PMTips: We are happy to announce that today we are interviewing Ben Willmott, Head of Agile Practices at Karmarama. Apart from his role as Head of Agile Practices, Ben manages teambenwillmott.com, a blog dedicated to improve knowledge in the area of project management and increase productivity for work and everyday life.
Ben has been working in the project management industry for 16 years, with the last few years focusing on building teams and improving working environments. Taking into consideration his expertise in agile approaches and frameworks, it is our pleasure to share with you Ben’s insights on this matter.
Stay tuned with Ben, and me for the next couple of minutes as we cover different aspects and dive deeper into the world of project management.
Ben, thank you for accepting our invitation. We are happy to have you as a guest.
Ben Willmott: My pleasure. I'm looking forward to it.
PMTips: Looking back at your professional experience, you first started your career as a Product and Regulatory Manager in a company that develops community products and services for mobile and internet. What would you say were the primary challenges you encountered when starting with your professional career?
Ben Willmott: Yes. So first of all. 2004. t's a long way back to remember, but I've certainly got some good memories in a lot of challenges from that time being so, so new to the digital and the working world if you like. For me, the first thing would probably be, the access to information, if you compare it to today, where if you have a problem, you can find it on Google, YouTube, blogs, whatever it might be. So you had to work out a lot more of the issues and the approaches yourself. So one of the challenges I certainly had was really not having enough guidance and structure to do what I needed to do. So as a lot of working on my own, which I think does happen quite a lot with more junior team members because they're new and, you know, the seniors within the company of busy. They don't always get enough attention and mentorship that they should do. So if I could go back to that time, I'd definitely be asking for more guidance around or certain structures and frameworks so I can still learn on the job. But at the same time, I've got a bit of direction and structure to what I'm doing rather than just working out how as I go along, which is the real challenge.
PMTips: You worked on the creation of many new products and the management of current products for mobile apps. Can you tell us more about your experience in managing the development of mobile applications?
Ben Willmott: Sure. So I've been very fortunate. I've worked in mobile app development for probably eight, the last eight, 10 years, maybe a long time anyway, and also across different industries, the energy industry, travel, aerospace, automotive, to name a few. And also working across different methodologies. So waterfall and agile, and somewhere in the middle as well. And that also gives me really good access to working with all sorts of different teams, whether that's our internal app development teams and designers or working with third parties or on the client-side as well, a real diverse mix of teams and people. But that probably also is giving me my greatest challenges as well, because something that I can certainly talk about a lot of detail is. Is that one team approach that you need? Because I've worked with big projects, multiple teams, but if you don't have a single direction as a team, then you're really going to struggle because you might have a team here working on building out the API and another team working on the front end. And if you don't have that transparency across all of these teams, then you're going to struggle. So mobile app development, general, one of the probably most exciting things about it is it's always changing because there are always new things coming out. So we let our engineers go to the big conferences, the big announcements like over Apple. And it's always amazing to see what the next batch of mobile phones can be doing. So although that's a challenge, it's also probably one of the best things about working in this industry, because there's always something you could be thinking about that might actually serve the customer in a much more sort of intuitive and exciting way.
PMTips: Throughout the years, you have managed many projects and participated in the creation of many new products. Several of the remarkable clients, which you have collaborated, include Vodafone, Visa, O2, Estée Lauder, FedEx, Colgate and Xbox. What would you say was the most challenging project that you have worked on? Is there any project in particular that you would like to share with our listeners?
Ben Willmott: Yes. Yeah, there is one. You can't mention any names, but this is from quite a few years back now.
And the reason it is very challenging is it links back into them. The last answer actually, where we had lots of different teams and because I work within an agency, you'll see there's a client there. But for this particular project, you had the client you had, you had our teams, which would do well, the front end development clients who were doing the API development, we were doing some designs. You had marketing teams. They have third party companies that are working with. Which isn't unusual in a multi-team or multi-company setup. But in these particular projects, there was just lots of separation between these teams. And the main reason for that is everything was driven by what was in the contracts for these different teams, which is the wrong way of looking at it. You need to be driven by what's going to create the most value for the customers and the users of that particular service. And when it's contract-driven and in this particular scenario, it was very much they had to meet certain deadlines for their shareholders, which also meant you had to if you didn't have something ready and finished by a particular time, it was going out to those customers anyway, even if it was wasn't the right products or it wasn't high enough quality to go out.
So there were loads of challenges. And the other main challenge within those multiple teams was there. On our client-side, you had management who was dictating all of the timelines and what had to be done. But then you had the team on the ground who were actually saying, no, this is impossible, we can't do this. So there were internal issues within the client-side as well. And that was also compounded by all the teams in different locations, all the tooling was shared. So this was a really challenging project, which we did actually finish it and we did get something out there, but it wasn't to the levels and the standards that we would have wanted it to be. So that's probably the key learnings for me here are it's all about how you start the project. It's the collaboration, you know, how you split the responsibilities and ultimately making sure that whatever you produce, you've got the customer at heart, because if the customer isn't happy, your end user, then there isn't much point in doing any of it because they're not going to use it. And it's a lot of wasted time and effort.
So that's probably my most challenging project where I probably learned the most. And a lot of the things I do now, I often reflect back on that projects and pick out some of those, in some cases rather awkward, difficult times and make sure I'm still learning from them because there's a heck of a lot of learnings I took from that project.
PMTips: Accordingly to you which characteristics are essential for project managers in order to be successful in the ever-changing world of technology?
Ben Willmott: Yes. So there are quite a few. I will not go through all of them now. I have just been recently writing about this, so it's good timing.
But the first one which in comes is quite a few is just being inquisitive because as a project manager, there's so much going on around you, so many things could be happening that you're not aware of because, you know, you can't especially in this remote working at the moment. And being inquisitive, you can start to think about what could go wrong on this project and thinking about the risks, not just looking at your risk log that you may be keeping, but actually looking outside of that and starting asking the right types of questions at the right moment, whether that's the end of week team meeting. Okay, well, what's gonna go wrong next week? You know, just being really open about it, because if you ask that, then people start to think about it. OK, well, actually, now you asked me that and it could be this. So just having slightly different approaches to risk. So I have always been inquisitive in that sense. And the other part of it, inquisitive. It's about learning and asking why. So as a project manager, you're not expected to be an expert in every single field of the project team. You working like engineering or design? You need to know enough about it. Because the more you ask about why you're taking that approach, the more you can learn about it and then potentially help that team member in the future when it comes to planning because you just know more about how they work and why they do it. And then there are probably two others. One is just being adaptable as a project manager because I mentioned earlier, the technology is changing all the time, whether that's mobile app technology or web or whatever it is pretty much on a weekly basis. There's something different coming out.
It's very hard to stay on top of it. And to be adaptable is you look at what is the best possible route forward for you from a technology point of view, which ultimately is what's going to serve your client and their customers the best possible way and just. Look at it and go. This is the best way. Let's have a conversation about how we can actually move into this different approach. So, yeah, you need to be adaptable. Don't be fixed in your ways just because it's worked in the past. That could be something better that's out there. And the last one has just been a really good communicator. If you can't communicate as a project manager, you're really going to struggle, especially now where remote work and where communication is even more important. You need to have certain approaches and techniques to how you do that. You can't treat it like traditional project management where your communication was. You'd send out a plan and the actions and status meeting and tell everyone what they should be doing. You need to be much more of a team player, much more the servant leader as a project manager. Now, how do you communicate it is really key in that because there are so many different personality types, whether you are an engineer or ahead of finance or a senior stakeholder CIO. Everyone has or likes different ways of communication. He has a project manager. You have to stop understanding what they can be. You can change depending on the need. And technology, again, is key for that because not everyone is a techie. They don't understand. Also, you have to be able to explain in different ways. So that's a key part of being a project manager.
PMTips: Working as a project manager you have used a mixture of Waterfall and Agile methodologies. Currently, you are focused on creating and working with Agile approaches and frameworks, which you stress to be helpful and result in improving productivity within the teams and individuals. Can you elaborate more on the benefits of implementing the Agile methodology within an organization?
Ben Willmott: Yes, sure. So having the agile methodology or just more of an agile mindset is might be a better way of putting it. Because I mentioned before about being adaptive as a project manager and you need to be adaptive at the highest level as a company and then in departments, within teams and projects and individuals, because otherwise, if you do just do keep doing the same thing and it's not working, then no one's going to benefit from that. So agile really allows you to adapt your processes or just generally adapt to anything that isn't working because you can then flex and change and fix it. Ultimately, a lot faster versus a more traditional waterfall way of working where you may do reviews it and the phases like design phases. So that's a big one for me, is being able to adapt what you do. And then agile also encourages lots of empowerment for the teams. I think you touched on this earlier, where you as a project manager, you can't know everything, you're not going to be an expert in every field. So you need to make the most of those individuals in your teams who are experts at what they do, whether it's a design or an engineer or tester or whatever, whatever it is. And empowering the teams to then start to influence all the decisions that are being made and how you actually approach problems. You're gonna get much more out of those teams because.
Nearly everyone, if they just get told what to do, they'll do it. But they weren't really put their heart and soul into it. They didn't really think about it because they've just been given a set of instructions. So agile just encourages people to think about the problems, solve them. Think about how they get to build something, design something as a team. And because they're doing it themselves, they take much greater responsibility to actually do that. And you'll get a much, much better project or products or whatever it is at the end of the day. And then it's also it really brings to light what's of value, because you have, multiple iterations of work, you have retrospectives, you always continuously planning as well. You can always ask the question about what value is this adding to this project for our client, for our end-user. And sometimes that can really open people's eyes to go, why are we doing this? This is just weird. It's just in a contract, for example. It's not adding any value. Why don't we do this, this or this? So value is focused. It is a huge thing within agile. And part of the last thing I'd mention is the transparency that it gives.
So we always try to encourage everyone to be as transparent as possible with the work they're currently doing or the progress of the report. The project that you're doing as well on the business side, for the client, in particular, you know, what is their business? How what are their vision? What are their goals? Tell us more about your company. Because more everyone knows about what everyone else is doing, the more we can help each other. And also that transparency helps if you do have problems because people know each other more. They understand the word that's being involved rather than the classic when projects are a bit delayed, I'll just add more developers to it. Which nine times out of ten, it doesn't work. The client and the team that you're working with understand the problems that they might be having. And I work with you to help, help fix it. So I'd say that's the main benefits. And probably actually one more thing just to finish on that question is I don't have the stats to hand, but I know if you're doing short projects about a month or two, Waterfall vs. Agile in terms of success rates, it doesn't make much difference on those short ones. But for longer-term, it definitely does make a difference to be working in an agile manner vs. waterfall in terms of delivering on something that's high value and actually what the customer needs because you have that agility and because it's impossible to plan a project out for the next six months, you can't do it. Well, you can't do it. But that's actually what you end up getting is very, very different.
So agile certainly fits a longer-term project. You get more benefits from it.
PMTips: To follow up on the previous question, what is your opinion on the Waterfall vs Agile debate and how can project managers identify which approach is right for their project?
Ben Willmott: Yes. So the first thing that I always look at is what's going to be best for this projects or for this client. We never go in then say why we. We are in an agile house. This is all we do. We'll look at what's going to give the best result for this particular project. And it could be a waterfall, as I mentioned before, in the short term projects, sometimes when you if you've done something regularly and you know exactly how to do it, then Waterfall's fine. But if you have some complexity and then some things, you don't know how to do it or we haven't done them before, then agile is a much better approach to take for your project. So. You should look at what will work best, and I include the technology that you mentioned earlier as well. You know, just because someone's asked you for mobile app doesn't mean that they should actually. That's what you should build. It could be a Web site. You have to look at what's best for the client and the customer. So. Look at what is going to give you the project, the highest value, but also look at team experience, because if you've got a team with zero experience in working in more extreme fashion vs. waterfall, then you've got. That's a risk for your project. And it might not be the best way of doing it. You might have to start implementing elements of more agile thinking into a waterfall project so you can slowly train the team and then evolve into something that is much more active as you work. But in that example, be really careful where you don't add labels to a waterfall project. So agile labels, which I've seen quite often, I've seen people saying they're doing stand-ups, for example. But the stand up is an hourlong status meeting. And no one is standing up for an hour either. So I don't add labels. Look at what's going to work best for the projects, what's going to create that highest value. But then also taking into consideration the experience of the team as well.
PMTips: Ben, as I mention in the introduction, you are a part-time blogger at teambenwillmott.com where you write and coach on approaches to improve productivity and project management skills. What motivated you to start with your own blog?
Ben Willmott: Yes, so working within an agency. And I've always been in the agency environment all of my career. It's a very busy, busy place. There's multiple projects going on. There's always new challenges, new things. Every time you bring a new client on, you know, they work in a different way. You have to get to know them. So there wasn't much time to actually sit down and document how to do things. And we do. We have a lot of that within my company, but not as much as I would like, because there's always something else we working on. So I decided to start writing my own content. And to do that, though, I'd needed to do it within my own, my own time, and because I love what I do. It wasn't a chore. It was easy to do. So I started to create the blog because. One of the biggest things I love about what I do, whether that's within the blog or within Camerata, is is helping others, especially in coaching others as well, because it's really satisfying to see someone implement something that you've taught them. And it's worked well for them. And they get positive feedback from their peers and from the client or whoever it might be. So helping others is probably the biggest reason I do it. And then it also allows me to learn new things, because before I started my blog, I hadn't done that before. And I had to teach myself all of the elements of it. Looking more into detail of like MCO and how to actually write content, how to write the content that the users actually need. So many new things. So I love I love learning new things. I've always been like that. And it was a real challenge as well. Again, I like to have a challenge in front of me up because it keeps you motivated every day.
PMTips: While we are discussing your blog, it is inevitable to mention that you recently started the TBW Podcast. In the podcast episodes, you share approaches and tips for agile delivery, project management and productivity. Overall, what is your vision for the blog and podcast and what do you expect to achieve in the upcoming period?
Ben Willmott: Yes. So the longer term vision for the blog and the podcast and and a few other content types as well, I recently started the YouTube channel Claxon on Twitter as well. Just sharing tips and approaches on there is well, first and foremost, it's to help others getting content out there. That's going to help people. And I think you need to be in on multiple media spend to do that, because some people will love to listen to podcasts, to learn. Others want to go and read a post on a blog. Others might just want to pick. Quick tips up on Twitter, you know, whatever it is, just making sure this and diverse content out there. And the longer term vision for the blog and the podcast is for the for the podcast. It's certainly going to start to be interviewing like we're doing today, really interviewing other experts in the field to get different points of view other than my own and my own research. So I can open up for my current users or listeners, I should say, just more opportunities to learn then. So collaboration with experts is a key one. And then I'm now doing more how I got my first webinar, which the day of recording of this. This is a it'll be a week on Wednesday and a free webinar just with lots of content to help project managers, managers working remotely. So how to deal with maintaining control on your projects, how to be productive at home. And topics like that. So doing many more webinars, which I see linked back into the content on the blog. And then ultimately it's producing courses as well, online courses on how to do certain things as a project manager. But this isn't like certifications you might do as a project manager, because there's lots of that out there and anyone can do that. It's more real world experience training. So this is actually how you can do it within an agency rather than this is how it works when you just learn about the book.
PMTips: Ben, by serving as Head of Agile Practices and managing your own blog, there is no doubt that you have many responsibilities. In which role you feel more comfortable and how do you manage to stay on top with all of your activities?
Ben Willmott: Yes. Good question. Well, first of all, I love both my roles because they've effectively they serve each other. You know, I'm learning in both. So they pass back and forth. So if I do something for my blog, then I can actually share that back within come from and vice versa with the clients. Then I'd say the blog is definitely easier because ultimately that's just me. You know, I'm the boss. I plan all of my work. It's in my own time. I've got much more flexibility on what I need to work on vs. my head to head about the role of your practice where, you know, always having to re prioritize. You know, this team support, this client support and looking at how we work as a company. So things are always changing on projects as well. So the blog is much easier because I can structure it and plan and things typically change too much. I do that. This is my head of agile practices. Well, things are changing all the time, which is fine as it's to be expected, but there's just a lot more to manage. So how I stay on top of all of that? Well, I guess to go through this quite quickly, because there's a lot I do week planning every week.
So if my blog, I'll spend half an hour, 40 minutes every either Sunday morning on Monday morning, and I'll plan out my whole week. And based that on the goals I will achieve for the for the blog. And within there, I'll actually put in all of the activities that I want to do every single morning before I start work. And I'll put a time slot against them as well. So that keeps me focused on the important things. So I'm not too distracted. And then I do a similar thing for my head of Agile Practices role, where I'll look at the key things I want achieve that week. And then every day I actually plan out. My whole day I break into 30-minute segments, then I'll drop in all of the key tasks that I need to work on. Again, that keeps me focused on what I need to work on when, and it removes a lot of the distractions that you typically have, especially when you work from home as well. It keeps me focused on what's important for the day.
PMTips: Lastly, it is our practice to ask our guests to share their advice with professionals who are at the begging of their careers in project management. Thus, what would you say to our listeners who are aspiring to have a successful professional life?
Ben Willmott: Yes. Yes. Another great question. I would say don't try to do it on your own, because as I said right at the start. There's so much information out there to help you.
If you can find someone like you that have to call him a mentor, but someone who's who's been in the industry for ten, fifteen years, something like that, that you can bounce ideas off ideally actually outside of your team and even your company, because they won't have any link into what you're doing. They can just give you clear advice based on the situation. So don't try it on your own. If you have any problems, which you will, when you're starting out and, you know, continuously in your career, almost 10 percent of the time, someone else has had that problem already. So that's why I say don't try and do it on your own. Reach out and try and get help. Google it, whatever it might be, because all that content that's out there. And then take that approach, take it and understand it. Adapt it to your particular scenario. But just then, make sure you write it down, you log it for future use. And then ideally you then teach it and pass it on to someone else as well as you get more experienced. So keeping an ongoing log, if you like, have all the key things you've learned because you never know when you might need to come back and do that, because you might have just tried something that you do at once, but you might have to do again for another two years.
It might just be a one-off thing. But if you've documented that, then it's much, much easier to come back. And then and the other thing I would say is because when you were starting out, you don't know the detail of how to do things. So focus on what the fundamentals are, the structures, the frameworks, and getting certified in some elements of project management as well, because, again, that gives you structure and framework of how to do things. And then within that, start adding your real-world experiences, whether that's something you've just done yourself or you've learned from someone else, drop it into those into that framework so you can build up this wealth of knowledge as you go rather than trying to think. You need to know all upfront. You don't. You absolutely have to learn on the job. But just make sure that you take advantage of the opportunity to learn from others and use it. Use the Internet as much as you can. It's fantastic.
PMTips: Ben thank you for your time, we really enjoyed having you as a guest.
Ben Willmott: My pleasure, thank you.
This interview was conducted by Julijana Kekenovska