It’s difficult to accept failure. I think that’s part of human nature — to be proud, defend ourselves, survive, and dislike failing. But sometimes we fail as human beings, and as project managers. And sometimes, spectacularly, we fail at those two things at the same time.

Embracing Failure as a Digital Project Manager (and Human Being)


I’ve been a total failure over the past few months.

  • I started this blog, intending to keep it going with new content twice a week. Fail.
  • I transitioned out of project management recently, but didn’t actually transition out of it because I’m a total control freak. Fail.
  • Even though I didn’t transition out of it, I still failed at doing a bunch of PM stuff properly. Fail.
  • I couldn’t think of new content ideas to save my life. Fail.
  • I lost my focus, my energy, my drive, and my love of what I do (temporarily). Fail.
  • I ate an entire tray of four cinnamon buns and washed them down with an entire bottle of wine. Fail (or… win?).

Cinnamon Bun GIF

I think the important thing to remember here is that cinnamon buns fix all failures until you step on the scale and feel like a failure in an entirely new way. Not as a project manager or a human being, but even worse, a failure of a woman for not fitting into your pants anymore.

But I digress.

Failing as a project manager. It really sucks. But the most important part to remember is that it’s not about you. Oh, shocking news actually, but nothing about a project is about you: it’s about your creative team, and your client. They’re the only ones who matter. Not that digital project managers should be relegated to the role of peasant but in the hierarchy of a project, they can seem that way.

It’s not about you. It’s about what you get done as a team.

In other words, what you are able to produce.

Which brings me to an interesting thing I’ve been thinking about lately: project management vs. project production. The former is a relatively rigid construct, all about budgets, timelines, proofs, feedback. The latter is a fluid, strategic, ever-changing and developing role, guided by what is happening and the personalities involved more than strict contracts.

In case you’re wondering, I didn’t think of this concept all on my own. I read about it in this insightful article by Ad Subculture. (Yet another thing I failed to think about by myself. FAIL.)


Which one is superior? The answer is neither, as both have their place. The trick is in knowing the time and place for each role.

When do you need a project manager?

Your agency needs a project manager for the day-to-day, the run of the mill, the normal projects. Ones you have set processes and procedures for, and set deliverables that don’t change very often from client to client. This could be like a logo design. You know the steps you need to take to get to a great logo design, and maybe each client is promised four options to choose from. So that’s a pretty “regular” item.

When do you need a digital producer?

Producers bring a little more to the table. They may be Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) that offer insight into a particular client’s business. They could be strategists, forming the initial goals and objectives of a project. They could be writers, taking a stab at the copy or creative for a piece. Put simply: they think about the whole picture when it comes to getting good work done, not just the controllable aspects like time, budget and deliverables.

Producers see work as more than the sum of their parts. They align deliverables with sound strategic input in a way that makes sense for each client and each project.

For long-term or dynamic partnerships with large clients, you should consider having a digital producer on the case, rather than a project manager. Each delivers results, but in a different way.

If your core focus is ideas, a producer is your man (or woman or general human being).

If your core focus is churning out work with repetitive processes that don’t need to adapt to individual clients, a project manager is for you.

Not to put down project managers! They are essential, important team members and are often focused on making work profitable when nobody else is. They’re the reason creatives can stay in business, and they act as a valuable client liaison and representative. Hell, I used to be a PM, so I know the life, alright? It’s pretty cool shit.

Bender GIF

But good project managers are often good digital producers. It’s a natural progression.

That progression happens from stopping caring about just the “what” of the project (what needs to get done, what the timeline is, what the budget is) and caring more about the “why” of the project (why is this important, who does this benefit, why is this a good idea).

As Simon Sinek says, we should always start with why in our businesses, from the CEO down to the retail sales associate. Everyone should be focused on the why, not the how or what of the business.

For more insight into what that means, you should watch Simon’s short TED Talk about “Starting with Why” here.

In summary, failing as a project manager teaches you good lessons. Lessons that help improve how work gets done in the future. When you learn from failure, you learn how to produce the best possible outcomes and work. Learning from project management failure means learning to be a producer.

Failing as a human being by eating four cinnamon buns… well, there’s not much to be learned from that, other than maybe picking a better wine to pair with them next time.


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