always there for me, like you were always there to help solve our problem. And you'd always sit and chat with me and those types of things.
And I felt like at the baseline, my hypothesis of human centered project management is really about being aware, that awareness, that about, it's about noticing, about being present and being a better human to the humans around you. And we probably, at some point we all, we think that we're, we're very likely doing some of these things.
But I think putting that intention behind it, in terms of including the human experience and all the things that you're doing. So the human, the practice of human-centered design, you know, at its baseline on that side of things is trying to find the answers by including the human perspective and the human experience in all steps of whatever the process is that you're trying to solve.
So whether you're solving a problem or developing a new product, you need to understand the people who are using the products. And it's the same for managing a project. You're managing your team, your clients, your stakeholders, and all of those folks are end users of what you're producing. And I really do feel that you can get better work from everyone that you're working with by bringing your full human to work every day.
And then eliciting their full humanness by, you know, leading through example and bringing your own vulnerability. And I, I, I really firmly believe you can add more depth, empathy, joy, direction. And by bringing more of yourself to your job, your team, and honestly, I think to your future and I just, everything I do, I want there to be joy in it.
I, joy is one of those human emotions that is my favorite. If I can have a favorite human emotion, it's joy because it's a great pick. And I think that, I think that we're really lucky as humans to be able to feel that emotion, not the cheetahs and like elephants and like ants and like bunnies, like maybe don't feel joy.
They probably do when they're like crunch, crunch, this is delicious. Or like chase, chase, murder, murder, like it's a super cool. There's an animalistic joy, but I think that as humans, it's an, it can be, it's an intellectual deep heart joy that you, we feel in all kinds of different ways. As parents, as friends, as someone who's eating an amazing bowl of French onion soup or experiencing something that they've never seen before.
Like the first time you see a Monet hanging in a gallery, like that type of joy. Those are big. Those are big juicy pieces of joy, but I still feel like there's a line of joy that you can be bringing to your work every single day by, by just letting yourself notice and like bringing yourself all of you. Do not hide behind that facade.
Do not think that you have to act in a specific way. And there is a bit of a framework. I think anyways, in my, again, my hypothesis is I think there's a bit of a framework that people can follow because sometimes soft skills can be difficult for people. It doesn't always come naturally. I was very, I'm very lucky that I grew up being this empathetic kid and being this empathetic person.
But at the detriment of, I can't do long division, like don't tell anybody that I like my math skills are absolutely terrible, but I'm really good at Excel. So there's, I mean, there's trade-offs, and I think for every human you're, you over-index on numbers or letters typically, right?
One of those, one of those two different sides of your brain. Also, I am not a doctor, but I feel like I'm saying the right things. So I think that there is, I do believe that there's a framework for folks who are wanting to bring some more of those soft skills into their work who are open to it. And I think that that's something you have to, you have to stay open to as a human, always changing, always evolving, always learning. Staying open to being like, okay, I can, I can learn new tricks.
I probably could learn long division, right? If I really wanted to. And I, I have had people who've tried to teach me and I have rejected it thoroughly. But I'm open to it. If anyone wants to try to teach me long division on paper, can't be on, it has to be on paper.
But I think that there's an opportunity for learning, I guess, is all I'm trying to say. So I think that there's a way to learn that, that joy. I think that joy can be learned if you don't feel like you've got enough of it in your life. I think it can be learned.
Galen Low: I love that. One thing I want to circle back on that I think is really important that you said was that, we need to be thinking about, we need to be aware of the end user. And it has been sort of, in the realm of that design, that, that craft, right?
To be human-centered and thinking about the customer or end user of a tool. But what I thought was really important that you said was, we need to consider the end users of the project experience that we're creating. Because we are, as project managers, we are crafting an experience for our team.
We are providing that framework for them to succeed. We are providing clarity, we are providing support and it matters how they feel, actually. You know, contrary to a lot of stereotypes, a lot of the negative stereotypes of our project managers, contrary to all that. It is a crafted experience for collaboration to get done within its constraints.
But where I want to go with it though is this joy thing, because it's sensible to say that we spend a lot of time at work as humans, far more than cheetahs, I'm told. And you know, why, why shouldn't we seek to get joy from, from, from that time we spend working?
But then I swing back and I'm like, does joy make my team better? Was human-centered project management make things better? How does it make it better? Does it produce better results? What's your thinking on that?
Courtney Johnston: Yes. A lot to unpack there. Can, if you bring joy into the workplace, will you get better results? And unequivocally, I will put all of my money on the table and I will say, yes. I will say, I'll put all my bats on red number 13 or whatever it is and say yes a thousand percent. Because, again, joy is one of those big, juicy, magical human emotions. And if you can elicit joy from your team every single day, maybe not every single day, but for most of the time, they're going to stick around.
They are going to bring their ideas. They are going to work harder to solve something because they're happy, right? That happiness and that joy are so connected. So, yes, it produces better results because even in the toughest of projects, you know, my ketchup chip story, right? My ketchup chip story is a great example of this.
So, let me see if I can just zip this up real fast. I had a very difficult client on a project. I had a team of four designers that I was working with, a UX team, as well as my graphic design team. And we were working with a crew who was down in a different state from ours. We were traveling down every couple of weeks.
And we had a really, really tough lead. The very first meeting we had with her, she was like, why are you here? What are you doing? Cause she, she had been given this, like she had been given us as her team and she did not want us there. So my team was so beaten down and so discouraged and they were like, their eyes got so big when she said that. She literally was like, why are you here?
And we're like, just let us like finish the kickoff deck lady. So then I was like, my first, my first app was like, okay, I need to make the team feel like this is fine. We are going to be, this is good, like weird. This is, we're going to take this energy or we're going to spin this right back around at her, which is what we did.
And then I was, my second thing was like, I need her to love me because like, I'm a people pleaser. So I found that she'd like ketchup, like lived for it, cause we took her out for lunch because I was like, I'll just, let me just see. I need to learn about her. I need to, I need to take her out of the workspace into a social situation where she's eating, which is a very vulnerable thing to do with other people and see what happens.
So she would just like ketchup was on everything. And I was like, oh, you like ketchup? In Canada, we have ketchup chips and ketchup flavored, literally everything like rice cakes the whole bit. And I was like, I got it. I got this idea. So I then went back to the office. I filled up a box with like ketchup flavored everything. I threw in some stickies and some Sharpies. Labeled it office supplies. Shipped it down from Canada to her office being like, she will just like fall completely in love with me.
And then we'll be besties and this project's going to go great. This is like maybe for like four or five weeks into this three or five month project. We get down there a couple, like a week later. I know that she's already received the package and we were standing up the elevator and my whole team was, was there watched, like, looking at me.
Cause they're like, you got to ask her if she got to ask her if she got it, cause she hadn't said anything, cause she's just like, so mean to us all the time. So I'm like, oh my, oh, did you get our package? And she just looked at me and she was like, yes. Okay, great! Well, have a great afternoon. We'll see you in the morning.
And then we get on the elevator, my whole team again, big eyes. And they're literally watching me and we, I burst into laughter, like I didn't know how else to do. And I was like, okay, well this, my approach, every CJ thing I can throw at her is not going to be, it's not going to work. So then I had to pivot to my team and loving on them in the ways that I could as a project manager, encouraging them.
Sharing with them the triumphs and the trials and getting into like that dirt with them and having all of the empathy made that project better. She never liked us, not a single time. Did she like us? Nothing. Nothing Courtney could do. And I, I threw everything at her and usually I would like, that would be a source of pride from, like I switched her over. Now, we're besties.
She hated my guts and that's fine. She probably still hates me. She resisted me. But what's important is that at the end of that project, when it was done and we were doing like our performance reviews, as you gather up, you know, your inputs from people that you've worked with for the year, all of them had magical things to say about that project.
I feel like it was so hard, but oh my gosh, should we ever, like, we killed it. Like we still killed it. We killed it dead. Like it was so good. Like we just like murdered that project and it was like, awesome. And that to me is, is how you get better results by being empathetic and you know, feeling what your team feels and not just like sidelining it and being like, oh, she's just a difficult client.
Let's just like move on and who cares and not addressing it and not talking about it and not like commiserating over, you know, giant pales of margaritas or whatever we were drinking. Cause they were based out of a Southern state. But that to me made me feel like I'm like, okay, I'm on the right path.
And I've done the right things. I rinse and repeat, because every time I had a difficult project, difficult client, whatever seem approach, I am in there, I am here for you. We are doing this together. I am not a sideline. I am not a partial. I am not just here to do, you know, budget, scope and timeline.
I am here with you because we are doing this together and we are doing this thing. So that was, that reassured me that I was doing the right thing.
Galen Low: Isn't that like the best kind of team cohesion? I get just we're all in it together where we're going to come out with stories. It might be a slog, but we can keep our morale high.
By cheering each other well, by being aware of what each other are feeling as a team and, you know, we've both worked in client services. So we know that's an uphill battle a lot of the time, but to be able to, I mean, I'm speaking specifically for your project team. Obviously, what we're talking about, you know, extends beyond that, but even just with your project team, just building that empathy and just being so truly human.
People are going to do better work. They are going to have a better attitude towards work and morale is going to be higher. They're going to have more confidence in themselves. And I mean, in particular, your story, what I like is, what I like about the ketchup chip story is that, you know, it puts you in a vulnerable position. That's your team sees, and that they can relate to. And suddenly it's not, you know, and, it's sometimes hard to see it from our perspective as project managers, of maybe how intimidating we are.
You know, to the, to our project team, they might just always want to say yes. They might just be, you know, have just like unshakable fear throughout the project that they're going to deliver something late or something low quality.
Courtney Johnston: Or they just want to say no, cause they, they be like, they're like, I'm gonna put my backup against this project manager and was going to say no. Like I have worked with many, you know, dev leads and tech folks who are just like, absolutely not. Just arms crossed, no way. But then you can crack that hard outer shell and, and get to connect with them on a different type of level. That's when the yes-es will come. Right? And that's an a, so my team in this particular example, they didn't have to go above and beyond the work that they were doing, but they still did despite getting our ass handed to us every single day by her.
And I was, I'm going to date myself here again. Pollyanna. If I said a Pollyanna reference, would you know what I'm talking about? Okay. So there's a movie, I think it's, I think it's Shirley Temple and Pollyanna is a little girl's name and she is just a bright spark of sunshine and she does not quit.
She's just sunshine all the time. And, uh, that's kind of how I am for the most part. Like, I will get my way, I got my ass handed to me multiple times in this project, but I did not stop. I killed her with kindness regardless of how she treated me. And my team loved it. They're like, man, you can take a beating.
I'm like, yes I can. And I was like, I was important. Point of pride for me. I'm like, nothing she can say is gonna hurt my feelings. She's just, she's mad. She's got, and I totally, and again, the empathy towards her was, she didn't want us, she didn't want this project. She wanted her team to do it. She didn't want to hire an outside group.
And I was like, I get it. We're like, so, but like how can we work together? And how can we like make her shine? Despite her being mean to us, how can we make her shine? So, yeah.
Galen Low: It gives you that ability to kind of rise above it and get the job done in a way that, and you said they were fond of the project and the Eddie project.
Well, I'm wondering if people are thinking, I wonder if our listeners are thinking, okay, well that sounds all fine and good, but I'm not, you know, sunshine all the time, CJ.
But when we're talking about, you know, a human-centered approach project management, what are some of the core skills that a project manager should probably hone in order to like lead projects in this human-centered way?
Courtney Johnston: Yes. And yeah, you're, you're right. Don't, by no means, do you need to be Pollyanna?
And you should Google that. You do not need to be that continuous positive ray of sunshine because you also need to be realistic. That is just like a personality trait that I have that I cannot seem to draft, which some people find incredibly irritating. They're like you are obnoxiously optimistic and I'm like, sorry.
Well, this is how I am. Again, change, my mom would be so proud of me. So you do not need to, you do not need to be that, you do not need to fake it at all, either. So that, that's not a natural personality component of yours by no means, do you have to have it. But some of those core skills that I'm hypothesizing around, and again, this is still a work in progress, but again, I'm going back to the human-centered design framework.
And I was like, okay, how, where do I think that these things kind of make sense because they're such a natural fit, which is kind of well to me. So one of the first ones is like, kind of getting a thought around getting out of your own way. So checking, checking yourself before you wreck yourself, like check yourself the way that you're thinking is the only way to get stuff done, like checking your own bias.
You know, staying open to other new ideas, other new ways of thinking, what other people might be bringing to the table. So get out of your own weight. Your ego is going to block you more times and like some crummy bug is going to block your project.
Like you are going to get in your own way if you weren't careful. So I think by finding a path and a methodology that works for you to stay open, is a great way to start. Another, another idea I had was around staying on the path to learn, right? Which also is very, very focused on around human-centered design.
And so, other humans do great work outside of PM. Right? There's all kinds of folks who are doing amazing work in all kinds of different fields. So practice, listen, read, absorb, steal. It's my number one thing, steal everything. If you're listening in on someone's conversation, this is what I used to do in my early days.
I would listen to folks who were more senior than me in a meeting. This was typically at a large management consultancy where I was at and maybe a few other agencies. I would write down verbatim what people were saying. So I was like, that is, I love that. I'm a steal that, so I've done that millions of times, but again, staying on the path to learning that it means all kinds of different things.
It's tools, methodologies. You know, I went from working in a Microsoft environment over here to where to I'm, I'm Google Suite. And at my first, and Galen, you'll attest to this. My first couple weeks, I was like, I hate everything. I can't find a darn thing. And I'm like, how do I live?
And I was like, girl, I'm like, I gotta stay open. So I like did the research and like read a bunch of blogs about browser-based like everything. And it makes a big difference when you are open, you know, you're getting out of my own way. I'm going to check my ego and be like, I got to learn a thing. And then you got to go and learn the thing.
The third point is spending time with real people in their environments and following their leads and their needs. So a bit of a challenge these days, but for example, what I mean by that is like seeing your client with their team. Watching your dev lead, like work through a bug with a developer, like standing over their shoulder, like sitting beside them at their desk member of those days.
Right? Watching your creative team. And this is not just a slog creative teams, but watching your head, you're like get a little bit drunk at the bar and like sketching something on napkins, cause they have an idea. Like all of these are super critical touch points to truly see and observe and learn about the team that you're working with.
And then figure out if you like need to pivot. You're like, oh, I see something coming up, right? If you're really that act of noticing, observing, paying attention, you'll see, you will learn so much from watching those little interactions and watching people in the, in their natural environments. Because the environment that you're in, you're behind your double monitors very likely all day long, working through like whatever managing some version of an Excel spreadsheet or a timeline, et cetera. Get up and out of your environment in whatever way you can and watch your team in their environment.
And I think it will like blast a bunch of doors open for you to be like, wait a second. I see them struggling with this tool that I've asked them to use, because it doesn't fricking mesh with whatevers. Then change the tool, like make, take that blocker away from them because maybe they didn't want to say anything to you.
Cause you're like, oh, we thought we had to use it this way. Right? And, and just noticing those things and like, especially with your clients too, like watching your clients manage their own team, that is like eye opening. Again, don't get to do it. I mean, I don't have many clients these days, but something maybe a bit more of a challenge to do these days.
The fourth thing I would think about is identifying your super users, which is something that we all are doing like we do in our jobs. And we know folks are doing, industries and different practices. But who's doing what you do really well and how can you learn from them?
So who is like killing it that you, I, that you can identify and be like, this person is just, and it doesn't, it doesn't have to be within, you know, necessarily in your practice. It could be practiced adjacent. But who's doing something really well and how can you learn from them? Just watching how they speak, their body language, those types of things.
And I think that there's probably a, I can take the super-users path down a little bit deeper. I haven't really given it all the thought that I want to, but that's kind of where my initial thoughts are. The next thing I would, I would think about is thinking about the whole journey because we so get caught up in the details.
Like it's ridiculous and we absolutely need to stop, take a few steps back, grab a beer, look holistically at your work, at your career. Right? Take a step back and look at it from end to end in terms of the entire journey and dollars to donuts. You will see opportunity spaces and you will also see the pitfalls, but you have to give your time, give yourself the time and the ability to look at everything from tip to tail. Because if you're not doing that, and you're just too focused on these little, teeny, tiny things in front of you, you're going to lose, you're going to lose the vision.
You're going to lose the big picture. And then you're going to get caught up in, in the endless cycle of the teeny tiny things. And that's, that's no bueno. And you want to, you really want to take that step back and look at the bigger picture. And then the last thing as always with anything prototype and test.
So this can show up in all kinds of different ways. So trying new ways of working, new communication styles, meeting types, different formats, templates, brainstorms, whatever that might look like. If something is not working, try of something different, test it, document it, right? And then measure it and see what kind of results you're getting.
And I feel like that is, that's something that we should be doing in life. Like it's something I do with my child and like, I'm going to prototype hot dogs wrapped in Pillsbury Crescent rolls, which I thought was on, like, this is going to be disgusting. No, absolutely was major when I was like, I kind of feel bad feeding this to my child, but I'm like, he, I prototyped it. It worked.
And now it's on a regular rotation, not all the time, but he loves it. Right? So those types of things that prototyping and testing is like, these are all, it's basically like just like life lessons as well. Like I think that these are things that we just do as, as humans, not just at work. So that's kind of like, if that makes sense, that's like the, the environment in which I'm thinking about how human-centered skills can show up for PMs.
Galen Low: You know what's so interesting to me, is as you were going through those, I was thinking about just how they may contrast against to what a project manager thinks they're supposed to think. Do you know what I mean? Like they're like, I'm supposed to be the leader. How can I get out of my own way? It'll be, you know, just a car without a driver or like stay on a path to learn.
It's kinda like, well, I'm supposed to know all of this, right? That's why I'm a, whatever, whatever your title is. Senior project manager. I must've learned everything already. I can't be in learn mode in front of my team. Or even just like, I mean, spending time with your team, like watching what they do. A lot of project managers that I've been talking to recently, they're like, they're a little bit self-conscious about the fact that people don't understand what they do all day and then to just be hanging out, you know, watching them work is like, okay, well you, well, you don't do anything, but also the value of that, right?
Like what is the value of that? There is a value there. Super users, same idea, right? It's kind of like, well, I think I do, I do what I do really well. You know, just kind of like overcompensating for your imposter syndrome. And then just like getting lost in the details. You said, think about the whole journey. And I'm just thinking about how much of the job, when you're at a certain pace at your project or a certain point in your project within the journey.
There's always that moment where you're like, you're just looking at the thing, like that's like hours ahead of you. Or like what's tomorrow and you're not like zooming back out. And you're like, no, I just need to like manage this, my new shift so that this deliverable goes out on time and its perfect. But again, giving yourself the opportunity to zoom out and see things from the whole, just zoom out to the whole picture. Not even just the journey of the project, but like you said, right?
Careers and the cruise routines. And then I do like this prototype and test. And I think for me, I'm like, you know, we have to talk about methodology as being this like a rigid framework and we should do things, you know, repeatedly and consistently, and that's what's going to make it work.
Versus let's try something and then if it doesn't work, let's talk about it and then let's change it. And I don't know if that a lot of project managers think that they can do that. I'm sure there's tons out there that do. But I think it's really validating and refreshing actually to hear that, yes, of course, especially if you're iterating already in the way you're approaching a project.
Why wouldn't you iterate on methods or communication styles, or just the way a meeting agenda looks, that's a recurring meeting or the way you're capturing data? I think that's really, really cool. And I'm, I'm seeing the tie in now and I'm like, aha, because for those familiar with human-centered design, you know, there are these principles of sort of being in the environment and being empathetic and understanding the needs of the people who are actually experiencing the thing that you're creating.
And in the context where we are creating a project experience, how can we make that more human-centered so that we are empowering people and supporting people to do their best work.
Courtney Johnston: Winner, winner, chicken dinner. Exactly. Yes. All of those things. And I think that there is within all of these, there's a layer of vulnerability where you have to be step outside of the things that you think that are expected of you as a project manager.
Like I'm supposed to know how to do this. No, no, you're not. There's no, there is no world in which we live in and I was at a conference last week and that very question came up. Am I supposed to know how to do this? And the answer is no. Especially if you're like, I don't know how to do this and it's has to be okay that you don't know how to do something.
And it has to be okay for you to be like, I need to take the time to learn how to do this thing. Or I need to take the time to like step out of this, the current situation that I'm in. So I can like take a moment and like reset my table and, uh, and come back to this because you're not supposed to know everything and it's okay. And I think you have to be okay with that not being okay.
And the second you can get to that, that like mindset, I think it kind of opens you up to being more, far more accepting to be like, okay, well, what else can I change? And like, what else can I not know? And what else can, where else can I fail safely? Right?
And I think it just, yeah, I'm, I'm excited that, that it gels with you.
Galen Low: No, I love it. I love it. One of the things I'm thinking about in the back of my head is just, okay. Some of our listeners, they are owners of companies, you know, they are the leadership team.
So I was just thinking from an organizational perspective, some of the things that we're talking about are not the typical way of thinking about project delivery. But for organizations who are compelled by this, like how can they support it?
How can they harness the power of human-centered project management?
Courtney Johnston: So I think that's a great question. I don't have a fully formed answer for this just yet, but again, hypothesis. My hypothesis is that, I mean also following the tenants that we just talked about, something to get out of their own way, they need to get out of the way of their like corporate ego in terms of how they think a PMO is supposed to run or how PMs are supposed to act and behave and do, etc.
And, but it's not just within the PM perspective. I think they need to support and embrace their entire workforce as truly human and, and allowing them to be truly home a human and allowing folks to show up as their whole selves. Right? And that there isn't an ask or there isn't an expectation of a facade. Because I'm a VP, I have to do this. Because I'm an MD, I have to do this. Because I'm a senior PM, I have to act this way.
What if we all just were like, Hey, it's cool. You just show up as you. Bring you to your project because you is what makes this project is amazing. And we worked at the management consultancy before, which had this as, as a value and it was an amazing, an amazing thing to, to know that that was okay.
That I was okay to be my Pollyanna, gleefully, obnoxiously, optimistic self. And at no point in time, was that ever going to be held against me for who I was. That I could be in a meeting and I could sing my to-do list, which I do. I sing tasks all the time, and people will tell you that that's, you know, not necessarily I was on key.
Don't know why I do it. Love it. Don't care. I never gonna change. But by that, I, I was in an environment where I felt like I could do that. And I think that organizations, allowing folks to really be who they truly actually are and like really like actually embracing and like, don't just chuck the words out there, like lead by example.
And share your vulnerabilities as the CEO, as the GMs, all those things, because we want to know that you guys have screwed up and failed and made mistakes. And we want to know that you've got things that you love to do outside of work. We want to know, you know, those vulnerabilities that you have and the experience every single day, that you also maybe have imposter syndrome.
And then there's also someone on your shoulder being like, you don't know what you're doing, right? I think by sharing those stories and being super open about it is a really fantastic place to start. And don't put expectations that, that everyone knows all the things, because we don't know all the things and that's okay.
And it's okay not to know all the things. And I feel like that also needs to be, should be like a bottom line, like no brainer as well.
Galen Low: It's surprising how much energy it actually takes to wear a facade. To try to make it seem like you are infallible. Or that you've never made a mistake. Or that you know everything. Or that, you know, you can't pull relatable experiences from your life because you don't want to share much about your personal life in an environment where it is safe to be your authentic self.
It is very freeing. And I do think, I agree with you. I think that it actually results in better work.
Courtney Johnston: It does. And I, and again, I'm not suggesting that folks who are there and I have worked with folks who are super private. And like I learned things about them like years am, and I'm not. And I would not ask if, you know, people don't be vulnerable for the sake of being vulnerable, be vulnerable because you feel like it's an authentic fit for you for who you are.
But I think that just, it does open up a shared human experience when people can be like, oh, you're like me. Like, we are kind of the same. And it doesn't matter what level we are, etcetera. But like, I can see myself in you and you can see yourself in me. And that makes, that makes our team work amazing.
Galen Low: I love it. Last question from me. You said this is a bit of a work in progress, and now it's a thought that's evolving. I know that a lot of folks listening are like, okay, well, when this is a framework that I can apply, I'd like to, I like to, I like to use it. But along the journey, like how can some of our listeners learn more about human-centered project management?
Courtney Johnston: Yes. Well, my book is coming out. I'm just kidding. Just stick with me, just stick with me as I'm working through this hypothesis, as I'm working through some thoughts. I'll be putting some, some articles out and some thoughts out onto, onto the site. Into the forum, I'll be test driving some stuff with our membership to see what sticks, right?
I'm going to test some prototype a few things and get some feedback. And then build out this framework far deeper than, than these ideas I shared with you all today. So just, just hang out, stick around and see where this goes. And if you've obviously have suggestions, you know where to find Galen and I. We are, our inboxes are always open.
I wish I could say that my office door was open. I don't have an office door as I'm sitting at my kitchen table. But yeah, but I just, just hang out and just see what happens. I ended up, I'm hoping in the next few months to, to kind of bring some of these ideas more fully formed, back out to the world.
Galen Low: Awesome. And for folks listening, who aren't aware, we've got a lovely website where we publish a lot of content, uh, along these themes — thedpm.com. CJ is all over our Instagram @thedigitalpm. And we run a members based community, which is just an open area. It's a safe space to share knowledge, to grow ideas like this to help one another out.
And CJ is all over that as well. So if you're liking what you're hearing today, you'd like to see more of that, hear more of that, read more of that. Yeah, we're gonna, we're gonna open the tap.
Courtney Johnston: Yes. Come and join us. You'll see a lot of that humanist and that often authenticity actually shows up so much in our forum with our members to sharing vulnerabilities and, and asking questions that may be like, is this a stupid question?
You're like, I'm going to ask it anyways. She's like do it. And it's amazing to watch people show up for them and answer, which is just, it's a, it's a fabulous community and I'm so proud to be part of it.
Galen Low: CJ, thanks for coming on the show. Always really insightful. Love chatting with you. You've got so many stories.
Let's do this again, and I'm really looking forward to hearing more about human centered project management within our community.
So, what do you think?
Can human centered project management yield better results? Or is it just project management in a different wrapper?
Tell us a story: has there been a time in your career where you have felt that being an empathetic human has put your project at a disadvantage? Or alternatively, have you ever regretted not taking more of a human approach with your team?
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