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MD Voices: Unveiling the Insights and Wisdom of Project and Delivery Managers - A Journey of Experience, Advice, and Community

At Manchester Digital, we like to conduct interviews with our members to delve deeper into their areas of passion within the dynamic digital and technology landscape of Greater Manchester.  This week we're speaking with Jon Rhodes, Co Founder at Paper.

What initially motivated you to start this interview series focused on delivery and project managers? Why did you think it would be valuable to gain their perspectives?

I really enjoy reading about people working in the delivery management and project management space. I’ve been working in this area for 17 years now and like to learn from others. I’d often search for articles, come across long-form posts and bookmark to read when I had more time. What I wanted was something that would take a few minutes to read, to enjoy there and then and hopefully to learn from.

So I thought I’d have a go at creating and curating something myself. I wrote a message, made a quick visual and posted it on LinkedIn.

“So I’ve had an idea that I’m going to try over the next few months. I’d like to speak with people working in project and delivery careers at any stage of their career and from any industry. I’m going to ask the same questions to each person. They’re the sort of things that I’d love to learn about from others, and I think others might be interested too.”

I hoped a handful of people might reply, but the post really took off; notifications coming through every couple of minutes. It’s by far the most popular thing I’ve ever posted with over 100 comments so far. It seemed like I’d hit a sweet spot and people seemed genuinely interested to take part.

My initial idea was to do interviews with everyone but with the number of people interested in taking part I changed it to a simple, individual document that people complete in their own time. I offer everyone a choice of a 15 minute call before an article is published, so say hello and thanks. It’s entirely optional, but everyone has accepted so far. Part of the idea was to meet new people in the industry and 39 short video calls to date has been a huge highlight.

There’s a complete list of published articles collated for easy consumption, it’s well worth a look.

Were there any key insights or themes that emerged across multiple interviews? Could you share an example?

I’ve learnt loads from each article but there are two main things that stand out for me from the articles published to date and those being scheduled.

First is that people tend to land into the role of a delivery manager or project manager; it’s not a job that anyone dreams of from a young age. People move, navigate, drift, land or drop into the role from recognition that they have some skills or traits that suit the role.

That’s certainly the case for me too. In early 2007 I was working for an elearning company and my then line manager mentioned an opening for a project manager role and suggested I apply for it. He saw that I was organised, calm, good with people and took things in my stride. A lot of the stories of people being published echo this.

Secondly is the overwhelming focus on people; team members, users, customers, stakeholders, suppliers. It’s lovely to see this in spades, a deep rooted focus on people. I love this. The industries we’re delivering and managing projects for is important, as are the tools, techniques and methods we choose to use, but doing our best to make sure the wider team - whether they're involved for just a few minutes each week or every day - is really crucial.

I could have quoted something from every article but chose just one that summaries my thoughts beautifully.

“If you can understand what people need, and consider what is influencing them, you can usually offer some type of help. Most of the complexity in the work we do involves people, so focus on skills that enable you to have constructive interactions and take actions that have a positive impact on the people around you.”

If you could sum up the biggest takeaway the community should know from these interviews, what would it be?

At the time of writing this there are 40 articles available to read, so there’s about 3 hours of reading material.

People have varying levels of experience now, everyone started from broadly the same place and just started doing.

If any project or delivery manager reading this would like to contribute themselves to message me on LinkedIn.

That it’s nice to see LinkedIn being used in a supportive way, without even a hint of a 4.30am start or a turmeric latte.

Did anything challenge your assumptions or give you a different perspective on delivery or project management?

My assumptions haven’t been challenged, but I have learnt something from every single person. The whole experience has backed up what I thought and hoped; that there is a collection of kind, open, friendly, considerate people doing the same work, that are willing to give up their time to share  words and experience with others.

Yes, we do it for different organisations, some of us are employed, some freelancing, some running a business, but the thing we’re aiming to do is broadly the same.

It’s been a heartwarming experience to be part of. I’m grateful for every single person that has contributed by writing an article, adding a like, comment or repost and those that have just read and enjoyed something.

What advice resonated most across these interviews that you think could benefit delivery managers and project managers starting out in their careers?

I struggled with this given the volume of advice across the articles; it’s vast. So I asked for some help and copied all the responses to the question What advice would you give someone starting out in the industry? and asked a known online robot tool to summarise the top five bits of advice. I didn’t recognise the response. It sounded bland and certainly not like anything I’d write, so I ditched it.

I’ve pulled out five bits of advice that when I read for the first time they lodged in my head. I chose not to name the individuals as I don’t want to single out just a few from so much excellent advice that people have shared.

“Embrace the fact that your greatest strengths are what many people still refer to as ‘soft skills’. For a long time there's been a rhetoric around ‘soft skills’ that they’re in some way nice-to-have or secondary to much ‘harder’ technical expertise when, in reality, not everybody is great at those things. When I stopped worrying that I didn’t have a more conventional specialism, I felt much more confident in my place within teams and was able to be much better at my job.”

“Listen and learn. It’s daunting to be new in a space that has so much expertise mixed with a lot of complexity, and sometimes this can lead us to seek validation as a form of assurance. However, I think a lot of people who are just getting started end up falling into the trap of trying to apply theory without context. Most of the time the best way to serve a team is to observe and discover what they truly need rather than jumping in with a framework or a tool. Taking your time to become a trusted advisor is essential to true success.“

“Accept that most problems and challenges you encounter will be people problems. Learn about listening, a lot. Learn about empathy and different coaching styles. Learn to accept that you will meet teams and organisations at different stages of their journey and you cannot simply tell them how to think. Learn that there are many ways to work with agile, do not become dogmatic with one framework. Learn to look after yourself mentally; it can be challenging to always care about other people and want to see them succeed.”

“Build strong relationships with both your immediate and wider business teams. Delivery is all about collaboration, visibility and a clear understanding of the business value wanting to be achieved. Don’t lose sight of that and get lost in the weeds - “focus on the first fence” is a piece of advice I was given. Take it fence by fence with the MVP/product goal always front and centre. Learn from the experience around you, be curious, ask questions and grab opportunities to grow with both hands.”

“You need to love people; understand what motivates and inspires them so you can support them to do their best work possible. While I’d say you don’t need qualifications in this area, a high level of emotional intelligence, resilience and active listening skills for working with teams & stakeholders is key. I’d also say you need to get comfortable with challenging people when it comes to decisions and unblocking impediments that impact your team and the delivery goal. You need to be very adaptable and enjoy problem solving. I would suggest finding reading materials and resources about project methodologies, delivery management or similar. Reach out to other delivery / project managers in the industry and use Linkedin as a networking tool.”

Thank you Jon!

To find out more about Paper click here.

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