In this episode, we speak to Brett Harned from Digital PM Consulting, the author of “Project Management for Humans” and the founder of the Digital PM Summit.

Brett has been a project manager in the digital space for more than 15 years and also has a great blog about his adventures in project management at brettharned.com . In this episode Brett discusses personal skills and intuition, addressing issues before they become problems, communicating like a pro and holding people accountable.


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Highlights from Episode 70: “Project Management for Humans” with Brett Harned

Can you share with us a brief overview of your great book and your background?

My name is Brett Harned and I am a consultant. I live right outside of Philadelphia in the United States. My consultancy focuses on project management and helping companies and teams to form better practices, whether that be with projects, with clients or internal teams and no matter what the work focuses around digital, so, websites, apps. Anything that really has a kind of digital experience. I recently published a book called “Project Management for Humans”.

The book really focuses on project management practices of a variety of different kind of topics within project management. I called it “Project Management for Humans” because I do think that project management skills are critical for anyone working on a team, not just for project managers. So, the book’s written in a way that is meant to draw a reader in, to pull them into real-life scenarios, that are not necessarily work or project-related.

And then kind of pull them into the project management content that is related to that. For example, setting expectations, as one of the topics. When I was a kid, I went to Disney World with my parents and I thought that I was going to Mickey Mouse’s house. I was about five years old. So, the idea is that if we had a quick conversation about what was actually going to happen, I wouldn’t have been so let down. From that story, I lead into good practices, how to set expectations with coworkers, with teammates, with clients on projects.

So, what are some of those practices then?

A big point in projects where expectations can be set and then managed at the beginning of the project. I work with a lot of digital agencies who work with clients and the project manager is responsible for keeping the scope sort of in control. I think to start off a project, having a project manager sit down with the main client contact or liaison, even project manager, sit down and talk through – how are we going to work together, how do we best communicate, these are the tools that we like to use, are you okay with using them, are there any sort of adjustments we need to make it in terms of the way that we work. But also, just expectations around things like how we will talk about the budget and the timeline, my expectations of a client and how you should interact and how you should manage your team to be the most efficient in the process. I think now that first conversation’s really critical.

In terms of developing personal skills and intuition, can you share some tips with us?

For me, project management is largely communications, so not everyone is necessarily a natural communicator and I think that’s fair. I think a good way for a project manager to get to know their team is to make time to be a little more personal, to ask questions and not to be nervous to ask questions. One of the things I like to do on a project, particularly working in the technology field, there’s technology that I don’t really know much about, but I need to know a little bit so I can make progress and communicate with clients and the team about it.

So, just sitting down with someone, for example, a developer and saying “I don’t really know much about JavaScript, can you tell me how this thing works?” Sitting down and truly listening to someone and asking questions and learning as much as you can, I find that doing that not only educates you as a person and a human, but it also starts to build a relationship. Because when you talk to somebody about the work they’re doing, you are showing a vested interest and they become more interested in you, they understand that you actually can look out for them and you can speak on their behalf when needed, or come back to them with questions.

They’re not going to be nervous that you’re gonna sell additional scope to a client, that is not necessarily matching up with the level of their level of effort or their intent. I found that I’m just building personal relationships, being open, and it doesn’t mean me being the guy that’s walking around talking about non-work related stuff all the time, just to get to know people, but building comradery and having a nice effort to sort of like build a good team vibe definitely helps in that.

You also talk about how to address issues before they become problems, can you give us some insight into that?

A part of what we do as project managers is assessing risks, so understanding motivations of people on your client team and on your project team, to see that you know tasks will be followed through is a really important thing. I’m really big on doing project status reports and as a part of that project status report, documenting all of the pieces there are on the project – what happened last week, what’s happening this week, what action or items are there to do or are coming out of that, a report on where your project budget and timeline percent complete are and then a section at the end that lists risks and the mitigation plans.

If you really want to make sure that problems don’t go down on your projects, to list anything and everything that could potentially be a problem in that section of the status reports. Even if they are the little things. A big thing in web development is getting content from the client to populate a website. That’s the problem that could really hold a deadline. So just putting in that section of the status report content is due in the system by X date and if that content is not in by that date it’s going to push our deadline, and it could affect our budget.

So just a really transparent, clear communications around risks and potential problems helps you to have a conversation that isn’t always last-minute and worrying and stressed out. It’s a little more comfortable because your clients and your team see that you’re looking two or four or six weeks down the road to make sure that nothing negative is going to impact the project.

In terms of communication, what other advice would you have for us to help us to be better at that?

In communication, I think you should always be yourself I think showing a little bit of your own personality absolutely helps for people to relate to you and to understand you. I think on top of that, always being honest and transparent about where things are. So, I was just talking about the status reports and showing any sort of type of risk, I think that contributes to this idea of transparency and always being honest.

Unfortunately, some project managers tend to want to keep those details close to their vest and not make it seem like there’s any kind of problem. But when you do that you end up sweeping problems under the carpet and when you’re a good communicator and you are transparent and honest, you’re going to ask people that help you to solve those problems. I think that that’s really huge in the world of project management because it’s not just on one person to make sure the project goes well, it’s on the team. So being the person that facilitates those conversations is absolutely what you should do.

And of course, the tricky situation than of holding people accountable or you know making sure that you’re still on board but kept the whole accountability have you any advice for us from your experience on that?

Accountability is a tough one. I do really believe that it’s larger than project management and accountability is based on how an organization runs and what they expect of their employees or team members. The most important is making sure that the organization is holding its employees accountable. On a project level, I think the most you can do to keep people accountable is to be very clear about assignments and who is responsible so that there’s never any confusion or any discussion like – I didn’t know that that was for me, that’s why I didn’t do it. I’m a fan of doing the RACI matrix to make sure that people understand the work that they are accountable for doing and that are responsible for doing. I am also a big fan of the to-do list, so whether you make a shared to-do list with the team or you’re following up on your own to-do list with people on your team. So, it’s a really good way of just making sure people are on track and aware of the deadlines that are looming.

And of course, in terms of developing apps then and project management around that, I’m sure there’s a lot of opportunities if you like for scope creep. What can you advise us on that, leaving out the bells and whistles?

That depends on a couple of things. It depends on the setting that you are in, so if I’m on an internal team, working for a large company, developing an app, I’m probably more in tune with a timeline rather than a budget. So scope at that moment doesn’t really matter, it’s a matter of – can we get this work done in the timeline that we are given if there’s a launch date. Amazingly I have found that a lot of my internal clients that budgets and timelines kind of go out the window, so that makes an interesting situation to put a project manager in.

But I think at that point, you start talking about priority and what is most important to our users. I think that’s how you start to control scope in that setting. When you are working in the service industry within an agency and client relationship, you are really bound to a contract that states your overall scope, and being crystal clear about what’s in that scope is very important. I am finding that a lot more agencies are grounding their work in research, which is great, so a research and discovery phase at the beginning of the project where they’re interviewing users to understand motivations and needs, they are interviewing stakeholders to understand their goals for the projects and gaining a little bit of information and history on background helps them to understand what should be in scope.

And at the end of that phase, they’re able to scope out a project and list the provider requirement document that says you know these are the pieces of functionality that we will deliver upon launch. And then of course along the way request for comment from clients or team members to increase the scope or to change it but it’s up to the PM to be the person to say “Okay, is that a priority now for a launch that we need to talk about and potentially issue a change request for or is it something that we can hold for a later phase.” What I find really interesting is that a lot of companies are kind of experimenting with the process.

So, in the digital space, it’s agile combined with some possibly you know more traditional waterfall practices. In the internal team aspect in a client corporation, it’s easier to run agile. In an agency kind of setting working with a client little more difficult to run agile but some companies are figuring out how to do that. But I think that also impacts the scope and what you can include and why on a project. I think there are various sorts of conversations around controlling scope and making sure that you’re delivering what’s best for at least a first-round or first phase or MGP of a product.

In terms of process, you also have a chapter on principles over the process. Can you share with us what’s covered in that chapter or a brief overview so that people would still buy the book?

Absolutely. So my thinking about principles over the process is really about the idea that there are several ways that you can get a project done and none of them is the right or wrong way. So, what I do in that chapter is talking about principles for building your own process. The way that I like to think about it is having a toolkit of deliverables or tactics that you can sort of employ on a project to make sure that you’re getting stakeholders to make the right decisions, to leave you to a positive and goal, which is successfully delivered the project. In that chapter, I also talk through a set of principles that I put forth for digital project management, sort of like a manifesto, like the agile manifesto but for digital project managers. It’s more about how you should behave as a digital PM rather than the specific tactics you should carry out.

And just before we talk about the digital PMs, I tend to ask my guests about the golden rule for project management. So is there something you always make sure that’s in place or something that you always do when you get involved in the project?

So I always beat the drum of the project status reports. I think it’s very important. On top of that, my golden rule is to be honest always. And that’s one of the principles that I put in the book, but a way to kind of keep yourself honest as a project manager particularly when you’re in a situation where you’re managing several projects, dealing with several clients and your time is kind of stretched, then getting into a routine where you do a weekly status report that forces you to check-in on your project plan to make sure that you’re on track, and you are the person that completes up-to-date, making sure that you’re checking in on your budget, making sure that you are aware of where things are. Those things keep you honest and keep clients happy because you are being transparent about the information you are sharing and it’s a really good way of just checking in with people and making sure that everyone is on the same page and you are moving in the same direction which is hopefully toward a positive and deliverable.