UIE Book Corner with Adam Churchill

Here at UIE we’ve amassed quite a library, and we’re adding to it all the time. Adam Churchill took the opportunity to interview a few of our favorite authors to dig a little deeper into the tools and techniques you can use in your day-to-day work.

Episode #6 Brett Harned’s “Project Management for Humans”

August 23, 2017  ·  17 minutes

Listen Now

Download the MP3

Project management encompasses an important set of skills, such as communication, planning, and forecasting. But does someone need the title of project manager to actually do the work?

In Brett Harned’s book Project Management for Humans, he makes the argument that project management is always needed on projects but the role itself is less important. You should focus on the skills in order to manage projects well.

In this podcast, Brett shares some of the highlights from his book. Our hosts, Adam Churchill and Jared Spool dig into those highlights, in particular, whether designers already possess the skills that project managers have.

Show Notes

Brett’s book, Project Management for Humans is available at Rosenfeld Media.

Full Transcript

Adam Churchill: Welcome, everyone, to another edition of the UIE Book Corner. This is Adam Churchill and with me is Jared Spool.

Jared Spool: Hey, Adam.

Adam: I had another great conversation with an author. Spoke with Brett Harned about his new book, "Project Management for Humans: Helping People Get Things Done." And I think this book is going to be another one of those books that's just a great resource for teams like ours that are trying to get things done better and faster.

One of the thing's that's interesting, in our conversation I was hearing more and more about the skills that a good project manager needs to use. And I know a lot about the skills that a good UX professional needs to use and, gosh, there's a lot of overlap.

Jared: I mean, I hadn't really thought about it until you mentioned it just now. But there's a lot of the same skills that happen there, because there are so many things happening at once and you have to keep track of all the different assets and you have to figure out all the user research and you have to get all the people involved and you have to get the decisions made. And now that you talk about it, it does feel very similar to what managing a project is all about.

Adam: So a little bit of the spin that Brett puts on this is certainly project management is sometimes a title, but it's always, always, a set of skills. It's a little confusing at that point. Right? Do I actually need someone owning that title, project manager?

Brett Harned: The way that I look at project management is that it's needed on projects but maybe it's not necessarily needed in terms of a role. So I've worked with companies in my consulting capacity where the company doesn't actually employ any project managers, but it looks to its employees, who are UX designers, graphic designers, developers, who are responsible for actually managing a project. And by managing a project I mean creating timelines, communicating with clients, looking out for budgets. That kind of stuff.

And I think that those are all skills that are needed on a project, and when you put somebody who isn't necessarily trained or formally in that role into the role, they need the skills. So I think this book will help those people.

And the reason why I called it "Project Management for Humans" is because I really do think that day to day as humans, there are aspects of project manager that we use. So each chapter of the book actually leads with a personal story that is not work related, and talks about project management and skills that we can use and kind of tees up for the more kind of formal PM content that's included in the book.

Adam: This is where I got a little confused, because there's that overlap. Right? That differentiation between title versus the skill se. Does every project need a project manager?

Jared: Well, I mean, that's sort of like asking, "Does every project need a designer?" I think you can have people designing who are not with the title "designer" who are working on a project. I mean, if a developer's making smart decisions on what the screen should look like, they're designing, but they don't have the title of designer. And I think in a lot of smaller projects, it's possible you won't have a project manager.

Brett: I don't think you necessarily need the role. Not every project is long enough or requires the role on a project. Larger projects absolutely do. Smaller projects, maybe not. If it's something that can be done quickly and you've got a couple of people working on a project who can tend to manage their own tasks and deadlines, then it's fine and they should absolutely jump in and not add that overhead.

If I'm thinking back on projects that I've been on where I think I'm not needed here, they're usually faster in nature. So something that needs to be done in a week or less that doesn't really have a lot going on. There aren't many people to kind of wrangle, there aren't a lot of deadlines to figure out. People can kind of really focus on just getting a task done.

When I think about a larger project, I think of something that's anywhere from a few months to a few years that can be really large in scope. So maybe if we're talking about a website redesign, it's a nuts to bolts kind of thing where you're starting with research, you're doing all of your UX design, you're doing graphic design, front and back end development, content, a lot of moving parts. I think that does require somebody to kind of be at the head of the project just to facilitate and make sure things are happening on time and in the right way, and people are happy and communicating, and all of that.

I don't think that you can necessarily say, "This project needs a PM, this project doesn't." I think it really depends on the people who are working on the project and their skill sets, and how comfortable they are taking on the aspects of the role.

Jared: To some extent, a project manager is a leader in the group. People are following them. I love what he says there about being comfortable taking on aspects of the role, because this is the same thing we hear in designers. Right? You don't have to have the title "designer" on a project to be able to take on aspects of that role.

So it makes perfect sense to me that, as a project manager, you don't have to have that title to take on aspects of that role. You just need to know what the skills are, you need to know what you're supposed to do, and you become, in that moment, a leader of the team that's helping them move the project forward by making sure all the plates are spinning all the time.

Adam: How comfortable do you have to be with some of those skills?

Jared: Well, that's a good question. Right? I mean, what does Brett think the big skills are that really drive what a good project manager is?

Brett: I would say that the biggest are, one, people always have problems with communications. And I always say that communications is 95% of project management. If you're a good communicator, you're transparent, you're honest, you're open about challenges that the project could be facing or issues when it comes to scope. You're going to work with the team to figure those things out quickly.

Jared: I think this is one of the things that project management and design have in common, because he says 95% of project management is communication. 95%, or at least 92 3/4% of design is definitely communication. Right? You're trying to share your ideas, you're trying to show people what you're going to build, you're going to try and create something that is adopted by the group. You've got to communicate all those ideas. You've got to find out from users, you've got to find out from your stakeholders. It's all communication.

So this makes complete sense to me, that a designer could be a great project manager. That someone who's doing design could do great project management, because communication is such a big part of what's going on there.

Adam: And as a good communicator, it plays such a big role in other parts of project management. So, an example is scope. Right? If you're a good communicator, you can work with the team to figure that piece out. Brett sort of rounded out those top three challenges of a typical project manager as communication, estimating, and planning.

And estimating and planning ... One of the things he said he runs into quite a bit is people just immediately say they're bad at those aspects of projects.

Brett: There's definitely a chapter about how to create estimates, which includes why to create estimates. And sometimes you have to educate your team or your clients on why you should create an estimate and how to do it. Definitely talking about creating project plans and how you should create them. I give some best practices for creating them and best practices for looping in a team to make sure that a plan is created collaboratively so that everyone's on board with how you'll work.

I also think that another challenge that I didn't bring up that seems to come up pretty often is staffing, or resourcing, which is a term that I don't really love. But managing the resources on your team, making sure that people aren't completely overbooked because they've got too many projects they're working on is a challenge that a lot of companies face. And I think once you can get a handle on that and you understand just how much capacity your team has, it kind of balances things out. It makes people happier. It also makes the work product a little bit better.

Jared: What I'm hearing here is that project management is pretty much communication and estimation and managing resources. And that those skills are really just add on skills to the skills that designers already have when they're delivering great designs. And that really what we're talking about here is building up the stack, not necessarily doing something completely, radically different than you were doing before. And when a designer moves into a project management role, they're just pulling more tools out of their toolbox. But they're just different tools, tools they've never used before.

Brett: At the core is a project plan of some sort. So if you're working on an Agile project, you're not going to have a project plan, per se. But on a more traditional or kind of hybrid project, you'd definitely have some kind of plan that shows how you're starting, what the steps are, what the timing is around it, and what the deadline's going to be. So that's a big one. You've got to have some kind of platform for communication. So, whether that's email or a tool like Basecamp or Slack, how you communicate with a team, how you deliver messages, and how you interact is pretty important.

Then there are things mentioned before, like resourcing. So there are tools that can help you to manage that time and manage the work that people are taking on. Then on top of that there's just kind of this idea of a methodology. Are you subscribing to an Agile methodology? Are you adhering to the ceremonies or meetings that are a part of that methodology? Or are you kind of rolling your own thing? Are you doing your own thing and ... stand up meetings and status reports and check-ins. How do you work? That's a big part of the toolkit that isn't necessarily a tool, per se, but is important to doing a good job and keeping communications flowing.

Jared: I think this comes back to the fact that the tools that a project manager uses and the tools that a designer use are really not that different. Right? In his book, he talks about RACI charts. Those are like personas. Gantt timelines are not that far off from journey maps. We're just adapting the tools to new things.

Adam: To the project.

Jared: Yeah.

Adam: Right. So a point that he made ... He said a good project manager doesn't just throw Agile at every project.

Jared: Really?

Adam: Yeah.

Jared: I thought you were supposed to throw Agile at every project? I thought that was the rules?

Adam: Well, to me, it surprised me to hear that. It surprises me to hear that, because I expected if you've bought into Agile, that's the way your organization is moving, it's just what you did. He made an argument for no, a good project manager is going to identify where that's going to work best and maybe where it won't.

Jared: Well, that's funny. Right? Because a good designer doesn't necessarily throw the same design solution at every project just because you're told that's what you have to do. Right? Sometimes it makes sense to design something that doesn't follow the patterns, doesn't follow the design library that you had before. And so suddenly, that's there. Part of good design is knowing when to follow the rules and knowing when to break the rules. So part of good project manager is knowing when to follow the rules and when to break the rules. And it feels like, on a meta level, the things that project manager types do and the things that designer types do are feeling more and more the same. And really it becomes part of just knowing the vocabulary, knowing the tools, knowing how to not feel like you're an imposter all the time because you're doing this thing and it feels right but it's not the thing that you were granted to do through the titling system of your HR department.

Adam: More and more you're just hammering this point that ... We talk about that all the time with UX. It's really not that far off.

Jared: Yeah. I think that where Brett's superpower is at this point is that he's showing me, at least, that what we're doing here is not this completely different thing.

Brett: Project management's good for people who maybe are not as interested in design code or writing, but they are really interested in process and people and helping people, and people who are really good problem solvers. So I've never really had a problem with being underappreciated in the role. I feel like when people start to call out the project manager, that means that the project manager's not doing a good job. They don't say anything about me at all, I've probably done a good job. And in my entire career, I've only been on one project where at the end, someone on the client end said, "The project management on this project was really great." That's always been fine with me. I like working behind the scenes. I like knowing that people can rely on me for things and that I can solve problems or at least get to answers quickly with the help of a team.

Adam: It's disappointing that he tells a story that he's only been involved with one project where somebody made that positive comment about the project management title or skills. But it feels a lot like, Jared, your insistence that good design is invisible.

Jared: It's very similar to this. I agree that it's really disappointing. This is the problem that really good designers have, too. Right? The really great designers, their work becomes invisible, and therefore people are just engaged with the work. They're not thinking, "Oh my gosh, this is awesome design!" And because of that, they don't get the recognition, either. People aren't coming up to them and saying, "That was a really good design. It just worked." Because if you do really good design work, it isn't seen by the laymen. It can only be seen by other designers. Designers can look at that and go, "Wow, I now appreciate the hard work it got there!"

So I think that's actually one of the beauties of having a book like this. The book can help us recognized what the project manager does. They can recognize what good project management is, and they can go to someone who's done that and said, "That was impressive!" Because they can see it now. Just like a good designer can see what another designer does.

Adam: Well, Jared, thanks for the chat. It's another beautiful publication from the folks over at Rosenfeld Media. You can get it anywhere you get fine books, and certainly rosenfeldmedia.com is one where you can get it for sure.

Thanks for listening to another edition of the UIE Book Corner.

The UIE Book Corner is brought to you by UIE's All You Can Learn library. It contains over 300 UX seminars by experts in all things UX design. And we’re adding new content every few weeks, including our virtual seminars and conference featured talks. It’s the place to go to watch, listen, and learn from the world’s best UX experts