Interview with Brett Harned: Project Management for Humans

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  • When you think of project management, what comes to mind? Overpacked gantt charts? 500 “urgent” emails swarming your inbox? Brett Harned knows a better way to keep projects on track while taking care of people. He’s laid out the approach in his new project management book, Project Management for Humans. I interviewed Brett to get to know the human behind the book.

    Interview Highlights

    Where were you born?

    Mt. Holly, NJ.


    What three words describe your childhood?

    Fun. Active. Adventurous.


    What three things you never leave home without?

    Phone, Wallet, Keys. What else do I really need?


    If we could peek inside your childhood bedroom what would it look like?

    It was always neat and organized. Even my “messes” were tiny. I had a huge stack of CDs that I would reorganized depending on my mood: alpha by artist, by genre, by favorite, or most played. I pinned things to a cork board rather than the walls. And you wonder how I became a project manager.


    When did you first get interested in project management techniques?

    Razorfish recruited me for a role as a PM. When they first reached out I didn’t know what that was! I was an account director with some project management responsibilities, but it wasn’t a formal role. So when they explained what it was, I thought, “Oh…yeah that is totally up my alley.”


    How would you describe project management to a 10-year-old?

    Project management is a practice that helps people to get work done. They create schedules, check in on things, and do anything they can to help.


    Why do I need to know project management if I’m not a project manager?

    Everyone manages their own work in some way. Some people are good at it, others? Not so much. But in order to be a good team mate, freelancer, business owner, account manager, you have to pick up some skills that will help you to move things along and complete projects successfully.


    Some folks have confessed to you they’ve never worked with great project managers. Why is that?

    Well in digital, the role is new and undefined. We’ve always focused on deadlines and budgets, but no one owned them. Now you’ll see PMs on teams, but what their responsibilities can differ from team to team. Some PMs have standards of practice, others don’t. This makes it tough for anyone to be truly good at the job. I want to change that! This book takes a step at defining the role of PM and differentiating it from the way other industries traditionally do it.

    Tell us about a story of a project management fail you’ve had. What happened? What did you learn?

    Where to start? I’ve failed a lot, but have learned a lot every time. One big fail was related to a lack of information sharing and collaboration). I managed a website redesign project where the UX team had designed some really amazing functionality. The client loved it. It tied to their strategy, was forward thinking, and took them in the right direction. So far, so good. Until I learned from my developers that this was completely out of scope.

    I’d failed to make sure the developers had seen and double-checked the wireframes first. So now it was on me to fix it. I was nervous about sharing the bad news with the client. So I prepared to the conversation. I talked with my team and my boss to walk possible scenarios. If he gets upset, what should I do? If he doesn’t like the options I’d present, then what?

    I got on the phone with notes in hand, broke the news, apologized, and told him about the options that might work. Extend the scope (which meant the client pays more), or save the work for a second phase. Or cut scope from another area of the project, or to get his team involved. He was disappointed, but the project ended up doing really well. Most experienced people understand that scope creep happens, and that the best way to address it is head on—and discuss options.


    What’s the biggest deathblow to successful project management?

    Fear. If you’re too nervous or scared to have a conversation, force an issue, or assign a task, you will fail. Try to ignore the issue and you’lljust make the issue worse. Be confident in your own problem solving skills and work with your team to address issues immediately.

    What’s the biggest benefit to successful project management?

    Good project just makes everything else easy. If you provide a level of organization and transparent, timely communication to people on your project, you’ill find the work happens more smoothly. And, if a PM is able to run interference on communications and let the team focus on the work, the team end up being happier and more productive.

    Tell us about a time when a team in chaos was able to turnaround their project and the way it was managed. What happened? How did folks feel in the end?

    I worked on a project at a time when staffing kept changing. People left, were let go, or were reassigned to other projects. That was really taxing on the team—on the people who were on the project from day one, the new people who joined the team, and the clients who were losing trust. It was my job to plan around the changes, and I honestly could not have done it without the help of my team. We had to rework our plans, adjust the way we collaborated, and really just push through to make the client happy. It wasn’t easy, but we did it, and the client was happy in the end.

    What do you recommend doing if members of the team you’re managing are hopelessly disorganized and resistant to changing the ways things have been done?

    Not every solution will work for every team member. You have to be flexible with the way you manage and communicate. But if people are completely resistant, you have to explain to them why organization is important. After they get that, you have to work with them on a solution that makes them comfortable.

    If someone has an allergic reaction to project management, what do you recommend they read from the book to get them motivated to dig in?

    The first chapter in the book covers what project management is, and how it applies to everyone. It’s not just about having a PM on a team; it’s about understanding how project management practices can help you get work done. I also think that the personal stories in the book help to relate very basic, non-work interactions to the principles and practices of PM.

    Favorite tools or tip you use every day to help you stay on top of projects?

    To do lists can save you, especially if you have too much going on and need a way to organize and prioritize your thoughts. I live and die by my to do list.

    What other profession would you like to try if you could?

    If I were to make a complete career change, I’d go really far away from what I’m doing now. I’d do that mostly because I would want to experience something really different. Maybe I’d start a small business like a restaurant, or work outdoors. I think no matter what I did, I’d be able to use my career experience as a PM and consultant to help me.

    Knowing what you know now, what advice you’d give to your younger self?

    Be you. Follow happiness. (Thankfully, I feel as though I’ve done this for the most part)


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