On project managing

In 2019, I wrote about producing diverse events when I offered Ada’s List to produce their yearly conference. I’ve been acting as project manager for a Superflux project for IKEA and London Project Lead for Library of Things which gives me a chance to sit on a train and think about the last two years of work. I used to earn about 60% of my income from public speaking and when the pandemic hit, I was in the middle of writing Creating a Culture of Innovation which engages a certain kind of skillset I have, but doesn’t pay the bills.

So what to do? I fell back on what I am also very good at which is financial modelling and project management. I didn’t train in it but being a third culture child, an assessor for government funds, running my first business at 25 and hosting the second largest meetup in the world on IoT for 9 years eventually blends into a useful set of skills that are easier to market in a pandemic.

The only character I can think of that embodies the perfect project manager is Mary Poppins. I think a good project manager gets things done as if by magic ie. without involving everyone but the right people at the right time. I also believe it is almost entirely an exercise in information sharing. Knowing who is doing what and when and how that gets shared to the right people is really interesting to me. The subtle use of group calls, email, spreadsheets and chat is a dance that is unique to each business, each project. Too much of any single ingredient can tip the balance over into information overload and mayhem. It’s almost a curatorial exercise. I have found that none of the industry practices are 100% fail proof so I adapt heavily with each project.

Financial modelling is also crucial to project management. Knowing how to make a budget sing is something I’m now pretty good at. Every spreadsheet is a story you’re telling about how money is spent and when. Your budget sets you up for failure or not depending on what happens after, when the actual spend comes in. I wish this was something I’d been taught in design school but instead I learnt with two business failures.

In terms of attitude, again I think of Mary Poppins who was a little strict but very kind. You want to be able to have people come to you with problems. You also want to be able to get people to speed things up when necessary. And so you can never really be too friendly because it would make the first possible but jeopardise the second. It’s not exactly a lonely job, but you have to live in a personal and professional liminal space, especially if you interact with clients with very aggressive requirements. At the end of the day, as the saying goes, it’s not show friends, it’s show business.

The last thing I always remember is ‘no task too small’. I think it’s really easy to just stand back, hold a clipboard and point. But really the project manager is as part of the work as anyone else. I have picked up trash, wielded a broom, held doors open for VIPs, pointed men in suits to where the loos are, crawled under kiosks being installed, stuck stickers on lunch cards as part of those jobs. It’s not important to me whether this is something I should or shouldn’t be doing. It needs to get done. And that’s really key. The project, its deadline, its budget are all bigger than a single person’s individual task and the project manager knows that more than anyone.


By designswarm

Blogging since 2005.