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Critical Project Management Decisions for Agency Owners with Ben Aston

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Ben Aston is a serial entrepreneur with plenty of project management chops. For one thing, he’s used The Digital Project Manager to provide mountains of information to people on this very important, very useful subject. He’s also the founder of Black & White Zebra, a digital media publishing company based in Vancouver that runs a community for project managers and digital marketers.

Project management can be the bane of many an agency. Figuring out how to get a handle on it so that all client work gets delivered and delivered well can be a challenge. If you’ve been struggling to find a system that works well for your company, then tune in to today’s podcast.

The highlights:

  • [1:40] Why Ben built The Digital Project Manager.
  • [2:42] Skills for effective project management.
  • [4:03] The right time to bring on a project manager to your agency.
  • [6:48] Choosing the appropriate project management styles.
  • [9:36] The benefits of choosing a niche.
  • [11:07] A common project management mistake.
  • [16:20] Community building.
  • [20:23] Ben’s cause.  

The insights:

Why Ben Aston built The Digital Project Manager

Ben built The Digital Project Manager because he, himself, struggled when he first started working as a Digital Project Manager.

“As a relatively new profession in the digital world, project management was probably one of the last things that everyone cottoned on that they needed.”
digital project manager

The Digital Project Manager includes training, blog posts, How-To Guides, classes, a podcast, and more.

“When I first started as a digital project manager I was actually called a Producer,” Ben remembers. “And I came from the world of account management. I was told, hey, this Producer role is kind of the same thing. It turns out it’s not the same thing at all, so my first day in digital project management was a very painful one.

In fact, the first few years of my career as a digital project manager were pretty painful.”

So? Ben decided to spare others that pain.

“I thought: now that I’ve begun to learn some things, I want to share this knowledge and share that with other people.”

Skills for effective project management

Ben says there are a mix of skills that are required to be good at digital project management.

“There are account management skills, in that we’re trying to understand a client, their brand, and their strategic objectives, but when I think about digital project management, it’s all about delivering better.”

When Ben says “delivering better” he means improving the way that agencies deliver value.

“The way that we deliver better value is in shorter cycles, for less money, with a better quality of product.”

Ben urges project managers to always be thinking about how they can improve the value the agency is delivering for the client so that the agency gets to retain that relationship.

“We’re not just selling stuff because we can, but we’re also being good guardians of people’s time, resources, and money so they’re more effective at what they’re trying to do, too.”

The right time to bring on a project manager

It can be difficult for a growing agency to try to figure out when it’s time to bring in a project manager. Ben has a few thoughts.

“Once you get past that five-people kind of stage, I think we start having some challenges with the role of new business and managing those projects effectively.

The CEO or the founder will start selling in projects, and they’re not actually managing the delivery of them. I would say between five and ten people, it’s really worth thinking about.”

Hiring a dedicated project manager at that stage allows the agency to be consistent in the way they deliver to clients.

It also helps agencies estimate projects better, helps them manage clients better, and helps them grow.

“Rather than saying ‘yes’, all the time, to clients, which we’re often tempted to do, we begin to understand: can we deliver things? We begin to understand how much things should cost. We begin to define, a bit more, what’s in scope and what’s out of scope. As we begin to do that, we become more effective at delivering, and we become that much more profitable too.”

Navigating project management styles for your agency

Ben says you should adopt the project management style that provides the most predictability.

Agencies who are very specialized at certain things and who have “productized” their service offering might do well with a Kanban-style approach.

“”What we have is a factory, and we’re producing things. There’s a backlog of things we’re trying to get through and we’re trying to minimize the amount of things we have going on at the same time, so we increase the throughput.”
project management timeline

“Where the objectives are a bit more ambiguous, when there’s a bit of uncertainty about what we’re delivering, or understand why we’re delivering but we’re not sure what the actual outputs could be, there’s a more sprint-based approach using an agile methodology to iterate on something over time.”
Ben stresses this depends on what the client is, and what their needs are.
“When there are lots of stakeholders involved, and they want to know exactly how much things are going to cost, a waterfall approach might make a lot of sense.”
For a discussion of Agile methodologies vs. waterfall methodologies, check out this blog post from The Digital Project Manager.
“It depends on the client. It depends on their budget. How much they want to be involved in the project. Their appetite for risk. How certain the project. Whether or not we know what we’re trying to deliver or not.”

A project-based management style for early-stage agencies

Ben stresses that having to try to choose these project management methodologies on a case-by-case basis isn’t exactly what he’d call an ideal scenario.

“The ideal scenario is you decide as an agency: this is what we do. And yeah. We have a productized service offering.”

He recommends niching down so you can optimize your process better.

“This is where you start generating efficiencies. As you’re pivoting your approach on a case-by-case basis, that’s an expensive thing to do. Trying to educate your team on that is very, very difficult.”

Common project management mistakes

Time…and a failure to track it.

“Culturally, it feels like [tracking time] is [tracking] the wrong metric.”

He notes that small agencies, especially, feel like it should be about the quality of the work, not how many hours people work. Yet it’s not about evaluating employees based on the time something takes.

“It’s about having data. In order for us to create accurate estimates, and deploy our team effectively, we need to know how long things take. We can’t know how long they take unless we analyze that data, and we need the data to be able to analyze it.”

This allows you to begin creating estimates by looking at projects you’ve done in the past.

“We need to understand which phase of the project got delivered on budget and what went over. We need to ask ourselves why that was.”

Ben says that tracking time, and doing it accurately across different parts of the process, is fundamental.

“We’ll find often, with these time tracking tools, it’s linked with resourcing. How we deploy the resources is really important. And then tasks. Who is doing what?”

Ben points out there are some all-in-one tools that do everything for you, including invoices and estimates, but they rely on time data.

He also notes it’s important to find tools that integrate well, that have good APIs with other commonly-used tools.

“You can create the toolkit that works for you. Then you can throw data around from different places.”

Digital community building - the challenges and value

Here, Garrett asked Ben to pivot a moment, and to talk about Black and White Zebra: specifically, Ben’s work in building it into a community.

digital community

Ben admits that community is “a really tricky nut to crack.”

It’s also a powerful nut.

“If you can crack community, then you can do a lot of interesting things with that community.”

Ben says marketers often make mistakes while trying to build them, though.

“We try doing things for a community instead of things with that community. I think we create this community, and we expect people to engage in it, but then we don’t actually engage them in the process enough. We don’t work with them to identify their needs and make sure we’re meeting them.”

Ben says the advantage of doing it this way is that it becomes less necessary to be the expert in everything there.

“Instead, let’s engage the community with that, and get the breadth and the depth of experience that comes from working with a whole bunch of other people, rather than just a really small group.”

Black and White Zebra currently has over 3,000 members.

Ben says that organic interaction had to be engineered.

“Asking people, hey, do you mind just responding to that? Do you mind offering your opinion on that? You can just @people, include them in the conversation. ‘Love to hear your insights on that.’ I think that comes from knowing the community and asking those people to engage.”

What's your right now cause?

The Digital Project Manager offers scholarships, and Ben is excited about using them to help people succeed in the world of Digital Project Management.

“We’re trying to help people get connected, to get skilled, to get better at delivering projects, and to get more confident about it as well.”

They’ve launched scholarships with not-for-profits, for under-represented groups, for new grads, and for veterans.

DPM school scholarships
“We just want to help more people succeed. That’s what gets us out of bed. We offer scholarships for the digital project management school to enable people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford it, to give them the opportunity to get better at management projects. It’s a growing industry. There are stacks of jobs. Get skilled, get connected, get confident, and start doing it.”

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