We all know that to secure the best project management roles, especially if you are coming new into an organisation, requires some sort of formal project management qualification in addition to the relevant experience as a project manager. Even introductory PM certifications such as the APM Project Fundamentals Qualification (APM PFQ) shows that as a candidate you have a level of commitment to developing within your chosen career. But assuming you have at least a basic level of professional PM qualifications and some relevant experience – what else is required? What are the project management skills and qualities that project managers need to secure that next great role managing interesting and challenging projects and, more importantly, to succeed managing those projects?
Above and beyond simply understanding how to manage a project – with it’s schedule, budget, tasks, inter-dependencies and risks, it is also important the way in which you manage a project. How you deal with problems and with people; how you communicate with stakeholders and motivate the team when the going is tough.
Project managers wear many hats in their role, they interact with sponsors, stakeholders, senior management, team members and end users in all sorts of departments; they produce written communications and reports on a regular basis, they manage the budget and the schedule, they manage and try to mitigate risk and manage wide-ranging changes within an organisation. They often have to build and motivate a project team too. The list of tasks really is endless – but these are the day-to-day tasks that every project manager has to do – I want to consider instead the project management skills that every project managers needs in order to carry out these tasks well and to do that intuitively (eventually) not merely by following a process or methodology to the letter.
The Many Project Management Skills Required
It would be easy to rattle off a list of typical project management skills such as: good communication, good decision making and problem-solving skills but what does that mean in practise “to be an effective communicator” or “be good at decision making”. These abilities require basic skills and qualities that transcend your PM capabilities and require just as much attention and development as your ability to plan, organise and prioritise tasks or create a risk management register.
So let’s take a closer look at these project management skills – they are all obvious but it is worth reminding ourselves about what it takes to be a truly exceptional project manager who others want to work with and who can succeed even in the most difficult project environments:
The project manager is the main point of contact during a project for stakeholders, senior executives, clients and customers. Being able to communicate effectively with all these groups means understanding what each group needs, and wants, to know about the project and providing that information in an easy to understand way. So it doesn’t mean just churning out a standard report that nobody reads or understands – to produce reports that are meaningful you need to talk to those the report is aimed at and listen to what they are saying. Too often project reports are not read by those they are intended for because they are too long or too complex and don’t highlight the really important information clearly enough. So, whilst written communication skills are important it also helps to have clear graphics included to highlight key data.
And, of course, communication skills are not just about producing good reports and documentation – a project manager also needs to be good at verbal communication so that when, for instance, the project needs additional budget or time then the PM can negotiate the extra resources required with the stakeholders. Equally they can talk to people affected by the project about the changes in a sensitive way that recognises the concerns people always have when major change is being implemented. Being able to motivate a project team often also comes down to good, simple verbal communication.
Good Organisation Skills
It is obvious really that an essential part of the project manager’s skill set will be the ability to be well organised. But if you are the sort of person who crumbles under pressure or when others are demanding action and forgets about the process and procedures required to run a successful project then you need to work on being more organised and focused. This could mean becoming competent with a simple online task management tool or being rigorous about entering all tasks in your calendar, setting reminders for certain activities, keeping paperwork under control. Almost like managing you own tasks as a mini-project – good organisation skills are easy to learn and once they become habit then it’s an easy skill to maintain.
Good Time Management
Project managers create and monitor schedules of work for their teams and deal with scheduling conflicts and interdependencies during the course of the project. They work to milestones and deadlines which are often fixed and this requires constant monitoring of progress and adjustments of the workload to ensure the project stays within the time constraints. But what many PMs forget is that you also have to manage your own time well – this means making sure the project schedule has adequate time factored in for the actual time it takes to manage the project. It is also a skill that means knowing how to make the best use of time available, how to be an expert at time-saving efficiencies and often how to master the “work smarter not harder” adage.
It’s no good having mastered the most advanced PM qualifications if you don’t have well-honed basic project management skills like inter-personal skills. Your project could succeed or fail based on your relationship-building abilities. If you have none, your projects are at risk of failing and so too is your career as a project manager. PMs have to be able to work well with people in their team, be able to motivate the team, impart both good and bad news diplomatically. Ultimately it’s the people that make projects succeed so focus on the people involved and build solid relationships with them all. It is a motivated team working with an experienced project manager they respect and trust that will be most able to pull together in a difficult situation to overcome any hurdles; and, let’s face it, almost all complex projects will come across their share of hurdles and difficulties so don’t under-estimate the importance of the team spirit in surmounting any obstacles.
Project managers will always encounter problems on every project except perhaps the very simplest of projects. It is almost the very nature of projects to be beset with problems (that’s a discussion for another time) so a PM has to be able to think under pressure, to remain calm and stay focused while they evaluate each problem. Some problems will have a clear-cut solution but many won’t and it is the aptitude to come up with realistic solutions that maintain focus on the project’s objectives that is one of the essential project management capabilities every PM should have.
That’s not to say that problem solving needs to be an innate skill right from the start of a career in project management because it’s a capability that is learnt and develops over time and with exposure to real-world problems in the project environment. Nevertheless it is worth trying to develop some competency as early as possible and one way to do that is to use the five-step formula IDEAL: Identify, Define, Examine, Act and Look.
When there is a major problem it is easy to be overwhelmed by it and not be able to clearly see the root of the problem. Or to generalise too much and fail to clarify the issues – such as describing a problem as “we are way over budget” instead of something like “task A took 3 times as long to complete”.
Defining the main elements of a problem requires breaking it down into smaller parts that are easier to manage and to resolve. Solving each smaller part at a time will then seem more achievable.
Finding effective solutions to a problem (or sub-set of a problem) is harder because there may be risks involved or other factors such as additional resources that won’t be easy to come by so it is a bit of a balancing act too.
Make a plan to fix the problem and act decisively to do so
Once the problem is solved look back and assess whether it was done well and whether any lessons can be learned for future problems and projects.
Do you have the ability to influence and persuade others to your way of thinking or when a tough decision needs to be taken on a project? Can you persuade people to stay focused on the tasks at hand when they have received bad news such as the project budget being cut? Many projects are beset by problems and that is where strong leadership and the right project management skills can make all the difference to keep people on-side even when the project isn’t going to plan.
A good leader will focus on the positive aspects of a situation to help a team get through tough times and will know how to motivate the team in good times and bad. A good leader is confident and optimistic or, at least, gives the appearance of being confident and optimistic.
So when you are planning your next career move as a project manager or just thinking about developing additional capabilities consider these PM skills and qualities and how you could improve in each area.