6 min read

SXSW Core Conversation Wrap-up

I'm sitting in my hotel room in Austin the day after Pamela Villacorta and I moderated our core conversation "Project Management for Humans (No Robots Allowed)" at SXSW Interactive 2011. I'm still in awe of the number of people who attended the session. This is a good thing. People want to talk about how to manage projects, and do it well. I'm going to do a recap of the session here just to provide the framework of what was discussed. Unfortunately I don't have all of the Q&A, but we hit some great dialogue. I feel like I've got enough fodder for at least 10 more blog posts. Also a good thing. So let's get to it then.  

The Format
Our session was an hour-long. We were unable to use any audio/visual (SXSW mandate for core conversations), so we went without a formal keynote with slides. The purpose of a core conversation is to generate useful dialogue around your topic. But what if no one comes prepared to talk? That is all we could think about. So, as project managers do, we planned it out very tightly. We managed to break the no visual aide rule, if only slightly, by setting an agenda and using a large easel post-it from the session. We took topics/questions from the audience to get a sense for what everyone wanted to discuss, but also set up a short exercise to get the room thinking about a project approach at a very high level. From there, we set up 4 topics to discuss, which generated conversation. After we got through those topics, we went back to some questions that we didn't get to. It ended with great conversation that could have lasted much longer. I'm still elated.

What People Wanted to Discuss
Here is a list of items the audience wanted to cover:

  • managing clients
  • key deliverables
  • small vs. large agency experiences
  • software/tools used in PM
  • managing management
  • managing remote teams
  • handling the relationship between account and PM
  • how content fits in your process
  • change control management
  • ownership and the role of the brief
  • management of different types of projects
  • instilling communication skills

Unfortunately, we were not able to cover all of these topics, but I am going to make it my goal to cover them all in future posts. And if you were one of the folks who did ask one of these questions, please feel free to reach out to me directly. I'd love to keep the discussion going.

The Exercise
We wanted to get the room thinking about a project manager's role in terms of starting a new project and collaborating with a project team to formulate a project approach. Here's what the exercise was (This was explained to attendees, and details were written on our post-it board):

"Yay! You just scored a new project. A client you've worked with for a while wants you to add two new page templates to the site you already built for them. So, there is an existing site architecture, site design, templates and CMS, and the client will provide all new site copy and assets. That means you need to work out the changes or additions to the IA and design, and of course code the new pages. Here's the thing: they need it done in one week.

Use this sheet of paper to sketch out your project plan. Things to think about are: an overall approach, resources and allocations, time needed to execute work, delivery dates, client reviews. We know there are a lot of assumptions you'll have to make. It's all a part of a project manager's job. Get to it!

You've got until the song ends to work out your plan. Do what makes you comfortable: sketch, list deliverables, build a calendar, whatever. When times is up, we'll ask for two volunteers to present plans. We've got prizes for our volunteers, so get creative."

The idea here was not to make the audience come up with a full plan, but more to think about how a team operates at any given organization. We knew that there were several assumptions to be made, that the situation was not ideal, the time allotted was not enough, and that the actual type of work might not apply to everyone. What we wanted was for people to think fast and think critically to solve a problem, and use the sketch or plan as a jumping off point for discussion.

Our two volunteers came up with slightly different approaches and generated discussion around the initial project planning time, the idea of whether or not the work could actually be accomplished, and about how we all approach task planning. I'm still deciding on what I thought of the exercise. It's not one that I've done in the past, so it was new to me. I liked the different perspectives we received, and how it generated further conversation. I think I'd like to try it again, but maybe in a longer format with more directed discussion. Let me know what you thought (or think if you're just reading this recap). I'd love some feedback. I know I can always do better. Also, for those of you who asked for a copy of my notes...voila!

Our "Slides"
I'm just going to recap the points that Pamela and I made. There was a lot of follow-up conversation around these points. In retrospect I wish I had recorded the session. I'm just not a fan of seeing or hearing myself on film. I don't really need to re-live my bad jokes. Anyway, here are the slides:

1. Tools Don't Matter
You can pull together an approach with a sketch on paper, if you are comfortable with that. It's important to get your team's buy-in before moving a plan in to the tool of your choice. That is, unless you are comfortable with re-editing plans. That is just my opinion, and how I work. I like to nail the big picture process and then hammer out the details in my project planning software. To me, the tools you use are just that: they help you facilitate the work. They need to work for you, not vice versa. At Happy Cog, we use Omniplan for project planning, Harvest for time tracking and Basecamp for internal and client communications.

2. There is No One Perfect Project Approach
At the end of the day, you need to approach your projects in a way that will work for your team and your clients. Things to consider here are: methodology (sort of surprised that we didn't get in to more debate on waterfall vs. agile. Maybe all of us web PMs realize that we need to just adapt those methodologies?), budget, time, resources and client needs.

3. Set and Manage Expectations
It's double-sided. On one hand, you need to educate your clients on how you work and let them know what's realistic based on your time constraints and scope. On the other, you need to make sure your team will stick to the budget. The most simple way I handle this is through communications: send an email to your team and let them know where they stand with budgets for given tasks (You can't spend 80 hours on a design. We have 20 hours. Make it work.). And get to know your clients. Do they need to be educated before reviewing deliverables? If they do, work with your team to work that in to their presentations. It will make things run much more smoothly.

4. Learn From Mistakes
Project managers need to be honest with themselves and their teams. We all make mistakes and it's okay! Use bi-weekly project retrospectives and post mortem meetings to address issues and foster change where needed. It may seem "bloated" but making the time to adjust how you do things will really improve the way you do business, and your clients' overall happiness (as well as your team's, as long as you're all in agreement).

Keep the Conversation Going!
I was really happy with the session. If anything, I wished we had more time. But, oh, we do. We're doing a Web PM meet up tonight while we're all still in Austin. I hope that the folks who had more questions or comments can come to the meet up tonight at 6pm in the Liberty Lounge at the Hilton Austin. But if you left early last night and did not walk the robot out, you will be asked to do it tonight. No joke.

Oh, and join twitter. So many attendees were unfamiliar with twitter. Jump in to the conversation and follow these hashtags: #webpm #PMOT and #PM. You'll find so many amazing resources out there: blogs, podcasts, books, conferences, etc. And you'll make friends along the way. I know I have.

Thanks to everyone who joined or just read along. There are more exciting things coming for WebPMs. Leave a comment or contact me if you have any feedback or questions.