What does it take to get a digital project up and running and across the finish line? For anything but the smallest project it takes a close-knit team of architects, writers, designers and developers who understand each other’s strengths and share a common vision. In the middle of that team lives your friendly neighborhood project manager. There are many traits and tools project managers need to be successful, but in my 15 years in the role these five rise to the top:
1. Listening actively
Excellent communication skills top the list of qualifications for any PM job description. But a great communicator goes beyond carrying a conversation or covering talking points – they listen actively. They ask good questions and reflect back what they hear to gain a full understanding of the issue at hand. They empathize and help others do so too, fostering resilient relationships.
Active listening doesn’t come easily to most people (including me, I love to talk). It turns out your mother was right when she said “There’s a reason you have two ears and one mouth.” By listening actively you can process your thoughts, respond clearly, and guide the conversation to a good outcome. You’re able to resolve conflicts because you’ve taken time to understand the underlying reasons behind someone’s initial objections. You gain confidence in your communication and ability to build teams. And you become a trusted voice on your projects.
2. Organizing consistently
I am the type of person who has a proper place for everything. Whether your approach to life involves files or piles, organization for a project manager is a must. Managing a team well starts with managing yourself. Consistent process and organization fosters calm and confidence for everyone on the team, allowing them to focus on delivering awesome work on time and on budget.
These are my go-to tips for project organization:
- Manage your calendar or it will manage you. In addition to meetings, plan time to collect your thoughts, prep for meetings, and handle the work after meetings. You might have to look 2-3 weeks ahead to begin taming your calendar.
- Structure meeting notes with clear agendas, outcomes, questions, and next steps.
- Store notes and tasks in a central location for the team.
- Remember, organization takes time. Block out time every week to de-clutter your project files and put things in their proper place.
3. Adapting to change
As they say in South Florida, “if you don’t like the weather…wait 5 minutes.” Projects can be like Florida weather – a team member goes home sick before a big deadline, client priorities change suddenly, or you hit a technical roadblock. As a PM you learn to expect change. How you deal with it makes all the difference. To adapt well, you quickly assess the impact of the change, reprioritize, and communicate clearly so team members can keep moving.
Adaptability isn’t only reactive. Sometimes you need to encourage a change. You may realize there’s a better way to accomplish some part of the project or that a change is needed to head off risk. By inviting the team to step back and think together about alternative plans, you provide the guidance and leadership the team needs.
The better organized you are, the better prepared you are to adapt, and the faster you can adapt the smoother your project will run.
4. Foreseeing risk
No plan is immune from risk. Risks take many forms, from scope changes and competing deadlines to tasks that blow past their estimated time. We do our best to mitigate risks up front, but we also need to be able to see them coming as the project is rolling.
To assess a perceived risk you need a firm understanding of the scope and project plan. With help from the team you can weigh the likely impacts, discuss strategies, and make a decision to handle the risk that balances your priorities. Involving the team helps everyone learn to spot risks earlier and feel confident about bringing issues to your attention.
5. Leading people, not just teams
It’s one thing to help the team stay on task, understanding the work and meeting deadlines. It’s another to manage individual people. Like a sports team, each player has their own personality. You can’t coach everyone the same way. With skills like active listening you learn how best to support each person so that you succeed as a team.
A good project manager is always a work in progress, which leads to the 6th trait…”Always Learning.” But that’s a topic for another day!