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: 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. They require just as much attention and development as your ability to plan, organise and prioritise tasks or create a risk management register.
So here’s an overview of those essential project management skills and then a closer look at these skills:
ESSENTIAL PROJECT MANAGEMENT SKILLS
|Effective Communication||Produce succinct reports that are meaningful to their audience|
|Ability to negotiate with stakeholders for additional resources|
|Motivating a project team|
|Ability to clearly explain project aims and benefits |
|Good Organisation Skills||Keeping paperwork under control|
|Using version control for important documentation|
|Manage tasks as per the project schedule|
|Record important milestones|
|Good Time Management||Track and monitor milestones|
|Track and monitor progress|
|Record time elapsed vs estimated time for all tasks|
|Monitor and manage scheduling conflicts and interdependencies|
|Develop time-saving efficiencies|
|Master the “work smarter not harder” approach|
|Interpersonal Qualities||Build effective working relationships|
|Diplomacy and tact|
|Earn respect and trust|
|Problem-Solving Abilities||Ability to think clearly under pressure|
|Keep calm and focused on the project aims|
|Aptitude to devise realistic solutions|
|Leadership Qualities||Influence and persuade others|
|Focus on the positive|
|Appear confident and optimistic|
These capabilities may be obvious but it is worth reminding ourselves in more detail about what it takes to be a truly exceptional project manager. A PM 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 .Then 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. Or they 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 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
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. A person who 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 using a simple online task management tool or being rigorous about entering all tasks in your calendar. It could be setting reminders for certain activities, keeping paperwork under control. Like managing you own tasks as a mini-project – good organisation skills are easy to learn and quickly become a good habit.
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. 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 time factored in for the time it takes to manage the project. It is also a skill to know 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 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 . PMs have to be able to work well with people in their team, be able to motivate the team. To impart both good and bad news diplomatically.
Ultimately it’s the people that make projects succeed so focus on the people involved. Build solid relationships with them all. A motivated team working with an experienced project manager they respect and trust will be able to pull together in a difficult situation to overcome any hurdles. 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 evaluating each problem. Some problems will have a clear-cut solution but many won’t. The aptitude to come up with realistic solutions that maintain focus on the project’s objectives is an essential project management capability.
That’s not to say that problem solving needs to be an innate skill right from the start of a career in project management. It’s a capability that is learnt and develops over time with exposure to real-world project environments. Nevertheless it is worth trying to develop some competency as early as possible. 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 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. These are then 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.