Skills Required for Effective Project Management
Editor's Note: This article is excerpted from Chapter 1 of Fundamentals of Technology Project Management
To be an effective project manager you need a fairly diverse set of skills. To develop these skills, you need a certain level of talent in quite a few areas. For instance, you need to be organized. If you live your life in a totally chaotic way, never remember to pay bills on time, turn up late for everything, and hate having to live by a schedule, this is probably not a good career choice for you! An important note is that being a great engineer or an accomplished technical lead does not necessarily mean that you will make an effective project manager or that you will enjoy being a project manager. Project management should not be seen as the obvious next step on the career path of an engineer who is looking for what he or she should be doing next. Project management is a career in itself, and though it requires some level of technical acumen, it is not going to be a good career choice for everyone who possesses some technical knowledge.
You can develop the skills you need to be an effective project manager as long as you have some basic talent or skill to build on. You need to be passionate about this career choice. It will be challenging and demanding. It is also going to be fun and very rewarding. It will require a lot of effort on your part to develop and hone the skills necessary to enable you to have a successful career in technology project management. This exciting career opportunity offers a myriad of opportunities for advancement.
Organizational skills are essential for a project manager at any level. Whether you are an assistant project manager, a junior project manager, or a senior project manager, you will not be able to function without excellent organizational skills. You will be juggling multiple tasks and dealing with lots of different people. You will be committing yourself to deadlines both personally and for your team, so you need to be sure you can deliver on them. This means that you need to have a really good sense of where you and your project team are with the project at all times. You also need to know how much “wiggle room” you have available to work on tasks not directly related to the development of your product. This could be reporting, budgeting, or attending planning meetings. A project manager constantly has a whole host of requests coming in from every direction imaginable.
You need to be able to organize your project, your own personal schedule/calendar, and those of your team members. Organizing your team is not telling them what to do; it is working with them to help them to manage their own time and to ensure that they have the time and resources to implement the tasks you have assigned to them. You are empowering your team members to achieve their objectives. You will be required to constantly prioritize and re-prioritize tasks for yourself and your team members. You need to be able to respond to changes quickly and effectively.
“Organized” means knowing where the file is that you need for your next meeting, arriving on time for your meeting, and being prepared. If you are hosting the meeting, you should ensure that you have prepared an agenda, that the agenda has been distributed to the attendees ahead of time, and that you have a clearly defined purpose and goal of the meeting. No one wants to spend time in meetings that are not productive or effective. If the meeting is not adding value, productivity, or effectiveness to your project, perhaps you do not need to hold the meeting!
Engineers, developers, and technical staff cannot be expected to be the best organizers. It is a great bonus if they are, but the success of the project hinges on the project manager’s ability to effectively organize all aspects of the project and the project schedule.
Without good organization, you will not be able to schedule effectively for you or for your project team(s). You will not be able to prioritize and re-prioritize appropriately. You will be unable to communicate effectively and accurately to your stakeholders regarding the status of your project. You will also have no idea whether or not you can deliver your project on time, with high quality and within budget. You should always know where you stand, and even in the early stages of the project, you should have at least an 80 percent level of confidence of whether or not you will be able to deliver your project on the specified completion date and within the specified budget.
A project manager is a leader, not only for the project he or she is managing but also within the organization for whom the project is being developed. To lead effectively, you will need to develop a high level of leadership skill. Organizational ability is a prerequisite for building effective leadership skills. Leading a project team can be a complex task. Unlike management in some other fields, technology management works a little differently. For instance, the manager is not necessarily the highest paid person on the project team. It is not unusual for senior engineering employees to be earning a higher salary than their manager is. Unless you came from a senior engineering position before becoming a project manager, the chances are that your team members will determine how the project gets implemented. You will communicate what needs to be accomplished, and their job is to figure out the best way to implement the solution within the allotted time and with the required functionality. You have a responsibility to remove any obstacles that prevent your team members from spending the maximum amount of their working time on tasks directly related to the development and implementation of the product.
Respect for your leadership is not a right, it is a privilege, and it needs to be earned. Your team needs to see you demonstrating your contribution to the project and the team in order for you to show that you are adding value to the process. The team may not always agree with your decisions, but they need to have confidence that you know what you are doing. You need to demonstrate integrity and treat others with respect and dignity at all times.
In your role as project manager, you may also be a people manager. You may be directly managing some, or all, of your team members. An effective manager needs to be able to set work assignments and track progress. This is, basically, the project management part of your job. In addition, other important skills are required to build and maintain a highly productive and high-quality team. You will need to coach and develop your team members. You will need to help them create and achieve their individual training and technical-development goals. If you work remotely from some or all of your team members, you will need to perform these tasks with little, or no, face-to-face communication. It is important to ensure that all team members are given the appropriate amount of attention and guidance regardless of their geographical location.
You may be responsible for goal and objective setting at the start of each year and for producing formal written performance reviews for each employee at the end of each performance cycle. Knowing what contributions each team member has made to the project or projects and to the team is essential to accurately and appropriately deliver performance feedback to your team members. Companies determine the level of salary increase, bonus, and other compensation given to each employee based on performance-review feedback from their manager. Therefore, honest and constructive feedback is critical to both the company and to each team member. Knowing your team members individually and understanding their work styles and their career goals are essential to developing highly motivated and productive team members.
An old adage states that we should “treat others as you would like to be treated.” That is a nice sentiment, but I question whether this approach will help you build a successful team. You need to treat others as they wish to be treated and not as you wish to be treated. Everyone is different, and we all have different needs. We are motivated by different assignments and by different rewards. Take the time to find out what those motivations are for each member of your team. Do not assume that you know what motivates and inspires someone. Ask them; you might be surprised at what you can find out. You might also be surprised at how easy it is to make adjustments to the way you manage that person that will prove to be mutually beneficial. We are all different, and diversity builds excellent teams. As a manager, you need to learn how to manage in a diverse environment and develop skill in adjusting your management style to fit the individual and the situation. These are important keys to successful people management.
Project managers need excellent communication skills, both written and verbal. You may not start out as “excellent,” but you must continually strive to get there. Communication skills are like your golf game (this will ring a bell for any golf players out there). You are never quite good enough; you can always improve your game, and just when you think you have attained excellence, you play a really bad game and end up back where you were a year ago. You must practice constantly to keep your skills honed. There is no such thing as “too many lessons.” You can learn from books, from classes, and from other people. One thing you will never be is a perfect, infallible communicator. When things go wrong; if you misjudged how to handle a situation (just as you may have misjudged getting that golf ball onto the green), you need to put it behind you and continue without losing your confidence. Tomorrow could be an excellent communication day!
Being able to communicate clearly and effectively is fundamentally important. Knowing how to stay “high level” and not getting into the details is critical. Your role is to communicate what someone else needs to know, not to impress him or her with how much you know. Knowing what level of detail your stakeholders and team members need is a skill that you will learn to develop both from reading this book and from personal experience.
High-quality written communication is a necessary skill for any project manager. You will be required to write documents, reports, emails, and, possibly, employee reviews. These all require more than basic writing ability. If your writing is not very good now, I recommend that you brush up on that skill as soon as possible. One way to improve your writing ability is to read a lot of material similar to the documents you will be writing. This will give you a feel for the content and the style of the communication. Many companies have specific formats or templates that they use for documents and reports. This makes it a little easier to get started, and you can read some of the previously written material to get a feel for the style and tone commonly used at that particular company.
Communicating virtually is different from communicating face-to-face. As with any other kind of communication, the more you do it, the more skilled you become. The most challenging aspect of virtual communication is avoiding distractions, for you and for the person you are communicating with. Multitasking while communicating virtually does not make you more productive. It makes you unprofessional and sloppy in your work. If you are not paying attention, you will miss important information and you risk alienating the person or people to whom you are communicating. You don’t have to be able to see someone to know they are distracted and not paying full attention. Demonstrating respectful behavior means stopping what you are doing and giving others your full attention.
Engineers are not generally known for having great time management skills. It is the project manager’s job to help his or her employees accomplish their tasks in a timely manner regardless of how good the employee’s time-management skills are. You need your team members to be at meetings on time, and you need them to focus on the assigned tasks and not get distracted. Be creative when you come up with ideas on how to accomplish this. One project that I was involved in had a rule that if you were late for a meeting, you had to tell a joke, sing a song, or dance for the team. After that rule was introduced, there were only two more latecomers to the meeting for the duration of the project. One habitual latecomer stated that the thought of having to perform in front of the whole team cured him of his tardiness. He figured out how to set reminders on his calendar and paid attention to them! This kind of rule may not work well in corporate settings, but it might be just the ticket in more informal environments where the team members know each other very well! Another rule I have seen that works quite well is not allowing latecomers into your meeting unless they bring donuts for the team. This can work particularly well for the more thrifty members of your team. I have also seen projects where latecomers are not allowed into the room. The rule is to either turn up on time or do not turn up at all. That can be rather harsh and may not always prove to be the most productive way to run your meetings, but in some situations, or for specific types of meetings, it may work. I would certainly not recommend that you put this rule in place for your weekly scheduled status meetings!
Your own time management may also be a challenge for you. Being an excellent organizer will not necessarily make it easy for you to manage your time. It can still be difficult. The nature of a project manager’s business is to have more on your plate than you can manage. Prioritizing tasks in order of importance rather than just working on the easy ones first is the most efficient way to manage your time. If you are accomplishing tasks that are critical, those will have the most positive impact on your project. Noncritical tasks may never get accomplished and there may be little, or no, effect on your project from not completing them.
In some project management jobs, you will find that your work is interrupted approximately every 10 to 15 minutes. Consequently, during the course of an hour, you can be dealing with any number of issues. Remembering (and finding time) to get back to your original task can be challenging. As you get more comfortable with working in this way, you risk developing an inability to focus on things for more than 10 or 15 minutes. There will be times when you have to spend hours writing documents and reviews or are in important meetings and you have to focus on one thing for an extended length of time. You need to develop the ability to focus on one thing for a long period of time and also develop the ability to focus on many things at the same time. I never said that this job would be easy! Trying to hide out in meeting rooms or bathrooms or keeping your office door closed won’t protect you from the onslaught! You have to be available at all times for your team members. They need you to be available so that they can continue to be productive. With any major issues that come up, you need to be informed and you need to make sure that your team members know this. You are the nucleus of the project; the team needs to be orbiting around you. You are the force that keeps them on track. When you feel the urge to bury your head in the sand, remember that at the end of the day, you are the one who will be held accountable!
Technical or Specialized Knowledge and Understanding
To manage technical projects, you need some knowledge of technology. You do not necessarily need to understand how to write code to be able to manage software developers. Additionally, you do not need to be able to install a network to be able to manage network engineers, but you need to understand enough about the technology that your teams are using to be able to understand what your team is working on. Without this knowledge, you will be unable to recognize whether your team is developing a high-quality product or not. Having some experience in one or more areas of engineering work will be of great benefit to you and your team, but it is not a necessity to be an effective project manager. Most technology project manager positions require some technical training. Some require a bachelor’s or even a master’s degree in a technical discipline.
Domain or “subject matter” knowledge is also important. You can learn it on the job, but you will often need to get up to speed very fast if you are to produce a good quality product and be able to communicate effectively with your stakeholders. For example, if you are working on developing a financial product, you will need some knowledge of finance, banking, and financial terms. If you are working on a system for dental practices, you are going to need some basic understanding of dental procedures and dental terms.
Project managers are the “middle men/women” between the technical team and the business team. You need to be able to translate technical terms to business terms and vice versa. To understand business requirements, you will need some understanding of business and business management. Your world will often be completely technology focused, but the users of your products may not be technically adept at all.
Building the biggest product with the most features or using the most up-to-date technology that you can is not what a project manager is hired to do. Engineers usually want to build the biggest and the best and to have as much technical challenge in each project as possible. Your role is to ensure that you are meeting the business requirements of the project. You have a budget, you have a timeline, and you have a project scope. Your client, whether internal or external, will very likely have compromised on the features they would have liked to make the project financially feasible. The product should be built to meet the client needs and not to fulfill a desire of your technical team to produce the most technically advanced product it can. This is where your understanding of the business needs is necessary to make informed decisions. You need to be managing the scope of your project within your development team as well as with the client. You need to be sure that your team is not going “above and beyond” in areas that are not ultimately beneficial to the business or to the client. You are the voice of the business to your team members, and you need to ensure that you have a clear understanding of what is good for the business and what is not good so that you can communicate this to your team and manage the scope of your project.
While implementing your project, you will have specific business objectives to meet. You will be accountable to the business for your deliverables and for completing your project within budget. You may need to supply the business managers and administrators with data and reports. The business managers are paying for the project(s) that you are managing, so you need to be able to work well with those folks and to have their trust and confidence in your ability to deliver.
Creating and Giving Presentations
Getting up in front of a room full of people and presenting your own (or others’) ideas is not everyone’s idea of a great day at the office! Whether you love an audience or are shaking in your boots at the prospect, it is going to be a part of the job at some point. Initially you may help put together the presentations and a more senior project manager may present, but as you move up the project management and corporate ladder, you will also be presenting. You can develop skill in presenting, in meeting facilitation, and in public speaking. The best way to improve your presentation skills is to give a lot of presentations. Volunteer to present as often as you can on subjects with which you feel comfortable. You will find yourself getting more and more confident as time goes by. You will stop being concerned about people looking at you and be more concerned with the subject matter and ensuring that everyone understands the full impact of what you are communicating.
Many presentations are given remotely using web-conferencing tools. Initially you may think that this will be much easier and less stressful because your audience cannot “see” you. However, you cannot see your audience, either, so you have no idea whether they are paying attention. If your presentation is not compelling, they may become distracted and start to read emails instead of focusing on your presentation. You need to be just as engaging and entertaining when presenting virtually as in person. The lack of eye contact means you have to work just a little bit harder to connect with your audience. It takes practice to develop virtual presentation skills just as it does with face-to-face presentations.
You may find that some of the presentations you give have both local and remote audience members. The danger with presenting to a room full of people and also having remote attendees is that it is easy to forget that the remote folks are there. You must be constantly cognizant of their presence. Don’t use hand gestures or point to parts of the presentation without also using web-based tools to virtually “point” to the information in your presentation. If someone in the room asks a question, you must remember to repeat the question before answering it to ensure that remote attendees know what the question was. The remote folks need to be able to contribute by participating in discussions, either by speaking verbally or submitting written questions or comments. It is helpful to have a facilitator in the room to help field questions and to share comments submitted in writing by remote audience members.
You will need to be proficient in PC computing and various project-tracking tools to manage your projects. These include the following:
- Calendaring and meeting-scheduling software
- Microsoft Word®or equivalent
- Microsoft Excel®or equivalent
- Microsoft Project®or equivalent
- Microsoft PowerPoint®or equivalent
- Microsoft Visio®or equivalent
- Web browser
- Web conferencing and presentation tools
- Video and audio conferencing
- Social media
- Instant messaging
It is assumed that you have some basic experience with most of these tools before you start.