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How to Be a Great Project Manager

Updated on December 29, 2016
Max Dalton profile image

Max earned his project management professional (PMP) certification in 2013. He holds an MA in Communication from U of I.

Introduction

A great project manager is someone who cares deeply about understanding all aspects of a project before it gets off the ground, and then making sure that everyone is in the loop, working together, and on the same page throughout the project management life cycle. Elite project managers understand that you can prevent a lot of heartache in the later phases of a project by putting in a lot of time during the early phases. This article outlines what makes a great project manager.

Have a Clear Plan

Having a solid project plan at the beginning of your projects doesn't guarantee that the project will go off the rails further down the line, but it will reduce the risk of that happening tremendously. And if a project does go off the rails, it gives you something tangible you can show your boss that illustrates you did everything in your power to keep things on track.

While a project plan is very much a living, breathing document that will continue to change and adapt as the projects moves through the phases of the project management life cycle, it is necessary that the following elements get rolled into your project plan early and updated often:

  1. Value Proposition: In a perfect world you should be able to pull the value proposition from the business case that was generated as part of the exploration into whether or not the business wanted to move forward with this as a project. However, if that doesn't exist, you still need to clearly spell out what the value proposition of undergoing this specific project is. If this sort of exploration wasn't done prior to launching an official project, there's a risk that everyone will be spinning their wheels for something that won't result in any real benefit.
  2. Stakeholders: This should everyone from the executive sponsor on down to representatives from groups that will be affected by the final deliverable.
  3. Communication Plan: Clearly outline the type of communication each stakeholder should receive, and how often they will receive it.
  4. Requirements: Typically either the business analyst or the project manager will have a conversation around what the functional and non-functional requirements are associated with a project. Having clear requirements is necessary to define a clear scope of the work that needs to be done, and plan resource allocation and forecast expenses. Ensuring the requirements are solid at the outset can prevent scope creep further down the line.
  5. High-level Schedule: At the beginning this should be a high-level milestone chart that calls out the major pieces of work that will need to be done, the person or teams who will be responsible for those pieces of work, and estimates for how long it will take to complete those work pieces.
  6. Definition of Success: Clearly define what will need to happen for this to be a successful project. This can be a number of things. For example, this could be an increase in the bottom line, an increased number of clicks, more people coming through the door, or any number of other things.
  7. Finance Information: Know what the budget you have to work with is.
  8. Assumptions: Lay out all of the assumptions you make as you build the project plan.
  9. Risks: Spell out all of the risks that could impact your project. This can include environmental conditions, the risk of government regulations coming down the line, or a number of other things.
  10. Constraints: If you feel like there are things that are going to pin you down in some areas, outline those.
  11. Stakeholder Sign-off: Perhaps the most important piece of the puzzle is that all stakeholders sign off on the plan initially, and also that they sign off on the plan as it is updated throughout the project. To help track this, it can be valuable to have a page at the front of the plan that calls out the date of updates, who made those updates, and what was changed in the document.

It's not just important to ensure that you've identified all of the stakeholders, but you also have to manage the communication the receive and their expectations throughout the process.
It's not just important to ensure that you've identified all of the stakeholders, but you also have to manage the communication the receive and their expectations throughout the process. | Source

Know How to Communicate with All Stakeholders

A great project manager needs to go further than having a strong communication plan, and really work to understand the personalities of their project stakeholders and what makes them tick. Some stakeholders may appreciate you stopping by their office occasionally and chatting in person about the status of the project, whereas other stakeholders may only want to hear from you if something is in trouble. You also need to take into account office politics that may be at play between stakeholders. Most project teams include representatives from different functional groups, and those groups will often have their own agenda that they are working to push.

Be Honest

Above all a great project manager is always honest and works to set expectations appropriately, and if the news is bad, the responsibility is on you to deliver it. However, you can often soften the blow by putting forward a solution. It may not be the direction the team decides to go, but stakeholders are always more receptive if you bring forward a solution rather than just dropping a problem in their lap. Additionally, clearly lay out the problem and how you arrived there, but don't work to put the blame on other people. Blaming other people rarely accomplishes anything, and it only delays starting work on a solution.

Project Management Tips

Manage the Scope

After you work with all of the necessary stakeholders to gather requirements around the work that will be done, get sign-off on those requirements, generate estimates, and line up resources based on those requirements, it's important to manage that scope to prevent scope creep. Scope creep is the ultimate destroyer of projects, and it occurs when a stakeholder keeps adding requirements to the project after funding and resources have already been secured based on the initial estimates. When that happens, you can quickly find yourself in a situation where you try and get more work done with the same amount of money and the same number of resources over the same duration, which often results in work getting done poorly. If everyone signed off on the requirements spelled out in the project plan, then the project manager has some recourse to go back to the stakeholders making the request to include additional requirements and say that if they want those requirements to be included, then they will need more resources and more time. At that point, the ball is placed in the stakeholder's court, and if they want to move forward with including those requirements, the onus is on them to round up the funding and sell the rest of the project team on increasing the project timeline. You should never be afraid to push back. If you don't push back and you try and add in more requirements without adding resources and time, then the blame for that decision falls on you.

Working hard to ensure that you gather all of the requirements up front helps to prevent your project from being taken over by scope creep further down the line.
Working hard to ensure that you gather all of the requirements up front helps to prevent your project from being taken over by scope creep further down the line. | Source

Keep Moving the Team Forward

Projects can stall out if members of the project team aren't clear what the goals they should be working toward are. A great project manager can prevent this by ensuring that there are larger short, medium, and long-term project goals, and that all individuals are clear what they are working toward in both the short, medium, and longer term. Having regular, quick touch points with team members can be a great way to ensure that people are staying on task. Alternatively, having team members spend five minutes at the end of the day and writing up a quick, high-level summary of what they did that day and what they have on deck for tomorrow is another great way to ensure everyone is moving forward.

Address Team Disputes Immediately

Disagreements and debates among team members can be very healthy for a project. It illustrates the passion people have for what they are working on, and it often leads to a deep exploration around the best path forward. However, confrontations can occasionally go too far, and can result in genuine bad blood between team members. A great project manager will work to rein in a discussion if it looks like it could get too heated. However, if it does lead to ill will between teammates, a great project manager will work to manage that conflict appropriately, whether that means pulling those individuals into a room to talk through their problems, having 1-to-1 conversations with them about the issue, or working through their managers to bring an end to the dispute. The worst thing a project manager can do in that situation is ignore the problem and let the dispute get worse, as that can start to bring the project down.

© 2016 Max Dalton

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