In project management, methods and technologies are rapidly developing. Read more on today’s trends and experts’ opinions in our collection of top project management articles.
A lot of people have a very limited understanding of what being a project manager really is. Most just think you’re this dictator type that barks out orders at everyone in between games of solitaire, which hardly seems fair.
In reality, managing a project is a tough and demanding job, that yes, does involve telling people what to do. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. A project manager is responsible for seeing a project from its initial stages to planning and all the way through to completion and delivery. And that’s on top of leading the project team, assigning their roles and tasks, monitoring their progress, all while being under a strict deadline with a predetermined budget.
That’s essentially multiple jobs rolled into one, all of which you need to do successfully. That’s already quite a lot to ask of a single person, but it gets even harder every year.
With the use of technology in business rapidly expanding (AI, machine learning), new management methods like Agile (usually associated with software development) being adopted in other business areas, and the increasing trend of having remote employees where team members can be located in opposite parts of the world – the set of skills a project manager needs to have to do their job well keeps growing every day.
In our list below you will find what we think are the most essential skills a project manager needs to possess in today’s rapidly changing world, why they are so important to have, and what you can do master them.
One of the essential skills for project management is communication. By its very nature a project manager’s job consists mostly of communication – with their team, with contractors and vendors, with project stakeholders and even customers. That’s why being able to convey one’s vision, thoughts and ideas in a way that’s clear, effective and easily understood, as well as being able to understand others, is an absolute must.
Constant communication with the project team helps identify any issues during the early stages of your project and address them before they can have a negative impact on the project. It ensures that everyone is always on the same page.
Same with customers – regular project updates and meetings with your clients and stakeholders help reinforce transparency and trust, and build a positive relationship by letting everyone involved in the project know what’s going on at any given moment.
But good communication doesn’t just happen. It is a skill that takes effort and practice to master.
First, be sure to take the time to get to know your team – their personality types, their quirks and preferences. The better you know them, the easier it will be for you to connect with them and build a communication plan that will work for everyone.
Second, read up on the subject. Communication is a broad topic, so there’s no shortage of great resources available. Our absolute favorites are John C. Maxwell’s Everyone Communicates, Few Connect: What the Most Effective People Do Differently, Mark Goulston’s Just Listen: Discover the Secret to Getting Through to Absolutely Anyone, and Mastering Communication at Work: How to Lead Manage, and Influence by Ethan F. Becker and Jon Wortmann.
Tying into the communication skill is negotiation. Managing a project is a lot like politics. It often involves a group of different people, sometimes with opposed goals and interests, and it’s the PM’s job to find the middle ground and make sure that everyone is happy.
It’s something project managers find themselves doing every day. Whether they are demands from project stakeholders, resources from fellow PMs, support from company management, or terms with third-party suppliers – being able to get everyone on the same page and work out a solution where everyone wins, or at the very least nobody feels like they’ve lost, is a skill that every successful project manager needs.
A lot of these discussions can become pretty heated too, if not handled correctly. Tread carefully, and do your best to stay respectful and professional. It doesn’t matter how important your project is, damaging your relationship with colleagues over it is 100% not worth it.
To help you become a better negotiator, there’s no better option than Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In by Roger Fischer and William Ury. Based on the work by people behind the Harvard Negotiation Project, it’s a veritable negotiation bible with proven step-by-step strategies on achieving mutually beneficial agreements in every type of conflict. If you prefer your information in the audio-visual form, TED also has an entire playlist of inspiring talks on the subject.
If there is one skill that absolutely defines the role of a project manager, it’s leadership. And for a good reason. As a project manager, you don’t just boss people around, you lead. You set the vision, establish goals, and motivate your team members to achieve them.
And it’s your job to make sure that everything along the way is running smoothly at all times – conflicts are swiftly dealt with, any questions or requests are addressed, and team performance is always monitored and evaluated with timely feedback.
A good leader serves as the spark that ignites their team’s creative fire, and brings much-needed balance to the team. They encourage their people when they’re doing good work, but aren’t afraid to call them out when their results get subpar. They take full responsibility for their management decisions, but make sure the team members own their mistakes too. They are someone who does everything in their power to make it easier for their team to reach their goals.
Despite popular belief that you’re born with leadership qualities, with proper knowledge everyone can learn and develop these skills. Renowned management theorist Simon Sinek has a couple of great talks on the subject of leadership that should prove useful for both experienced PMs and those just starting out on the project management path.
We also can’t recommend enough the excellent The Power of Project Leadership: 7 Keys to Help You Transform from Project Manager to Project Leader by Susanne Madsen. Rather than going through the basics of project management, the book focuses on providing valuable recommendations, insight, and exercises aimed at improving your skills in the key areas required for successful project leadership.
Planning and Scheduling
Another one of the core skills required for successful project management is planning and scheduling. Without a plan there is no project. So the ability to organize the project goals, break them down into actionable tasks and schedule them on a timeline is simply crucial.
Good planning involves things on both the larger scale – project scope, material requirements, timelines, estimates, deadlines to smaller, as well as more mundane things – planning your activities throughout the day and making a to-do list with your daily goals. In short, it’s about making sure that you make time to do everything you need to do and as efficiently as possible.
The success of your project always comes down to how good your planning is. Because even if your team executes their goals perfectly, the end result will be mediocre if your plan was not good.
You can avoid falling into the common project planning pitfalls by always being ten steps ahead and knowing what’s next. Be prepared, and try planning not just for success, but for any potential hurdles and disasters that might pop up along the way.
Proper planning is not easy to nail down, so we don’t blame if you feel like your performance is lacking in that department. Elizabeth Grace Saunders of Harvard Business Review has a series of fantastic articles on planning, so be sure to check those out. If you’re looking for something more advanced, Richard Rumelt’s Good Strategy/Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why It Matters should be right up your alley.
Directly related to planning is risk management skill. Planning a project always involves certain risks. Things will go wrong, it’s just the nature of business. And it is your job as a project manager to consider those risks to make sure they don’t become problems, as well as have a solid plan for how to mitigate them if they do.
Nobody likes surprises, and that’s especially true when you’re overseeing a project with a dedicated team and multiple stakeholders that you need to report to. That’s why it is so important to know what could go wrong – the earlier you identify any potential bumps in the road of your project, the better your chances of avoiding those risks altogether.
Needless to say, when done efficiently, risk management can be extremely beneficial. You customers will appreciate a smooth and timely project delivery, while you won’t need to waste precious time fixing mistakes and putting out fires.
Being good at managing risks comes with experience. A failed project (or two) is usually all it takes for a PM to start taking risk management seriously. Rethink your approach to failure, and treat it as a lesson and an opportunity to learn not to repeat the same mistakes on your next project.
HBR has a great article by Robert S. Kaplan and Anette Mikes that closely examines the different types of risks that businesses face today and offers real-life examples and data to back up their claims. It’s a great read whether you’re a seasoned risk management pro or someone who has yet to face their first true project disaster.
A big part of being a PM is deciding and communicating what your team will be spending their time on, as well is being in control of your own time. And this is where a firm grasp of time management becomes truly vital.
As a person in charge of a team of people with dozens of different tasks, there’s an endless list of things you need to be aware of at any given time. A good project manager can easily determine which tasks take priority over others, what tasks are the most important and should be worked on right now and which ones you can say ‘no’ to.
Of course, being able to tell what’s really important and what’s urgent is not always that simple. You only have so much time in your day, so setting aside some time to devote to important tasks while not getting buried under a pile of urgent (but ultimately unimportant) work can be a challenge. How do you prioritize?
Well, the key here is knowing the clear difference between important and urgent with the help of the famous time management grid by Stephen Covey. As President Eisenhower said, “What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important”, and it’s a great guiding principle to stick to in your project management.
If you don’t already, consider starting tracking your team’s time on a project. It may seem like a huge hassle at first, but you’d be surprised how valuable having a clear picture of your people’s time expenses can be. From being able to easily identify any bottlenecks in your team’s workflow to improved time estimates and cost projections – the advantages will far outweigh any perceived inconvenience.
As a project manager the amount of things you’re in charge of can seem absolutely overwhelming to someone outside of that sphere. Planning, budgeting, estimating, while keeping a close eye on your team and making sure that everyone is on the same page – all require knowledge and experience, and most importantly, critical project management skills. By starting with the ones we covered here and gradually practicing and adding them into your work process, you will hopefully become the best project manager you can be.