January 23rd 2020
At SuperHi, we teach creatives all kinds of digital technical skills from coding to branding, Shopify theme development to user experience design. Last September, we launched our Digital Project Management course, led by the lovely people at Louder Than Ten. We think of this course as our first foray into a full-stop hybrid course, teaching a beautiful blend of soft and hard skills that act as a touchstone for all kinds of effective work, whether you work for a team or yourself. Here's why we think anyone can take this course (because that's who we made it for), and why, in 2020, practically everyone is a project manager.
Two weeks before the course was set to launch, and a couple of weeks after I started at SuperHi, our product manager messaged me on Slack: We have a favour to ask. My answer, before even knowing what said favour was: of course, yes. Who would say no? The magnitude of excitement to perform said favour may vary, of course, until after the favour was revealed. But I was in!
A week later, I took the skytrain (Vancouver-speak for subway/transit) down to Louder Than Ten’s Gastown studio to help record a demo for the course. During an evening of pretending to be Avery on the other end of a scoping exercise - with the intermittent noise of sirens, trucks and a seagull as our backdrop, I learned that even though it hadn’t been my job title, I had accidentally landed into the world of project management and been doing it for a couple years. I mean, I knew that I managed people and projects, but I had no awareness or experience of the discipline. There I was, just feeling and failing my way through.
Within minutes, I had learned a technique to estimate timelines by harnessing what we know about human psychology, in a method known as 90th percentile estimation. It’s based on a series of questions you can ask to get a more accurate and almost fail-proof timeline estimation. I loved how something that I knew and witnessed at work (changing timelines) had a PM-speak solution. Mind blown.
And there, I graduated from wannabe to expert project manager. Nope, not so fast. Not even close. It takes way more than ten minutes to get good, but I wondered how much further I could’ve taken my team with my accidental role if I had a few methodologies and tools under my belt, or at least known that this was what I was doing, and why it was so important.
My story of accidental project management
Up to this point in my career, I had done many things without a title (as is the nature of startup departments within fast growing companies); my job titles had never fully matched my day-to-day work. My team also operated very differently from other traditional customer support teams, but I had just been so used to contribution and supporting growth, as is crucial on micro teams, that not using the brains and ears of people who had them just felt like a waste of talent, and a detriment to a world where it seemed that engagement and creativity were more important measures of success than speed and even quality.
So instead of a flat hierarchical structure where customer support agents, now at scale on social media, came in, clocked their time and just did the work, they became important voices too. In some cases, they became contributors and leads themselves on various projects that needed to happen so that we could build a successful, agile team at the forefront of crisis management, brand and technical support - all the while balancing the needs of our customers, our internal stakeholders and our company at large.
But, the more projects and voices we had, the more difficult things got: to know what was going on, to align everyone, and to move forward with all of us happy and all moving parts considered. I continued forward, scrappily trying to herd our team to get (the right) things done.
Complexity is the world we live in
We could no longer be a team made up of siloed projects, clashing and stepping over, under, in circles. I’d dig up a project and metaphorically un-dust it, only to realize that its brilliance was lost because of a promotion, or lack of follow-through. Tension bubbled, and it became common to placate frustrations when there wasn’t enough transparency and the constant pace of change felt fragile, not reasonable. I had to learn things like change management. I started reading HBR. I went to company-led leadership workshops.
There was also the case of TMI in complex organizations. I spent a lot of time thinking about this problem.
We did a lot right: on this team, I saw the value of experimental projects, of empowering teams, of being prepared, of being data-informed. And we communicated often. But it was obvious that not learning how to navigate the complexity of modern work was the challenge we needed to overcome to break into our next phase successfully, and keep people healthy and happy.
Cross-functional work is becoming the default
Our team challenges coincided with the same challenge, at scale, at the rest of our much larger company. Someone - probably many of us - realized that what we were doing needed to change and we needed everyone, regardless of their title, to be an effective project manager. As teams started to work cross-functionally as a default rather than as a rarity, having the right process was key. And if there was just one person who didn’t get it, it would create a ripple of misalignment and the whole system would fail.
If we look outside of the traditional office, it’s the exact same parallel: the rise of the gig economy means more projects to run, more people to work with, more diversity and exponentially more ways things could go wrong. Digitization and democratization means more opportunity and also more noise, which means agility is key. Cross-functional thinking is mandatory, however you work.
Digital project management skills will only continue to rise in demand and importance; we’re not slowing down.
My story isn’t unique - many of us are or will become project managers
This is the position many of us will find ourselves in, whatever kind of work we do. We entered this world somewhat recently, and we have the rapid digitization of world to thank/blame.
It doesn’t matter much that you can do your job well, fast, fastest. It doesn’t matter much if you’re the smartest. And it doesn’t matter much if you have the best ideas, even. It matters that you’re working on the right things, that you know how to get them to the finish line, and that the work you do helps other people around you work on the right things too.
In an increasingly fast-paced world, project management is the craft and discipline that gets us from here to next.
After we finished recording the demo we needed for the course, we walked across the street and filled ourselves with toro and miso soup. We got to talking about the future of work. I was curious as I listened to Rachel (our Digital Project Management course instructor and co-founder of Louder Than Ten), trying to connect the dots around how and why she built her career around teaching project management. She asked me questions about me and who I wanted to be, what I wanted to do, where I thought we were headed towards. A lens started to emerge: an aptitude and fascination for organizing ideas, a longing to understand where we’re going and to enable and empower that path. She was a philosopher, a systems-thinker, an ideas and people person, a creative, someone who saw that project management was a craft designed not just to weather the chaos, but to create order and magic out of it.
We talked about how the 40 hour work week feels like an outdated model inherited from the industrial era, where input = output. You put in x hours, you get a fairly predictable y result. You can also measure performance by how someone stacks up to a target of y. Important business decisions - such as how many people to hire - use variations of this input/output model. Today, the world is a lot more complex and that equation is antiquated.
Forecasting isn’t simple math. It could take someone anywhere from an hour to months to do something that changes everything. One new automation could completely turn that math, and an entire workforce, on its head.
What does it take to get “better”?
I first learned of the term 10x when I entered the world of tech; it was a part of our training and cultural values, bestowed upon each new hire and continuously ingrained by our CEO and managers as a promise of professional growth. We often said that 1 year there was like 10 years of professional growth elsewhere. I loved the idea, that there was this environment where in all likelihood, I would not fall into stagnancy.
For those unfamiliar with the term: 10x first originated in Frederick Brooks’ book, The Mythical Man-Month, a tome on software engineering and project management written in 1995 to describe someone who is so exceptional at what they do that their productivity can be measured as an output of 5-10x that of a regular programmer. Later on, the concept was popularized among marketers and entrepreneurs in Grant Cardone’s The 10x Rule.
At first, the concept of 10x seems strange and perhaps even a bit off-putting, especially in the world of programming where those new to the field are battling imposter syndrome - to add to that the pressure of measuring up to not just being good and not even just great but 10x better than, it’s not very welcoming and perpetuates stereotypes of the supernerd programmer, hacking away in the dark, emerging with a world-changing algorithm.
In Coders, author Clive Thompson investigates and comes to the conclusion that, in fact, that seemingly arbitrary 10x number was in fact, probably true. But how were they that much better at programming, exactly?
He asks Marc Andreessen, cofounder of Netscape: The 10Xers he has known also tend to be “systems thinkers,” insatiably curious about every part of the technology stack, from the way currents flow in computer processors to the latency of touchscreen button presses… “It’s some combination of curiosity, drive, and the need to understand. They find it intolerable if they don’t understand some part of how the system works.”
Marc, however, then goes on to mention that most 10x coders love startups. Once they get into teams and companies, sometimes they find they can’t operate quite the same in that world because there’s a whole new world of complexity to deal with.
Project management is a “10x” skill
Even at a 10x company, at times, I felt like I wasn’t growing, or that my growth was so tiny that it was imperceptible. But in the timeline of a year, 3 years, seeing it all add up, I saw that what James Clear writes about in Atomic Habits: it seems that growth, in mathematical terms, is more exponential than it is linear. 1% better each day for 365 days leads to a difference of 37x at the end of a year.
Wow, 37x, that’s even better than 10x! 1% better each day isn’t a lot - in fact, it probably feels like nothing.
So we need to think outside the box of linear growth when asking the question: how do I work better?
It changed things when I realized: 10x growth, 10x impact, when I’ve seen it happen, wasn’t about 10x time or 10x output, just like it wasn’t for 10x coders. It wasn’t because I honed my skills 10x. Maybe 2, 3x if I’m being generous and looking to quantify things, but 10x? No way. You may be at a similar place in your career, wondering how much better you can get at your discipline, how much further you can go, if there’s something you could be doing better.
There’s always room to improve no matter what your discipline is, but if you think about the teams and people who are doing respectable and interesting things in their fields, are they really that much “better” than everyone else? How do you even define “better” in a world where everyone has their niche, their tastes, their market and their own, unique je ne sais quoi? It becomes a challenge to measure things on a linear scale. And if it can’t be measured, how do we get better?
Instead of clear and definite statements (because that’s no longer the world we live in), these are the things successful and effective teams and people might have in common:
- they’re good at being agile and embracing change
- they can assess risk and impact on a macro scale
- they can scope, prioritize and balance projects to get them done and shipped
- they work well with other people
- and! they manage their energy and time so they can do all that without burning out
All those things? That’s project management.
People and process skills are the skills of the future
Project management is the beautiful, connective blend of soft and hard skills emerging as the companion and usher role to our beautiful, new, complex world, and we need people who are experts to take us there. Project managers - whether by title or necessity - are the glue that keeps the ship running and steered in the right direction. Without effective project management, we all become a part of the noise: fragmented sources of busywork trying to 10x ourselves, not realizing the key lies in people and workflow, not just in getting better at what you do.
Whatever it is you do, there are tools, systems, methodologies and best practices that, once you understand, will help you do better work, period. Learning project management as a craft could also mean becoming a more valuable and empathetic team member, or kickstarting a path towards the new blended roles of the rising creative class, many of which require project management skills and the leadership roles it tends to correlate with.
So hello, you. Yes, you! If you want to help your team, yourself, or your company work better, faster and healthier (and all around happier - I mean, who doesn’t want that?), you’re already thinking like a project manager.
Want to learn the skills it takes to manage projects effectively? Join SuperHi’s course on Digital Project Management, led by Louder Than Ten. Stay tuned for the rest of our mini series in digital project management, as we dive deeper into modern project management. Next up: we talk about meetings, project management to skill up your learning, and then we ask a few project managers about their careers and what they do. We finish with a brand new season of our advice column for creatives: this time we’re calling Rachel in to answer your career and PM questions in Ask a Project Manager. Submit your questions here.