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I was once described by one of my lead technical architects as being a 7/10 on a scale of technical expertise. Sure, it was during a pitch, and it was just an illustrative example of how we work, but it was one of the highest compliments I’ve been given as a digital project manager.

One of the ways project managers in any field can excel in their role is by learning about the crafts and the trades that their team specializes in. That could mean understanding how concrete is poured, or it could mean knowing how the valley of despair will affect organizational change management.

In the world of digital, not only is there a significant spread of things to know, but each one of those things is changing at a profoundly rapid pace. By the time I wrapped my head around BDD, my testing team was already making fun of me for mixing up Gherkin and Cucumber.

How To Learn About Something You Don’t Do As A PM

So how does one keep up? And where is the optimal middle ground between blissful ignorance and knowing enough to be dangerous? Does having this knowledge even make someone a better DPM?

I’d argue yes. Here’s an example:

My friend hired a DPM with moderate technical ability. This DPM was asked to oversee a database migration, but the team member meant to write the ETL script had to take an unexpected leave of absence. The DPM said, “I’ll figure it out”. A week later, they had managed to get the job done by doing the research, asking for help, and rolling up their sleeves.

The reward? Respect. The same problem-solving imperative that made them a good PM also built instant loyalty with the team, leading to productive rapport and better team communication. (Not to mention you’ll be able to give your team better feedback on their work.)

So if there is really a benefit to knowing more about what your team does, how should a DPM go about acquiring and wielding this knowledge? Here are a few tips from our community:

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1. Attend A (Virtual) Event Or Course Not Meant For DPMs

Go to a meetup for full-stack developers. Take a course in UX. Some of it will be over your head, but you’ll start to appreciate the challenges that your teams face on a daily basis.

2. Curate Your Personal Content Digest

Decide on an area of focus for yourself: is it Blockchain? Accessibility? Design Thinking? Then sign up to relevant newsletters, podcasts, and YouTube channels that will feed you insights. Build the habit, and only bite off as much as you can chew.

3. Establish An Informal Cross-Disciplinary Mentorship

Also known as just having a coffee with a coworker. Spend time talking about what’s happening in the world of your service design lead or QA director or analytics manager. Ask questions, build an understanding of their mindset, and find ways to achieve mutual goals.

What’s Next?

So what do you think? Do DPMs need to work harder to stay up to speed on what their teams do? Does it make a difference? What other tips do you have for learning enough about something you don’t do?

And if you’re interested in learning more about digital topics outside of project management, consider becoming a member of The Digital Project Manager community to access our upcoming 2021 explorations of trending digital topics told through the lens of digital delivery.

Don’t forget to subscribe to The Digital Project Manager’s newsletter!

By Galen Low

Galen is a digital project manager with over 10 years of experience shaping and delivering human-centered digital transformation initiatives in government, healthcare, transit, and retail. He is a digital project management nerd, a cultivator of highly collaborative teams, and an impulsive sharer of knowledge. He's also the co-founder of The Digital Project Manager and host of The DPM Podcast.