“Projects are dead.”
Sure, it was uttered to me somewhat facetiously by a project manager friend whom I respect greatly—but something about it rang true enough that it was worth considering.
“Of course, projects aren’t dead,” is what he meant. Look at endeavors like the James Webb Space Telescope and various countries’ vaccine roll-outs throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
But in a digital world—a world of continuous integration, frequent deployments, and constantly evolving products—the definition of a project is certainly changing.
So let’s go on a bit of a journey, shall we?
In this article, I’m going to lift the lid on the definition of a digital project, how we can expect that definition to change and morph in the years to come, and what that means for the future of project management in a digital world.
Along the way, I will touch on the following:
- The Usual Definition Of A Project
- What Makes A Digital Project Different Than A Regular Project?
- Types Of Digital Projects And Examples
- Where Digital Projects Get Complicated
- Skills For Digital Project Managers To Start Focusing On
The “Usual” Definition Of A Project
To begin, let’s start with the “usual” definition of a project. Since 2008, and all the way through to its latest incarnation, the Project Management Institute’s (PMI) Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) defines a project as “a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service or result”.
There are three key components to this, all of which are a bit up for grabs in the digital world:
- It’s temporary: a project has a definite start and a finish.
- It’s an endeavor: a project is an attempt to do something where there is some uncertainty of the outcome.
- It creates something unique: the output of a project is something differentiated and new.
The “Usual” Examples Of Projects
One of the most common and clear-cut “classroom” examples of a project is constructing a skyscraper. It’s temporary in that there’s a day you break earth (a definite start) and there’s a day you cut the big ribbon (a definite end). It’s also an endeavor in that there’s a level of effort involved with no certainty of success. And generally speaking, there isn’t another skyscraper just like it in the exact same location, at least in this dimension.
PS: This type of project is also known as a capital project. Read more about capital projects vs non capital projects here.
By that same definition, developing a new treatment for a rare disease is a project. Designing a rocket that returns to the landing platform so it can be re-used is a project. Building the 5G network across the continental United States is a project.
What A Project Is Not
It’s also quite easy to use this definition to determine what isn’t a project. Continuous operations where there is no definitive start and finish are not projects. A collection of business processes where success is more or less certain is not a project. Manufacturing thousands of identical widgets is not a project.
What Makes A Digital Project Different Than A Regular Project?
So then what distinguishes a digital project from a non-digital project? Isn’t it just a project that creates something digital as its key deliverable? Well, yes and no.
What We Mean When We Say “Digital”
First of all, we need to define what we mean by digital. In our world, digital sits at the intersection between technological business solutions and deliberately user-centric experiences.
It is 1s and 0s in the sense that these experiences are delivered through software, but likewise these digital experiences are also part of many physical products. A modern car, a commercial aircraft, a personal fitness tracker, a mining operations center—all of these have digital components.
The Four Dimensions Of A Digital Project
There are four main dimensions that intermingle to define a project as being digital:
- The digital nature of the product it creates
- The strategic use of project management methodologies within a digital context
- The mix of disciplines required to create value through digital technology
- The digital tools used to achieve the project’s objectives
Note: It’s worth stating that not all four of these dimensions need to be satisfied in order to make a project a digital project.
Let’s dive into each of the dimensions.
1. The Digital Nature Of The Product It Creates
We can start by tackling what folks might think is the most commonly accepted characteristic of a digital project: digital projects are projects that create a digital product.
Throughout the early 2000s, the most typical examples of digital products were things like websites, apps, digital marketing assets, and intranet implementations. In the agency world, these products required a different approach and more technical teams, which in turn created distinctions between advertising agencies and digital agencies.
For other organizations who decided to tackle the digital challenge internally, it plotted information technology and marketing on a collision course, creating splinters that would eventually form in-house digital product teams.
But in this day and age, the definition of a digital product has expanded significantly and will continue to do so. It now includes everything from augmented reality experiences, AI and machine learning engines, enterprise CRMs that drive multi-channel personalization, and even just straight-up wholesale digital transformation.
In fact, as I alluded to earlier, many projects that produce physical products now also have a software component.
So if your project is about implementing a web-based citizen service, or creating content for the Metaverse, or integrating real-time ERP data into terminals on the factory floor, or developing a scarf that sends body temperature data to your smartphone, or is using software to in some way deliver some kind of experience—you may be working on a digital project already.
2. The Mix Of Disciplines Required To Produce Digital Deliverables
That brings us to the teams themselves. The shape of a digital project team is rarely fixed and is constantly changing—partly because the technological landscape is changing beneath our feet, and partly because the depth of knowledge required to master an increasingly complex digital craft is so extensive that it is requiring deeper specializations as time goes on.
The bare bones of it is that you need a digitally-savvy team to deliver digital products. Adopting our earlier definition of digital being the combination of technological solutions with designed user experiences to create value, this typically means having a configuration of talented individuals that cover a mix of technical, creative, and business aspects.
The tricky part is that, because the definition of “digitally-savvy” is always expanding, there’s usually not a blueprint or definitive handbook for how all these individuals should work together. There’s also a wide spectrum of what each team member needs to know about what the other folks on their team do in order to be effective.
Sometimes that means having a developer, a designer, and a business analyst. But sometimes that means having a data scientist, an information architect, and a business process designer.
Or sometimes that means having a technical architect, a team of front-end developers, a team of back-end developers, a digital strategist, a service designer, a team of UX architects, a team of brand and UI designers, a team of 3D animators, a team of testers, a product owner, a team of copywriters, and, and, and—you get the idea.
So, if your project involves digital craftspeople like developers, UX/UI designers, data scientists, and quality assurance analysts—or if you find yourself staffing your team with a mix of experts who specialize in new, obscure, or emerging technologies—it’s likely that you are working on a digital project.
3. The Strategic Use Of Project Management Methodologies In A Digital Context
Next, let’s consider how our digitally-savvy teams deliver digital products using modern project management approaches. Whether you’re Googling it or just checking out our list of the most common project management methodologies, you’ll notice that there are lots of options—waterfall, scrum, kanban, lean XP, critical chain, hybrid approaches—and the fact of the matter is that most digital projects can use any of them.
But there’s a specific inflection that happens when you approach your project with a digital mindset.
In a digital context, you can build rapidly through iterations and increments, collaborating in real-time to add layers of fidelity until you reach a potentially-shippable product.
For example, folks using a waterfall approach might segment their project into an assembly line of functional components so that user acceptance testing on core features can begin before the entire solution is complete.
Folks using a scrum agile approach might be able to create and release an increment of end-to-end functionality sprint-over-sprint, beginning with a minimum viable experience and layering onto that until it satisfies the full requirements set forth by the product owner.
This is arguably much different from, say, building a house. Having a finished bathroom sitting on an otherwise empty foundation isn’t very practical, and it might be difficult to persuade someone to embrace a “minimum viable bathroom experience”.
But on the other hand, non-digital projects can benefit from this mindset as well. If you’re creating an in-person customer service experience, your team can first focus on simple personalization like knowing your customers by name and recording what they’ve bought in the past. Then you could iterate on that with personalized recommendations or shift focus to the payment part of the journey without putting your business on hold.
So if your project is leveraging concepts like componentization, rapid end-to-end iterations, potentially-shippable product increments, or even just collaborating in real-time, you are at the very least benefitting from the digital project mindset.
4. The Use Of Digital Tools To Achieve The Project Objectives
Which then brings us to our fourth and final dimension—the use of digital tools. This is the culmination in the sense that the tools we use are representative of the methodologies we have chosen to use, the teams we have assembled, and the product or output we are creating.
The distinctive benefit of digital tools is their ability to drive real-time collaboration. With the advent of SaaS-based project management tools, task management tools, communication tools, and collaboration tools, gone are the days of manually assembling data to get a sense of project progress. Instead, these tools are where the work is getting done, and as long as the team is updating their tasks and deliverables, project data can be immediate.
But this doesn’t have to mean adopting an enterprise-wide project management platform. It could be as simple as a shared to-do list to organize and manage tasks within a small team.
It also doesn’t have to mean using a project management tool at all. In some cases, a digital project can benefit from the team’s expertise (and share that expertise) through visual collaboration tools like mind-mapping software to create a work breakdown structure or articulate the functional components of a solution or the work to be done.
In that same vein, by building workflows into your instant messaging tool, you could manage communications, approvals, and status updates into a single tool without investing in any new ones.
But the distinctive characteristic here is the use of digital tools to drive collaboration, communication, ownership, and efficiency. Usually this means using more than one tool, and usually the use of these tools intrinsically requires some “digital savviness”, but the use of modern digital tools themselves fundamentally changes the nature of how you will run your project.
So if you’re using a suite of cloud-based tools to collaborate with your team and your stakeholders in real-time, you may be working on a digital project.
Types Of Digital Projects And Examples
So what are some examples of different types of digital projects? As I’ve mentioned, any combination of the four dimensions of a digital project can be present to give a project digital characteristics. Here are a few common—and some less common—examples of digital projects.
Projects That Create Digital Products
The most common examples of digital projects are projects that create digital products or experiences. This could include:
- Website or web application design and implementation projects
- Native app design and development projects
- Software development projects
- Digital marketing campaigns
Projects That Create Hybrid Products
Projects that have a digital element within a physical product or experience can also be considered a digital project. This could include:
- Hybrid hardware/software product development projects like creating a personal health monitoring device that connects to an app
- Experiential design projects like redesigning the check-in experience for a flight
- Hardware interface projects like creating a new digital interface for operating an unmanned underground drilling rig
Projects That Are Harnessing Emerging Technology
Additionally, most projects that involve new and emergent digital technologies are inherently digital projects. Examples of these could include:
- Extended reality experience projects like developing Metaverse games or Oculus apps
- Artificial intelligence and machine learning projects like creating a virtual financial planning platform
- Blockchain projects like creating an app that verifies the authenticity of a brand-name garment or limited-edition collectible
Projects That Are Part Of A Digital Transformation
Casting the net wider into the modern information technology space, projects that are part of a broader enterprise-wide transformation towards digital innovation are examples of large-scale digital projects. Some examples of this are:
- Customer Relationship Management (CRM) implementation projects like moving to Salesforce
- Learning Management System (LMS) implementation projects like developing a new employee training portal
- Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) platform implementation projects that use software to integrate business processes like manufacturing and supply chain management
- Migrations of enterprise technological infrastructure to the cloud
Projects That Use Digital Means To Achieve A Non-Digital Goal
But just because your project isn’t creating a digital output doesn’t mean it’s not a digital project. In many cases, projects across all industries are using digital tools to orchestrate the collaboration effort and track progress on project goals. Here are some examples to chomp on:
- Construction projects that track project resources and progress against the project plan using a SaaS project management tool
- Healthcare transformation projects that use digital journey maps to create a cohesive focus on the patient experience
- Research projects that use digital data-gathering and data-synthesis software tools
- Change management initiatives that deliver training through digital channels like change management tools
The bottom line is that any project that involves digital technology requires a certain mindset and willingness to engage with technical complexity. Project managers in any industry would be astute to deepen their understanding of the digital world in order to manage that project competently.
Even if you’re not a project manager dealing strictly in digital today, there is a very good chance that digital tools and technology will work their way into your projects sooner or later!
Where Digital Projects Get Complicated
So we’ve talked about the definition of a project and we’ve put some parameters around what makes a digital project distinct from non-digital projects, but the really interesting part is this: when you bring these two things together, the otherwise clear-cut delineations of a project start to get blurry and begins to beg the question: is our definition of a project holding us back?
Challenging The Definition Of A Project
If a project is defined as a temporary endeavor to create something unique and differentiated, our digital mindset when it comes to project management methodologies opens a few doors on either end of a spectrum.
On one end of the spectrum, agile project management approaches like scrum have minified and componentized the definition of projects into sprints. In many cases, an agile software development project can create a new product, service, or result every few weeks. As an example, DPM Expert Bill Moroz once walked me through a telecom project he worked on that was delivering fully functional services into market sprint-over-sprint.
On the other end of the spectrum, the inherent iterability of a digital product stretches the definition of a project across an entire product life cycle. A digital product roadmap still has a definite start and definite end, even if the whole process takes several years. Just look at hardware devices like a Fitbit or an Oura that receive new features through firmware and app updates right up until the product reaches the end of its retirement.
So, is a sprint a project? Is an entire product life cycle a project? Well, it depends where we want to take the craft of project management.
What Happens When We Redefine What A Project Is?
In an episode of the PM POV podcast, co-host Mike Hannan re-defined a project as an investment of effort and resources that culminates into moments of value delivery.
Mike posits that, in a construction context, a bridge isn’t a bridge until the moment it connects one side to the other. That is the moment that it delivers its value: at that moment, it is definitely a bridge even if it hasn’t got painted lines marking out the lanes, but before that moment it’s just two metal structures hanging over a geographical feature where the river narrows.
But in digital, the scale of this concept has much more elasticity. On the micro scale, the moment of value delivery could be an update to a transit app that enables electronic fare payments using debit cards. Equally it could be an update to a mobile device’s operating system to allow facial recognition to authenticate even if you’re wearing a mask.
On the macro scale, the moment of value delivery could be the moment when a regional’s government’s digital identity infrastructure is comprehensive enough to allow residents to drive, go to a doctor’s appointment, and cross the border without needing their wallet. Or it could be the moment when several dozen blade servers can be powered down and liquidated because the journey to the cloud has been completed.
I know what you’re thinking: surely endeavors that have a project manager are projects, anything bigger is a program, and anything smaller are just component phases of a project, right?. And, yes, you’d be buying into the “usual” definitions. But I think the implications of revisiting the concept of a project and how we organize humans around projects has much more far-reaching implications.
If we carry this thought forward, there are a few massive implications for the future of project management. Here are the four that I think will have the biggest impact.
1. Project Managers Becoming Functional Managers
Project managers have historically had only temporary authority over a temporary team, with that authority being bestowed by something as abstract as a project charter or just an email. As such, we’ve generally had to manage indirectly using influence.
But as organizations start to structure their operating model around digital products, and as product life cycles begin to look more and more like strands of sequential projects, there is a benefit to building upon the shared knowledge of the project team.
So there’s a world where project managers begin to have consistent project teams across multiple projects over a large span of time. That also means that there is a world where project managers become formal people managers with their project teams as their direct reports.
PS - this is already starting to happen in forward-thinking digital agencies in the form of dedicated project squads or pods.
2. Multiple Project Managers Working Together
Moving ever so slightly in the opposite direction, there is also a world where multiple project managers work together within a single project.
Typically project managers are the only one of their kind on a project team. But if you start to look at a sprint as its own project, and if you accept that the realm of digital is expanding at rate that makes it impossible for a single person to have a deep understanding of what it takes to create a digital product or experience, it starts to beg the question: what if each sprint had a different project manager?
For example, what if your strengths lie in the design phases of a project, but your counterpart is better when it comes to managing technical architecture and deep integrations? Could there be a different project manager for each phase or sprint within a project life cycle without creating inefficiencies or knowledge gaps?
If project managers can work together to deliver more value, then project management in pairs or clusters could become commonplace sooner than you think.
3. Soon Everything Will Become Digital
This might betray my overarching premise that digital projects are in many ways different than non-digital projects, but when you look at how projects are delivered and the complexity of collaborative human endeavors on the horizon, it’s hard to refute that digital tools, digital experiences, and digital mindsets won’t soon become a part of every project.
On a long enough timeline, a spreadsheet stored locally on someone’s workstation will not suffice to organize, manage, and track project collaboration. On a long enough timeline, any physical product will benefit from a software or firmware component to enable interconnectivity and digitally-enabled product upgrades. On a long enough timeline, every project will have to consider whether a rapid, incremental, and iterative approach involving real-time collaboration will create efficiencies.
On a long enough timeline, everything will become “digital”. And we’re only accelerating towards a reality dominated by digital technology.
4. Digital Tools Will Redefine Your Role For You
Whether you like it or not, your role as a project manager is going to change. Part of that is because of the tools and technology we are using and the impact it has on project management methodologies.
For one, project management tools that provide visibility into the project management process and project tasks are subtly increasing your team’s project management sensibility. They can see how the project changes if they’re late on a task that falls on the critical path. They can latch onto conversations in task views to support the decision-making process in real-time or provide updates to stakeholders without you being the go-between. They can take on more ownership.
Additionally, collaborative project management software is getting clever enough to be assembling data for you and putting the puzzle pieces together so that you aren’t burdened with the more manual, administrative tasks that are traditionally associated with project management. Your status updates might already be pre-populated. Your “nagging” task follow-up emails might already be automated. Your project plan might already be current.
You might have been wishing you could spend less time on the minutiae so you can be more strategic. Well, be ready to reconsider how you add value to your project so that you don’t face extinction.
Skills For Digital Project Managers To Start Focusing On
So if you’ve accepted those implications to be within the realm of feasibility, the next question is how can you as a project manager prepare for the future of project management. Here’s my take on what the next generation of project management skills will include:
Skill Up On People Management
Being someone’s direct career manager is not the same as being someone’s project manager. If your projects start leaning more towards having your project team as your direct reports, you will want to start expanding your understanding of management best practices—things like setting goals and expectations, measuring individual performance, providing training opportunities, negotiating salaries and pay raises, and delivering a solid employee experience.
If you’re looking for a place to start, check out our sister site, People Managing People, which has some great resources for emerging people leaders.
Skill Up On Collaboration
If you’re like me, you’ve probably spent most of your career being a lone wolf on a PM island. If you’re like me, you respect your fellow project managers but are also secretly engaged in fierce competition with them. Well, it’s time to switch your mindset.
In a world where you may be project managing in pairs to create enough coverage across complex digital disciplines and undertakings, you need to be prepared to show your cards and communicate your tactics transparently.
That means sharpening your skates on documenting the things that you previously haven’t had to share outside of your own brain. That means improving your communication skills and your emotional intelligence. That means becoming humble enough to understand both your strengths and your weaknesses.
Skill Up On Digital
Maybe you’ve been a staunch resistor of the digital revolution, or maybe you think you’re a certifiable expert in digital. In either case, you’d be wise to maintain at least a curiosity around digital if you want your project to achieve its desired outcome.
As projects and their digital dimensions become increasingly complex, maintaining a checklist of project activities isn’t going to cut it as a project manager. And the moment you feel like you know all you need to know about an aspect of digital is the same moment that your knowledge will become out of date.
Skill Up On Tools
Whether you’ve been loyal to a single piece of project management software for decades, or you’re someone who has worked with an assorted cocktail of tools throughout your career, it’s worth taking a deep dive into the latest trends in terms of features and functionality to ensure you’re not myopically over-reliant on a subset of what modern project management software is capable of.
Gantt charts are great (I love them, and I’ve written a love letter to them in this article), but most tools now have a plethora of views to look at milestones and dependencies from a different perspective. They also may include contributed templates that allow you to reverse engineer industry best practices to up your game.
While you’re at it, get smart on pricing and the process for software procurement at your place of work. At some point, you may be asked to lead the software selection process.
The Future Of Digital Projects
Alright, so that was quite a journey, but I think the bottom line is this: the characteristics of what makes a digital project different than a non-digital project may vary, but by applying a digital mindset to any project, it shines a light on a very different future of project management that most people have not yet fully considered.
If you find this version of the future compelling, now is a good time to start skilling up in the areas of people leadership, peer-to-peer collaboration, and digital technology.
Arguably, a great place to start might be our Mastering Digital Project Management certification course, which focuses on honing the judgment, instinct, and leadership skills required to successfully navigate a complex digital project. You can learn more about the course here.
Related Listen: Delivering AI Projects