6 ways to be a better project manager

Project management is a complex -- and critical -- function. Here are six pieces of advice to help project managers improve their craft.

Project Management Skills
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Project managers wear many hats: facilitators, managers, problem-solvers and even interpreters -- translating business needs into actionable plans for teams and aligning resources. They must work around constraints, map skills and set timeframes to ensure positive outcomes for the business. In a “do more with less,” digital era, project managers are critical to the success of a business, especially in the fast-moving world of IT and software.

Project management software firm Workfront recently polled project management (PM) professionals across industries and from various business sizes -- from small businesses to large enterprises -- to glean the best tips and tricks for improving project management skills and experience. Eighty-one professionals weighed in, sharing responses to help PMs improve in five areas: communication; time management and productivity; building community; framework, workflow and project scheduling; leadership and collaboration; and management tools. Here are the best pieces of advice based on those results.

Communication

This is one of the most important skills project managers can have in their arsenal; communicating with C-level executives, technical project team members, the finance department, human resources and external customers. Without frequent, open and candid communication about goals, obstacles, workarounds and expectations, projects could more easily fail.

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Priorities and project plans will change. Deadlines will be missed. Scope will increase. But communication must stay consistent. Emails, meetings, status reports, project plans -- these are all just tools for facilitating effective communication, says Liz Helbock, senior director of program management Events.com. “As project managers, we must work to keep those lines of communication open to ensure we have all the details to report back to executives and stakeholders,” she says.

Time management & productivity

Endless distractions abound in the modern workplace, and project managers have to be especially skilled at keeping teams and their projects on time and on track. Effective time management and productivity are critical skills. Career and small business strategist Mike McRitchie suggests you note the tasks that must happen in a particular order, the project’s “critical path,” making sure to tightly manage those handoff points, he told Workfront. These are the places where projects can be delayed and where the cumulative effect is a missed project deadline.

“Every project needs a clear end-goal. What is the need for this product/project? What problem are we trying to solve? When you identify the problem, you must also identify a clear definition of what it looks like to solve the problem. Defining success metrics means measurable goals and a clear finish line,” says Cindy Calvin, marketing project manager with Veterans United Home Loans.

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PMs also should track their team’s time. By tracking your team’s time for the project, you’ll have a solid estimate on the average time specific tasks take. You’ll know how much time projects took in the past, and you’ll be able to use that information to gauge the average speed of each team member for each project. This is important when deciding how much time to allocate for each team member in the future, according to Workfront.

Building your community

A project team runs on a solid foundation of trust, mutual respect and accountability, so it’s very important to make sure you’re fostering an environment where everyone on the team feels heard, their efforts are acknowledged and recognized, and their contributions valued.

Support of senior executives, customers, and buy-in from project teams is critical to the success of projects, says Paul Naybour, business development director at Parallel Project Training. “Projects are a very dynamic situation, and so support of all the key people in the organization is really important in keeping things moving. This is especially true when things go wrong,” he says.

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And don’t save praise and recognition only for the times when things are going well -- it’s almost more important to boost morale through recognizing hard work and effort when things don’t go as planned. “This is probably the most important part which often gets overlooked. Many people feel they have thankless jobs, and compliments can make a person feel really good. Go out of your way and thank them. Leave a positive review on their LinkedIn profile. Tell their boss what a great job they did,” says Thomas Wooldridge, IT project manager at Relamark.com.

Framework, workflow and project schedule

One of the most important things a project manager can do is to remove obstacles for their teams. That can help maintain projects within the agreed-upon framework, make the workflow more efficient and keep everything on schedule.

“Assign work so it is completed in the most efficient order possible; ensure work that is a predecessor to other work is fully completed before starting another piece, and remove the obstacles that prevent team members from getting their work done,” says Ben Snyder, CEO, Systemation.

You also should build in extra time around every deadline within the project, to make sure there’s plenty of time to resolve the inevitable unexpected problems that will arise. “Look over the project plan each week and identify the gaps in your project. Pay attention to scope, time, cost and where you should be, and how that lines up with your deadlines and project objectives. Once you identify the gaps, take the necessary actions to close them. Don’t let weeks or months go by where you do not deal with your gaps, or they may get too big to overcome,” Snyder says.

Leadership and Collaboration

Leadership is about pitching in and helping your project teams overcome obstacles, build on and use their strengths, and motivate them to persevere when the going gets tough, not just allocating resources and mindlessly adhering to standards -- though, of course, those are important.

“It’s easy to obsess over time, budget, and scope management -- after all, that’s our job! But beyond all that, project managers are there to help people. We help both our teams and our clients stay on track, prevent them from getting overwhelmed, and protect them from opening cans of worms,” says Rosie Brown, creative project manager and Kickstarter/corporate video producer, Sterling Communications.

To be a better project manager, you must be intimately familiar with each team member’s strengths and weaknesses. David Revees, project manager at Luxe Translation Services, takes time to familiarize himself with the unique talents and strengths of each person on his team so he knows who would and who wouldn’t be good for particular jobs. By doing so, he can better predict what challenges may arise and how to overcome them, according to the survey.

Management tools

Finally, take advantage of the technology available to help you do your job effectively. From project tracking software to file-sharing services to team collaboration tools, find the solution that works best for your teams and put it to work for you.

With so much time- and project-tracking software and solutions out there, it’s easy to keep a close eye on projects to make sure they are on track. You can also adopt a few protocols to help keep those chronically late team members on track by building in extra time for approvals.

Use a variety of reminders, sending one by email, including things like Outlook task reminders, or setting a short appointment time in team members’ calendars with “No Meeting—Reserved for Project X Approval,” says Gwendolyn Kestrel, digital analyst with Digital Advertising Works.

“For the stakeholder who typically misses deadlines, if they’re not central, include ‘Please review by the end of the day next Monday. If I don’t hear from you by then, I’ll assume we’re good to move forward.’ If you absolutely need their approval, state what’s at stake: ‘Please review by the end of the day next Monday. If I don’t hear from you by then, the project can’t meet the publication date,’” she says.

This story, "6 ways to be a better project manager" was originally published by CIO.

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