Some thoughts on digital project management

Inspired by be more digital‘s post on Simple project management here are some of my far less useful thoughts on managing digital projects.

Why is digital project management different from non-digital project management?

Because the Internet changed everything. It changed almost every aspect of our lives, it changed how organisations run, and it changed the way we think. Internet-era ways of working from Public Digital and the Digital Design Principles from CAST have lots in common (including a move away from project-orientated thinking, but more of that below). A few of the principles that change how we approach project management from a digital mindset are:

  • User first – Digital projects should ‘start with user needs, and keep them involved’, ‘design for user needs, not organisational convenience’, ’embed user research’, and understand how ’emerging technology may alter or create behaviours’.
  • Test and learn – Digital projects should ‘Start small and optimise for iteration’, ‘Take small steps and learn as you go’, and ‘Make things open; it makes things better’.
  • Safe, secure, private, accessible and sustainable – Digital projects need to understand the opportunities, and risks that being online brings. This includes, ‘Be inclusive’, ‘think about privacy and security’, ‘build for sustainability’, and ‘Recognise the duty of care you have to users, and to the data you hold about them’,

Whether the project work is digital, such as building a new website, or not, the project can and should be managed using these kinds of modern principles and practices. It achieves better things for the people that use what the project delivers.

Does it need to be a project?

Is the work you intend to undertake really a project or is it just what you do packaged as a project?

  • Will it have a deadline for completion that is external to the work? – Not just a date that senior management teams want it finished by but a date where something else is going to happen that will fail is the project isn’t completed on time.
  • Will this work have a separate budget from other work? – Not just a line on an internal budget sheet but actually a specific and dedicated budget, perhaps from a funder who expects this project to be delivered using the funds.
  • Will it have people dedicated to working on it (maybe even, if you’re lucky, as their only priority)? – Not people doing this work as part of their usual day job but either this is all they work on or it is very clearly recognised that they are working on this in addition to their day jobs.

If you’ve got three No’s it probably means the work you want to do either isn’t a project or is a project in name only. Three Yes’s means you should probably be approaching the work as a project. Why does it matter? Because, even though all work is fundamentally about these three things: time, money and people’s knowledge and efforts, a project ties them together more tightly and has extra pressure on all three.

What are you managing?

There is a universal law of projects; there is always too much to do in too little time. And there are really only three ways to deal with it:

  • Reduce what work you do to fit it to the time available,
  • Increase the time available to fit the work you want to do, or
  • Increase the capacity and capability of people working on the project.

Actually, in reality, a flexible shifting of all three is most likely to help a project be successful. It might be seventy or so years old, but the iron triangle of project management represents these three things as Scope, Time and Cost. It says that:

  • The quality of work is constrained by the project’s budget, deadlines and scope.
  • The project manager can trade between constraints.
  • Changes in one constraint necessitate changes in others to compensate or quality will suffer.

‘Quality’ is at the centre of the triangle. A project that is delivered on time, on budget and scope, is considered of high quality. A project that is late, over budget, or doesn’t deliver what it should is considered of lower quality. Project management is about managing the quality of the project. It is done through managing the scope of the work, the available budget and the time and skills people have, but project management is much more then just task management.

Managing the work

How do you prioritise project work?

You shouldn’t. All of the work that needs to be delivered in a project is the work that need to be delivered. Using Must, Should, Could (MoSCoW), for example, as a means of prioritising the bits of work introduces more uncertainty than it brings clarity. “What do you mean by we ‘should’ do this piece of work? Are we doing it or not?”. There shouldn’t be any uncertainty about the deliverables.

Prioritisation is often used as a proxy to avoid having the difficult conversation about scope, time and people, but all it does is cloud the issues and take focus away from delivering the project. Keep it simple. The project work is all of the work, and all of it is important (if it isn’t important why is it even part of the project). If you can’t deliver it all, for whatever reason, have the conversations that lead to solutions.

Working in phases

Phasing project work is sometimes seen as a means of deprioritising some work. “We’ll do it in phase 2” sometimes means some non-specific future that may or may not occur. If that’s the case, let it go and focus on delivering the current project. If the project is actually broken into phases then you need a means of deciding which work to do in each phase. Assuming that each phase corresponds to work being released to users, then the work should be sliced by what will be most valuable to the people who are going to be using it. One thing finished and delivered in a phase is better than two half finished things over two phases.

Managing time

Is the project on schedule?

All project schedules are a guess. Some guesses are better than others, and having some sense of when the project will finish is important (as I said above, what usually makes projects different from other work is the added pressure which often isn’t sustainable for long uncertain periods). Sometimes the ‘is the project on schedule?’ question is more often a reporting problem-to-solve than it is a scheduling problem. Because no one ever really knows whether a project is on schedule at any point in time until it’s delivered, this question is really asking how confident are we that it will be delivered on time. How that confidence is communicated is more fundamental than answering schedule questions.

Managing people

Do the people have the right capabilities and capacity?

For a project manager, managing people isn’t about telling people what to do, it’s about ensuring the project team have the necessary skills, knowledge and experience to be able to do the work required in the project, and that the team has enough time to do all the things. This is often the hardest part of project management, which is why the easier parts of managing scope and schedule are often focused on instead. The people involved in a project are the greatest factor in the quality of the project being delivered, give them the consideration they need.

Good digital project management not only puts users first, it also puts the people on the project team ahead of scope and schedule. (Tweet this)