Project Management

PM Matters Interview: Paul Boag Inspires

Brett Harned
August 4, 2015
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Get Fired Up

Inspiration can come from just about anywhere but when it comes from an industry leader, it makes it all that more uplifting. PMs often find inspiration in a variety of places: historical quotes, project retrospectives, articles about leadership, conversations with peers, events, and more. But no matter how the inspiration is presented, it can’t go unsaid: project managers don’t get the respect that many other professions receive. So when a few nice words come along from non-PMs, we get excited.

Project Managers Should be Business Leaders

This installment of PM Matters will get you excited. Well-known UX consultant Paul Boag sat down with Brett Harned to talk about digital project management, and the outcome is full of quotes to make you feel empowered about being a project manager. At one point in the interview, Paul describes project managers are the “last best hope”. He says that there are fundamental changes that organizations need to make to get digital, and PMs are the ones to lead that change. Project managers can do more than control budgets and timelines. We can think strategically and use our organizational and communication skills to help businesses and teams transform. Read Paul’s book Digital Adaptation and put yourself in the shoes of the one to lead change. You’ll focus not only on your project details but on a bigger strategy. That is exciting!

Get Involved in the Community

In the interview, Paul and Brett also talk about the growing digital project management community. Listen to the interview to hear more about how you can become involved. If you’re interested in meeting Brett and Paul at the community’s flagship event, The Digital PM Summit, register now. We’re proud to sponsor this event and show our support of the community. We think you should too.

Read the Transcript:

Brett: Welcome to another episode of PM Matters. This is Brett Harned, and I'm here with Paul Boag today.Paul: Hi.Brett: Hi, Paul. How are you?Paul: So I immediately messed up your recording, haven't I?Brett: Not a problem at all. So I'm just going to introduce you quickly. Paul has become a friend over the past year, which has been great. He's a user-experience consultant, speaker, mentor, and an author, from Dorsett, England. He helps organizations all over the world use the Web, social media, and mobile to engage users. Paul is not a project manager, but somehow has become close to the digital PM community over the past year. Paul, thanks so much for joining today.Paul: I'm so grateful that you made it clear I was not a project manager, because I really couldn't project manage anything if my life depended on it.Brett: So I had a question about that. Aside from the fact that a few of us drug you into our events because we've followed you for some time, and really admired some of the work you've done in the digital community, what is it about project managers or project management that matters to you?Paul: For me, they I think  what's the term from Star Wars, the "last best hope". I look at a lot of organizations and there are fundamental changes that these organizations need to make in culture, in approaches, to digital. Most of the clients I work with don't really understand or get digital.

They need to fundamentally reshape the way they operate. Who's going to do that? Is it going to be the senior management team? No, because they don't really understand or get digital. Is it going to be the marketing department? They've got a good understanding of digital but only from an external client perspective. They don't understand the full breadth of digital. Is it going to be designers or developers? Well, no, because they can't speak business speak.

Who does that leave? Digital project managers, so that's why I'm so interested in you as a community, is because I think in your hands lies the future of many organizations, which sounds very melodramatic, but I like to think it's true. It makes you guys feel important. So that's the main thing.

Brett: It sure does. There's a huge vote of confidence in someone like you saying that. I know I appreciate it, and I know a lot of other people do. I think the role of project manager for some reason lacks a bit of credibility in some organizations. I'm wondering if you've seen that.Paul: Yeah, I have seen it. I think it's partly because nobody as a child goes I want to grow up to be a project manager. It hasn't got that kind of sex appeal to it. People do grow up and go I want to be a designer, or I want to code things. There's films  you get films made about people hacking and coding. You don't get films about people opening spreadsheets, do you, really?Brett: (Snore).Paul: Yeah. I think that kind of slightly undermines the profession but that doesn't make it any less vital to business success. The truth is I think a lot of people think digital project management basically boils down to organization. At most, people think I can organize stuff. I on the other hand, don't think I can organize anything, but most people think they're relatively organized.

What they're missing is that digital project managers need this huge swath, this very broad kind of understanding of lots of different areas, and they have to be able to communicate with a designer one day, developer the same day, content people, marketers, business. They have to have this very broad understanding. If all people see is oh, they're the ones that organize stuff, then they're missing out on the majority of what a digital project manager does.

Brett: Completely agree. What do you think can be done to overcome that point of view within organizations about the role?Paul: To be honest, I think you started to do some of it already. By you, I mean you personally, that you've been instrumental in working to build a bit of a community around digital project management. There were entire conferences dedicated to designers and developers for years and years. Only now are we seeing conferences about digital project management, largely thanks to you and a few other key individuals.

I think that's a big part of it. A colleague of mine, a guy called Pete Boston, he came to one of your conferences. That was the first digital project management conference he ever went to. Suddenly, he became proud of his job. He became proud of what he did and what he contributed. It's almost like a self-esteem issue, really.

Designers and developers are incredibly pretentious about what they do. I can say that as someone that comes from a design background. Me, I've got the word consultant in my job title, so obviously, I think I'm the center of the universe. But project managers don't see themselves in that way. They see themselves as facilitators to what other people do. That is so not true. You're actually, I think, business leaders.

I think it's about realizing that. I think meetups, conferences, and websites dedicated to digital project management, and people standing up and saying I'm kind of proud of what I do, and it's complicated, and it's difficult, and people need to take that seriously, I think that will turn things around. I think you need to convince yourselves before you can convince the rest of the world.

Brett: I could not agree with you more. I think so much of it comes from your own personal feeling about the role, and how you conduct the work within the role, and how you build relationships with people on your team. I think it is about facilitating and all of those maybe boring aspects of the job, but it also can be incredibly exciting when you listen to it through the lens that you've run it through.Paul: It depends on the words you use. Yeah, if you use the word facilitation, it sounds bitterly dull. But actually what you're talking about is leadership. You're not talking about management. I've got a bit of a problem with the term project manager. A manager is essentially somebody that kind of sits on people and says do this, and do that, and you need to do it by this date, and that is dull. Also really not very necessary when you're dealing with professionals that really know their stuff.

What you actually are, are leaders. You're facilitating the people that work with you, you're motivating them, enthusing, directing them, encouraging them, and that's a cool and exciting job.

Brett: I agree. I also have seen a bit of a movement within the digital industry in shifting the title a bit. I've seen more people being called producers. I've seen the title project strategist thrown out there. It's something I've toyed with, for sure, because it kind of widens the responsibility or at least the perception of what your responsibility is. I wouldn't be surprised if that shift continues and we see the role, at least in our industry change.

That's the other thing that traditional project management is very much project management. If you read some of the rulebooks or guidebooks on how to do those things, they're very process based and stiff. Whereas, in digital we do a lot more than that. We're dealing with more fun projects. We're able to make a lot more mistakes and recover from them a lot easier than if you're managing a project that's on a construction site, or something that's really huge. I think there's also a lot of ways that project managers can contribute because our industry is still fairly young. It's exciting to see where it goes. I wanted to talk about your book Digital Adaptation. Can you share about it and what it's about with our viewers, and what's in it for PMs?

Paul: Sure. The book really was borne out of a frustration in me. For years, I ran a digital agency and we were delivering great stuff to our clients. We were delivering great designs that were then integrated by internal teams. We were doing the full stack and delivering that. Then they would run the websites.

Without fail, although we were delivering great work, slowly, everything we did kind of fell apart because there were just so many internal reasons within the organizations we were working with, why they weren't succeeding.

They weren't mentally in a place to be able to deal with digital. They were very process driven, as you've already said. They were very stuck in almost Industrial Revolution thinking of mass media, mass-market ways of perceiving the world.

is basically a book that talks about how businesses need to change, how they need to restructure their approach to digital, and rethink the role of their organization in today's world. How do you better serve the connected consumer, these people that rely on digital to interact with your organization?

I talk a lot about that kind of stuff. It is very much a book that is ideal for project managers. I would confess when I wrote the book I didn't have project managers in my head. I was thinking primarily of writing to senior-executive teams in large organizations. But truth be told, as I've already said, I think project managers are the ones that really make stuff happen.

A book like this would certainly give you a strong business case about why you need to make changes within your organization and make a lot of suggestions about where to start in that process. If you're in an organization where you're a bit frustrated that they're not really getting digital, that they're not moving fast enough to adapt to the changes that digital have brought, then yeah, I think Digital Adaptation will be an encouraging book for you. If nothing else, it'll show you that it's not just your company that has all these problems. Everybody else does too.

Brett: It's so true. I think for me, it was just kind of empowering to read a book like that and place myself in a situation, whether it be with clients of my own, or Web design clients who are building new sites, or apps, and helping to be the person to lead the change.

I think you're right; placed in the right situation, a project manager can be the person to at least start a conversation about change, and how exciting it can be, and how it can be accomplished. I definitely recommend the book to people all the time.

Paul: I like that. That's good. I'll send you your commission later.Brett: As a designer, how can a project manager help you the most?Paul: It's a long time since I considered myself a hands-on designer. I'm a designer in the broad sense of what a designer is, which is I solve problems. But a lot of the design I do now is almost at an organizational level rather than pushing pixels around.

But that said, I actually think in the right situation there is almost a symbiotic relationship between a project manager and a creative, for want of a better word. I hate that word, but like myself. I'm very good at broad-brush thinking. I'm very good at quickly looking at a situation and hypothesizing a solution of how it may be solved, and how we may move things forward.

Where I am very weak, and I think most creatives are, are filling in the details, providing the structure that makes that happen. I think most project managers have that kind of analytical detailed brains.

I remember very vividly we went to a client meeting back in the day, with the project manager I worked with at the time. He invited me to this client meeting. I hadn't really been massively involved in the project. I sat down in the meeting, and they kind of laid out the problems they were facing. I just completely derailed the project and took it off in a completely different direction.

Brett: I could never picture that.Paul: I know. I felt they were sending the project down a route that would ultimately fail, that would get bogged down and complicated. I came out of the meeting and turned to Charlie, who was the project manager, and said you must hate me for what I've just done to your project. He turned to me and said absolutely not. I can't think in that kind of way that you did there, but I relish now turning your vision into a reality.

For me, that is the perfect symbiotic relationship. I can't make anything happen. I'm useless at making stuff happen. But I'm very good at picturing how it could be. I think when you've got a good project manager standing alongside you, who you can take those visions and turn them into a reality  and to be honest, a lot of time reshape those visions along the way to make them a bit more practical and achievable, then I think that's absolutely invaluable. I actually think the two sit very nicely together.

Brett: I agree. Good for Charlie for having that kind of can-do spirit. So many times I think project managers get that negative perception because so many PMs would say we can't do that without really just sitting back and letting things happen.Paul: There were certainly things in my vision that Charlie then ripped out. I as a designer or creative have to be all right with that. You have to realize how things look in my head is not always the reality of it. I think the Steve Jobs of this world that kind of just bang away at things in the hope everyone falls in with their vision of reality, there are very few people who can pull that off. I certainly can't. It is about compromise on both sides. It's about respecting the value of that project manager as much as your own role in it.Brett: Completely agree. I think we're just at about time. That went really quickly. I'm wondering if you have any parting words of wisdom for our PM audience.Paul: To be honest, I think I've already said it, which is be proud of your job. That really is it for me. You do an incredible role that is massively under appreciated. I believe that in many digital teams you are actually the lynchpin. You are the people that make the reality of what is delivered happen. You should get excited by that, and you should be enthusiastic about that, and you should blow raspberries at designers and developers that don't appreciate you. That's my advice: blow raspberries.Brett: I love it. Thank you so much for the support that you've given the community, that you've given me. Thanks for doing this interview. Everything is truly appreciated.Paul: I love doing it.Brett: Good. I will see you in October at the Digital PM Summit, October 12th and 13th in Philadelphia.Paul: I had to pretty much beg to let Brett bring me to that conference. I'm so excited. It's going to be brilliant.Brett: It's going to be great. Thank you so much, Paul.Paul: Cool.

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