There’s a burning question within the digital project management community: In our evolving digital world, is digital project management a role, or a skill?
What Is Digital Project Management?
Digital project management (DPM) is the leading, planning, organizing, motivating, and delivery of web-enabled projects; it's building stuff in a digital world, for a digital world. It's managing projects with digital deliverables—data, pixels, interfaces, and screens.
Digital project managers use web technologies to deliver anything from websites to mobile apps, videos to games, ecommerce to emails, social media campaigns to VR, or rich media advertising to digital outdoor. It's delivering projects in a connected, online world where brands and organizations interact directly with customers.
Digital deliverables are what makes a project require digital project management rather than just any other type of project management.
These deliverables and the context around them, often an agency, studio, internal web team, or consultancy environment, have spawned a flavor of project managers that use a different mindset, skillset, and toolset to deliver digitally.
The Digital Project Management Approach
- Mindset: DPMs are value-driven, agile, and iterative, and focused on maximizing value delivery quickly and efficiently.
- Skillset: Hard skills matter, but soft skills rule. Emotional intelligence and social intelligence are key for collaboration, and DPMs must act as strategic leaders.
- Toolset: We're managing more projects and deliverables with less money and time, and we're focused on leveraging tools and technology to drive efficiency.
Digital Project Management: A Role, Skill, or Both?
The growing collaborative nature of many organizations is the driving force behind this question. The temptation, of course, is to save money and reduce it to simply a skillset, and put a team member with great communication skills in charge as the project manager.
We have to acknowledge our own bias here, but time and time again, we come back to the same definitive answer: digital project management is more than just a skillset—it's a key role that requires a mindset to bridge all the stakeholders on a particular project and achieve optimal results that could not have otherwise been achieved.
We occupy that unique spot right in the middle of the spider web, constantly scanning in all directions, using our toolset and technology to feel and respond to vibrations from all the different strings. As the critical information hub, we then interpret those signals and translate what they mean to the overall outcome, the other sections of the web, and to the client themselves.
And we’re always on the lookout for problems and project risks that could rip a hole in the web and hold the project up.
In essence, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts; without doubt, digital project management is unquestionably a critical role.
What Is The Digital Project Manager Job Description?
The Digital Project Manager co-founder Galen Low said it best one day in a casual phone conversation: DPMs gather, curate, translate, and communicate to deliver a project on time and on budget.
DPMs specialize in getting things done, and by that we mean making sure everyone on the team has the resources, time, and skills they need to do their job.
If that still sounds a bit vague, let’s get more specific. I asked Mackenzie Dysart, a Project Management Professional (PMP) and Certified Scrum Master, to tell us what a typical project life cycle looks like for her:
- Scope & expectations: Understanding the scope of the project and digital products involved, and what was sold (which might actually be different!)
- Internal & external kickoffs: Establishing the client’s preferred project management software system and communicating your project management methodologies and frameworks, meeting your project team, setting the project schedule, and determining key metrics for project success.
- Daily stand-ups: Checking in with your team and leadership daily to make sure everyone is on track, assessing resource management and time management, and communicating those updates between teams and leadership.
- Budget reports & scheduling logistics: Tracking and communicating budget updates and planning for scheduled holidays and breaks, and dealing with unforeseen issues as they relate to the overall budget, timeline, and scope.
- Getting client sign-off & going live: Obtaining final approval and getting the minimum viable product to market for assessment
- Addressing concerns & optimizing for best performance and results: Assessing performance and leading improvements to the product in real-time.
When you look at this exhaustive list, it makes you wonder: Why would anyone launch any kind of digital product without a digital product manager at the helm?
A Digital PM Goes By Many Names
Humans love to complicate simple things, and the DPM job title is a perfect example. A digital project manager might be called something different depending on what industry you’re working in, or the agency you’re working for.
You might be hired as a web project manager, a digital producer, or technical project manager. Mackenzie Dysart says sometimes a DPM will also take on a strategist role, although that’s not a defining feature of the role in most cases.
What is a defining feature? Logistical gymnastics. We’re talking functional logistics (project scope, timelines, pricing, who’s doing what and when, etc.) and, perhaps more importantly, emotional logistics.
“The ‘command-and-control’ style is becoming less effective in our working world and that’s allowing ‘newer skool’ leaders and ‘newer skool’ project managers to be more empathetic and people-oriented,” says Galen Low.
People are not machines—they have a lot of stuff on the go and we’re not just drones. It’s a really delicate balance of humanity.
That observation echoes a recent Future of Jobs report by the World Economic Forum, which identified a rising global demand for emotional intelligence and other social skills.
Soft skills like conflict resolution, negotiation, mentoring, delegating, training, decision-making, and team-building are fast becoming highly valuable qualities in job candidates in general, which means great project managers are poised to become even greater key players in the digital space, bringing even more value to the table.
Find out more about project management trends and the future of DPM.
Digital Project Management Tools Vs. Qualities
Flexibility is the most valuable tool in your project management tool box. Okay, maybe flexibility is less of a tool and more of a quality, but it’s the best quality a DPM can have.
The actual tools you use aren’t always up to you. Your job is to hop aboard whatever workflow processes your client works in to create a project plan and drive the deliverables.
Anyone can follow Scrum, Kanban, waterfall, or agile project management systems but what sets a successful digital project apart from a catastrophic one is having a DPM who is constantly evolving their project management skills.
Why? Because in the digital space, speed matters.
“Traditional project management has all this time and space to address fixes. The digital space is a lot faster. You need to be nimble,” says Mackenzie Dysart. “It’s a lot of questions, answers, and decisions being made in a tight space in a matter of hours,” not days or months. But this iterative nature of digital projects is exciting, for both the client and the user.
We iterate because we can—it’s software and it’s easy to change—but also because users are demanding it, notes Galen Low. Users are not only now accustomed to incremental improvement, but in having a direct say in what those improvements are.
It’s this feedback loop that makes digital project management such an exciting space; “the product will improve as it sits in my hands,” he says.
Digital Project Management vs Digital Marketing
Okay, so you’ve just launched a digital product: You’ve set up the entire technology base for your client, fully coded with custom CSS and HTML and an enhanced user experience, on budget and on time. The web project or app product is ready to drive traffic and content with digital engagement models already built in.
So… that’s it, right? That’s a wrap!
Nope. Not by a long shot. There’s a whole other lifecycle to consider here, and that’s optimization and digital marketing.
Writamvar Bugga, a former technical project manager in IT, sees transitioning his clients into digital marketing as an important part of his job.
“The client now says, ‘hey, I have a page on my website for loyalty rewards, which was included as part of the application development, so let’s get that going,” says Bugga.
It’s a great marketing idea and at the same time, it’s a beast! So scope management becomes a really big part of my job as I start developing marketing that can be accessed through newer features.Writamvar Bugga
In other words, digital marketing is often the next phase of the digital project, after it's been delivered. It falls perfectly under your digital project management umbrella, as you are now directing the execution of compelling social media and marketing campaigns for your client. This next phase may require specialized digital marketing project management tools.
Let’s Shift The Narrative From Overhead Cost To Value-Add Investment
Digital project managers usually come last, says Mackenzie Dysart, adding they typically onboard for new projects only after a company experiences a certain amount of growth, and that’s because it’s seen as an overhead expense, not the value-add it really can be earlier on.
I don’t think a lot of the organizations are set up to be digital. Especially during the pandemic, a lot of businesses had to adjust their digital space. All of a sudden, digital agencies were the backbone of a lot of these organizations’ businesses because that website was the storefront.
She’s right. A report by the International Project Management Association highlighted that in 2019, as the pandemic was just ramping up, only 30 percent of organizations felt their ability to manage organizational change was actually effective. This means that today, more organizations are suddenly turning to project managers to drive change initiatives, which most often means digital transformations.
That shift was fast and somewhat forced, resulting in a frightening amount of organizations who hire DPMs not fully understanding the complexity of the job, the project, and/or the exact role of a digital project manager.
Here’s a great example from a Reddit post: The poster is the co-founder of an unnamed small digital agency that wants to hire a DPM to free up the co-founder’s time and deliver more projects with better quality.
The problem is, says the poster, “all questions that I googled for PM’s interviews [seem] either too general or too open or it’s not clear what answer will be good/bad/excellent.”
They then explain they already have a small selection of candidates and are looking for interview questions or tests to filter out the top 5 percent of applicants; they want to give specific questionnaires to “to their HR manager with good/bad/excellent options, so no extra experience/knowledge [is] needed to spot good/bad answer.”
They also want something only the top 5-15 percent can even answer, and they want something as “quick and short as possible.”
The red flags are battling gale-force winds at this point. And as you can imagine, the responses in Reddit were not kind.
The problem is, this situation is not an outlier.
DPMs are notoriously under-appreciated and over-allocated, Dysart says.
At some point, I was running 23 projects across 14 clients at the same time and … at that point, that doesn’t even allow you to give each project more than one day a month of effort,” she explains.
The irony is, a good PM is rarely noticed. When they’re really supporting the team, the team barely notices they exist; all that crucial gathering, curating, translating, and communicating is working quietly in the background to prevent fires from hitting the ignition point.
No one notices a fire that never exists. But perhaps, along with the iterative tide of the digital marketplace, clients are starting to recognize the true value of prevention.
Recommended Software Tools For Digital Project Managers
DPMs need digital collaboration tools to get their projects off the ground and see them through to the finish line. The right software tool will ensure you're able to keep track of project budget, who's working on what, and the status of deliverables and tasks.
Here's my picks for the best project management software on the market, which you can use as a starting point to find one that works for you.
While we digital project managers continue to educate clients about our true value, we need to take the lead on up-skilling and upgrading. The best way to do that is through our on-demand Mastering Digital Project Management course. You'll get hands-on training and access to our templates, samples, and examples for important project documentation.