Overcoming Your Bias Against Project Managers

Bias comes in all forms. Melissa opens up about her experience with bias as a digital project manager.

Project managers? They’re just glorified secretaries, says the senior team member during my new employee training. I was newly out of college, working as a web analyst in a large digital agency, and anxious for my first week of job training. I’d already been warned about the project managers. They will interrupt you with silly questions, make you explain your work or bug you with unnecessary questions.

Several years later, I worked for an agency that housed 50+ male developers and designers on one end of the floor, and the opposite side of the building held about eight very busy females who served as account and project managers for the production teams. One creative director would often give office tours and say: These are our PM ladies. I guess they talk to clients and stuff, but I always just like to look at how good they look. Gross.

I found my own way into project management roles several years into my career. Despite any initial impressions I had of the work, I found project management to be a diverse and challenging role that, when done well, made an enormous positive impact to both the outcome of a project as well as the happiness of the team. Still, I find that bias about this role can often come from production team members. There are lots of reasons this bias can exist; in the end, I do think digital project managers often have a larger burden of proof to establish credibility and build trust as a valuable member of production teams. After all, you’re the enforcer of constraints, communicator of frustrating project decisions, and the one member of the team with more soft skills than shared coding or design ability. It can be a hill to climb, but it is totally worth it to build a great team. Here are a few ways I’ve found help in overcoming the digital project manager bias:

Support Team Goals

Digital project managers often have the responsibility of achieving multiple goals with each client project. They must manage the budget, properly utilize team resources, keep a happy and healthy client relationship, motivate the production team, improve operational processes, look ahead for new work opportunities, and, most importantly, produce a great web experience that delights the end user. The team, though, is almost solely focused on the details of the last goal—making smart and user-friendly technical and design decisions to produce a great product. And it’s the project manager’s job to support them in this goal while juggling the others. If a project manager prioritizes a great product experience, they’ll move out of bean-counter/budget-enforcer territory into a trusted team advocate.

Respect Team Skills

I’ve tried to mostly eliminate Jason Fried’s four letter words from my vocabulary when managing a project because it is usually a sign that I’m underestimating and probably undervaluing the effort a task will take. I’ve cringed in meetings when I heard phrases like, Just get this feature built fast, or It should be easy for you to come up with a much better design than this first round. Statements like those can feel demoralizing and aren’t generally helpful to meeting goals anyway. Understanding and respecting the challenging problems that the team is solving (and serving as a helpful resource in the process) will go a long way toward building trust. 

There are lots of reasons this bias can exist; in the end, I do think digital project managers often have a larger burden of proof to establish credibility and build trust as a valuable member of production teams. After all, you’re the enforcer of constraints, communicator of frustrating project decisions, and the one member of the team with more soft skills than shared coding or design ability.

Expand Beyond Soft Skills

Many designers and developers don’t really understand what a digital project manager does, completely. This is kind of understandable, too, as often the project manager’s role has lots of soft skills that adapt to the needs of the agency/project/client. At Sparkbox, our project managers are required to have a web skill to bring to the team beyond managing projects, which I think makes a big difference. We have project managers helping with content strategy, drafting wireframes, analyzing site data, and writing strategy documents—and they all have at least a basic grasp of the tools and languages we use to build websites and applications. With the abundance of online training for web skills, it has never been easier to learn at least the basics of web design and development.

One way I try to expand beyond my soft skills and also gain a better respect for my team is to build a couple of websites on my own each year (albeit small ones). I find the process invaluable to better understand and appreciate the detailed challenges that other roles on my team face. Plus, I’ve found becoming more familiar with web building skills can inspire more confidence as a digital project manager and also make project managers more valuable to aiding the team to deliver a successful project.

Make Sure You Have a Good Project Manager

Bias toward a certain role can be subtle, or sometimes more blatant like in my opening stories. In either case, I have heard from several designers and developers that they themselves didn’t fully appreciate the role of a digital project manager until they had the opportunity to work with a trusted and helpful one. But once you’ve seen the difference between bad project management and good project management, you realize the huge impact a project manager can have on a project and how valuable the role truly is. It reminds me of positive advice that I once received from a boss during an agency search process: Don’t ever hire an agency without meeting the actual team working on your project. The salespeople are always charming, but the actual team, and especially your point of contact leading the team, will make or break the whole project. Make sure you have a good project manager.

That sounds like a much more accurate pre-conceived idea of the value of a project manager to me. It’s up to project managers to prove that, and our teams to strip away their negative bias and give us the chance.