DPM UK 2015 – Creating space for individuals

On 29th January, four of the White October Project Management team went to Manchester for a conference about digital project management. Sounds quite dry doesn’t it?

It wasn’t. The topics varied from introverts and extroverts, artificial intelligence and chaos monkey management. There were tales of crying in the company bathroom, cage fighting and Kevin Bacon. Much of the day focused on communication, empathy and dealing with the most complex parts of any project to understand – humans.

The first speaker was Sam Barnes (@thesambarnes), with “People are Weird. I’m Weird”. Sam talked about introversion and extroversion, and how working to build a team should focus on the individuals rather than just the work. The team should work together to figure out what the team should be and what they believe in, to motivate and inspire individuals to contribute.

As project managers, sometimes we will encounter “chaos monkeys” – the mavericks, the self-proclaimed superheroes, the people who may not even realise the pain they are causing the rest of the team. As PMs we have to ask why – why is the chaos monkey behaving a certain way? Why don’t people fit neatly into a perfectly planned project? And why do they see things differently to you, the PM. The most powerful message from Sam was “don’t use yourself as the benchmark for normal” when trying to figure these things out – people are weird, you’re weird too.

The next speaker, Rhodri Coleman, likened being a project manager to being a cage fighter, something he does outside of work. Rhodri showed a clip from one of his fights where his opponent held him in a headlock for 45 seconds, and said that this felt like project management, when a client has backed you into a corner. He also used the term “war room” (as favoured by Google) to describe the office space for specific projects, and when the first lightning talk by Suze Haworth followed up with “knowing your enemy”, I felt slightly uneasy – if you feel as though you are fighting against your clients, are you doing it right?
The lightning talk of my colleague Stephen Thomas (@dubaussi) came next – I’ve never attended a conference where someone I knew personally was speaking. Now I know you’re going to think I’m biased, and I probably am – but quite frankly, Stephen rocked the house.

Stephen Thomas at DPM UK 2015

His energy on stage roused the audience from a pre-lunch snooze, and really made people sit up and take notice. Twitter was awash with interest around Stephen’s Price-Per-Point talk, and it seemed to make sense to a lot of people because it is so straightforward to understand, and shares project risk between agency and client. I think a few more agencies will be trying what they learned from Stephen (especially if this blog post is anything to go by).

There are no old roads to new directions

Post-lunch, a Q&A panel set up on stage. Conference compere Brett Harned (@brettharned) had done a marvellous job getting the day back on track after starting slightly late (why do so many projects start by playing catch up? That’s another post!), and he did a great job presenting the questions and keeping the conversation flowing.

The panel (Sam Barnes, Helen Holmes, Suze Haworth and Meghan Wilker) exposed some gems of wisdom, as well as stories of train-wreck projects (and how they were mostly salvaged). Again much of the focus was on people – we’re all humans trying to do our best. Sometimes we mess up. Admit it, deal with it, move on.

Meri Williams (@Geek_Manager) spoke about “Stealing PM lessons from Artificial Intelligence”. As PMs we should be enabling agents (developers and designers) to make decisions and act independently while working towards a common goal, leading to complex successful actions. Meri believes the key motivators for people are:

  • purpose (do I believe in WHY?)
  • autonomy (do I get a say in WHAT?)
  • mastery (am I proud of HOW?)
  • inclusion (do I fit in here?)

We must be constantly refining and reviewing our performance as PMs via retrospectives, inspection and adaptation. Meri mentioned the theory of 10,000 hours of practice commonly talked about as a sporting model, which led to a question forming in my brain – what is the PM equivalent of the driving range? The answer – deliberate practice of micro skills, such as running efficient meetings, as well as constant attention to improvement.


The closing keynote from Clockwork Media’s Nancy Lyons (@nylons) and Meghan Wilker (@irishgirl) was funny, forthright and focused on people. Your people make your products. Your people determine whether your project succeeds or fails. Empathy, intuition and instinct are a project manager’s tools. Bravery, taking risks, building consensus and making mistakes are part of the job. Being invisible is the aim of the game. Project management is fundamentally a leadership role, and a lot like air quality – if you can see it, it’s probably killing you.

Whether accidental or curated, the overriding themes of the day were empathy and communication, and empowering the team to get the job done. Our job as PMs is to create the space for people to be the best they can be.


Speaker slides from DPM UK 2015 available here

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