What Makes a Great Digital Project Manager?
- Product Management /
- Product Team Culture /
Read any job description for a project manager at a digital agency, and you’ll see phrases like “responsible for managing teams and working through the application of knowledge, skills, tools, and techniques to meet project requirements and solve client needs.”
But you can find out that information anywhere.
So let’s talk about what you really want to know: What actually makes a digital project manager good at what they do?
We’ve learned that the best project managers (like, cough, the ones here at Emerge) have an intangible set of skills that make them successful with clients and internal teams alike.
1. Reading Between the Lines
Learning to interpret what the client is NOT saying is as important as understanding what they ARE saying.
Sometimes, clients struggle to articulate what they want into language that designers can implement. Good project managers are intuitive, able to understand a client’s or team member’s real feelings and intentions. They have an innate ability to read people and are able to capitalize on that information when it comes to leading the team.
Project managers frequently face situations where they have to make decisions without knowing answers to all their questions:
There may not be enough data.
It might be too late at night to reach out to the client and get an answer.
You could get conflicting feedback from different reviewers.
A project manager who is worth her (or his!) weight in gold is one who can synthesize all the unspoken intentions and feelings along with other input and make a decision. Quickly.
2. Having the Flexibility of an Olympic Gymnast
Uncertainty and change may be the only constants in a project. Schedules, deliverables, technical requirements, and logos can shift at a moment’s notice. (That’s what makes project management so exciting!)
Clients hire an agency to solve a problem. They are counting on your expertise to guide the team down a path to get to the desired result. Let’s just say that this path is not always linear. The capability to identify when to be strategically flexible can be the difference between a project merely surviving and thriving.
A project manager sometimes wears two hats, playing the role of an account manager and as a project manager. The account management portion of the project manager job is to ensure the project is done on-strategy for the client. The project manager’s job is to get the project done as quickly (and on-budget, and on-scope) as possible. Those priorities are typically at odds with each other. The project manager team needs to be strategically flexible in delivering what is right for the client even if it may contradict what we initially scoped.
Sometimes we learn about new contingencies long after the project has been scoped or discovery has been completed. Sometimes what the client thinks they want at the start of a project isn’t actually what they need. A good project manager understands that and figures it out as quickly as possible to do a course correction.
No two projects are the same, despite how much the Accounting Department might want you to believe they are.
Even when a goal is identical, the technical environment can be different, or there are different dynamics introduced with stakeholders. This makes it difficult to follow the same sequence of activities every time. Knowing when to follow the road less traveled requires critical thinking, a willingness to be flexible, and creative problem solving about what is the best route.
3. See the Forest Not the Trees
As project managers, dates drive us and budgets confine us. We must have in-depth knowledge of the capabilities of our teams and also an in-depth knowledge of our client’s business, industry, and competition. Yet, we are often planning schedules while discovery is still being completed or technical requirements are written.
It would be easy to become overwhelmed by detail to the point where it obscures the end goal. But that doesn’t serve anyone. We strive to find a balance between being an agency advocate and our client’s advocate by constantly asking ourselves: What’s the end goal?
The bottom line?
In other words, gather info, be thoughtful, listen, and trust your gut.