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The Reluctant Project Manager: Keys to Success

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                                                                                 If you are new to project management, you may feel a bit daunted each time you are tasked with the role of Project Manager (PM). That feeling is even more intense for those that are serving as a PM, but have not received training on how to do the job. There is no substitute for training and experience, but there are a few keys to success that you can implement now to make your job easier.

     The tips that I will share with you in this article are NOT technical, as there are plenty of resources that cover them. Rather, they are the ‘soft skills’ that differentiate the good PMs from the bad or inexperienced. To be effective, you will need to master both.

The Keys to the Project Management Kingdom

#1 - Develop a Critical Eye


      Attention to detail is arguably the most critical trait of the successful PM. When projects fail, it is often because something was overlooked when planning the project, or during project execution. You must train yourself to ask questions of your team (and yourself), during each phase of a project.

 Some great questions to ask during planning include:

            -What tasks are we missing?

            -What resources do we need that we might have overlooked?

            -Do the tasks we created meet the scope of the project?

            -Have we given team members the right amount of time to complete each task?

            -What dependencies are there?

            -What do we do if something goes wrong?

            -Have we effectively planned quality control and assurance?

 Questions to ask during execution:

             -Do you have everything you need for this task?

            -How are things going on task (fill in blank)?

            -Do you have any reason to believe that you won’t be done on time?

#2 - Avoid Assumptions

      Nothing wrecks a project plan like assumptions! They cause delays, cost overruns, team strife and project failure; all outcomes that lead to failure of the PM. Good project planning avoids assumptions by clearly communicating:

            -What needs to be accomplished

            -Who does the work

            -The timeline for accomplishing the work

            -The resources necessary to accomplish the work

            -The standard that must be met upon task completion

     When any of these elements are missing, you will spend an inordinate amount of time trying to get everything back on-track. There are a couple of ways to avoid assumptions:

            -When project planning, clearly identify all tasks and sub-tasks. It is very common for PMs to accurately identify major tasks, but fail to identify the intermediate or sub-tasks that are necessary for task completion. You cannot assume that the person assigned a task knows everything they need to do in order to complete the task to standard. Talk to the person being tasked, and work through the task verbally. Force them to identify what needs to be done, and add it to the project timeline! 

            -Confirm, confirm, confirm! Do not assume that tasks are on track, or have been completed. It is easy to fall into the trap of complacency, and monitor effort through your software and emails, but not personally verify that things are OK! You must get out of your office and interact with your team. Ask them the status of their work. Ask whether they have everything they need. Ask them if they believe they can complete the work in the required time. You will often identify problems, and solve the issue before it has an impact on your project.

 #3 - Stand Your Ground

      Your position as a project manager is a difficult one, because you are forced to satisfy more than one master. You are most likely not in a position of authority. Because of this, you need to learn how to interact and communicate effectively with leadership and team members. This is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. As you already know, the techniques you use are different for each, but they all require tact, active listening and a desire to resolve issues to the benefit of all.

      When working with your team, you must be able to hold them accountable for on-time task completion. This is done by creating awareness of the consequences for late task completion. Make sure you talk about the impact on the project and how this affects team members.  Most people want to succeed, but even those that are recalcitrant don’t want to let their peers down, or cause them extra work.

      The successful PM knows how to stand his ground with leadership and other stakeholders when it comes to changes in scope, resources and timeline. The ability to tactfully communicate the consequences of requested changes and propose alternate courses of action is critical. This takes courage, but if you arm yourself with facts, speak objectively, and clearly convey your dedication to project success, you will not harm your standing with leadership. You may even get the result you were looking for.

 #4 - Watch For The Iceberg

      Speaking about the tools for PM success reminds of the iceberg analogy that is often used in training and leadership courses. While the story varies by those telling it, the bottom line is that the tip of the iceberg is not what you need to worry about. The real danger is the portion of iceberg hidden below the water’s surface.

      This analogy holds true in the world of project management. The tasks and problems that are on the surface, or easily identified, are not what cause us to fail. It’s the hidden problems that sink the PM’s ship. Your ability to master the skills talked about here, and the numerous others that you will acquire along the way, will make or break your career as a PM.

Influencer: The New Science of Leading Change, Second Edition
Amazon Price: $20.00 $6.42 Buy Now
(price as of Sep 23, 2014)
Having problems getting your team to complete tasks on-time? Influencer is a great book for learning how to influence behavior in a positive way.

Get To Work!


If you haven’t received formal training in project management, I highly recommend that you take the Project Management Professional (PMP) Exam Preparation course from a Project Management Institute-authorized trainer. Even if you don’t sit for the exam, you will receive excellent training in all aspects of project management.

      I will leave you with one final point. I guarantee you that you will be a better PM next week, month, or year, than you are now. It takes time and experience to effectively perform this role. Hone the tools I described, and you will save yourself some time, energy and headaches along the way. 

Crucial Conversations Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High, Second Edition
Amazon Price: $20.00 $6.94 Buy Now
(price as of Sep 23, 2014)
This book is an excellent resource for Project Managers who want to learn new techniques for holding those difficult discussions with superiors and team members.


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