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How To Be a Better Project Manager: The 6 Step No-Nonsense Guide

Project managers are a hot commodity on the job market. Here's how to train people better and help them achieve PM excellence from my experience of over a decade.


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Dennis Lenard

3 years ago | 7 min read

On the current job market, project management is a highly sought after set of professional competencies. In one of their recent reports, the World Economic Forum highlighted it as a role with projected demand increase over the next 5 years.

My experience as a consultant has taught me that companies are sometimes ill-equipped to handle project management or even properly train project managers in house. Because this job is much more than timing development stages and creating spreadsheets, I thought I could toss my hat in the ring and offer some insight.

Looking past the debate on development methodologies, here are the 6 essential steps to great project management:

Refine Project Management Training

Companies that function on a project to project basis generally have a sound training program in place. Aside from business acumen and tech expertise, a project manager needs 4 specific types of knowledge in order to successfully fulfill their professional potential.

These are:

  • Process knowledge, which refers to an in-depth understanding of the development stages and deliverables;
  • Cultural knowledge, which refers to being aware of how the organization they are part of views the process and the world in general;
  • Institutional knowledge, which refers to the organization's structure, rules, and governance;
  • Domain knowledge, which refers to their competence in the organization's niche (for example software development, design etc.).

Great project management courses combine all four categories.

The reality of training programs in most organizations is far from ideal though. I've noticed that most materials lack relevant, real-life examples to support the vague advice they offer. Furthermore, there's not enough contextualized information to help trainees understand when to apply what.

Organizations also struggle to incorporate the development of soft skills into their instructional programs. While hard skills are important for an employee's productivity and efficiency, a project manager works with a lot of different people. They interact with everyone involved in the project, from the main stakeholders to their team members. It's paramount that they navigate all those professional relationships effortlessly.

Professionals during a training session
Professionals during a training session

Frequent organizational restructuring is also to the detriment of fostering great in house project management. The process tends to push away the employees at the end of their career progressions. This is a tragedy, as their experience would make them prime candidates for project management roles.

There are scenarios in which organizations don't have the adequate resources to create the ideal number of project management roles or to fund a training program. This puts a lot of pressure on the employees. Advocate for the appropriate budgets within your organization if you have the authority to do so.

What to do to refine project manager training:

  • Combine hard skills, soft skills, and technological knowledge for the best results;
  • Assess which employees need to develop project management skills and who might be a good fit as a project manager;
  • Develop an internal training program that shows employees how the organization solves specific problems;
  • Ask for appropriate funding and continued investment to sustain the project management capability.

Time Changes Adequately

Accepting intricate changes at advanced stages in the development process is a recipe for disaster. Even if most teams work according to the Agile methodology, it's important to learn to absorb changes in a way that is mindful of the project's budget, duration, and scope.

Project management is a balancing act between moments of variation and stability. Controlling change is key to building a stable process. Most changes occur because:

  • Certain changes are an organic part of the process;
  • The accuracy of planning is limited;
  • There is a strong tendency to improve the product as the project progresses.

Within the Agile methodology, reworks are inevitable. So how can a project manager tell when change is justified and when it isn't? The easiest way to keep changes in check is to communicate with the clients. Change control forces both parties to scale their expectations in regards to the product.

A number board showing various times.
A number board showing various times.

Here's what you can do to time changes in an effective manner:

  • Clarify all aspects of the initial action plan in order to avoid unnecessarily expanding the project's scope;
  • Have different assessment systems in place for minor and major changes;
  • Compile reports on how major changes impact project cost, duration, and scope;
  • Always get the client to sign off on changes;
  • Be extremely diligent when approving changes.

Master The Art Of The Deadline

The ability to reduce uncertainty is a core attribute of every talented project manager. This means learning how to set reasonable deadlines. Agreeing on a project delivery date that satisfies the client and prevents burnout within your team can be complicated.

A typewriter with the word “deadline” in the header.
A typewriter with the word “deadline” in the header.

Contractual penalties and official launch dates often send development teams on to project management death marches. It's important to discuss the actual scope and feasibility of the project with the client before agreeing on the delivery date. Remember, in most cases, the client is not a specialist and cannot assess how long things will actually take.

Look out for your team by:

  • Seeking out work even when busy in order to be able to cherry pick clients;
  • Remembering that time is a finite resource. Don't bite off more than you can chew!
  • If the agreed-upon deadline falls through, show the client why an extension would be beneficial and what they would sacrifice by deciding against it (in most cases, it's the quality of the product).

Act With The Team's Best Interests In Mind

In the previous category, I mentioned project management death marches. In order to prevent them from occurring, you must learn to recognize the factors that cause them in the first place:

  • The time allocation is half or less than half of what an expert would have estimated for this project;
  • Your team has only half the people necessary to complete a project of that scope;
  • The budget is only half of the sum required for a project of comparable size.

Because such projects are clearly set up for failure, they take a huge toll on the team's morale. Other factors that can contribute to a negative work environment are failing to set realistic deadlines, improper prioritization of projects, and the shortcomings of key sponsors.

A group conquering a peak
A group conquering a peak

Going at this rate, organizations will run out of people and get a bad reputation. In order to avoid setting your team off on project management death marches, you should:

  • Make it clear for stakeholders that all project objectives are interconnected, and sacrificing one will invariably affect the others;
  • Use the Situation > Target > Proposal model to begin productive business conversations if things start going South;
  • Make checklists for every stage of development so that you can spot unacceptable tendencies early on;
  • Use a resourcing model to plan resource allocation more efficiently.

Plan Like A Pro

An organization without a solid foundation of trust among higher ups and project managers is a dysfunctional work environment. When it comes to time estimates for task completion, suspicion among the two parties sabotages the project management process.

Superiors must rest assured that a project manager makes informed estimates when it comes to planning the stages of a product's development. If they have cause to believe that the PM is including time for rest in the project estimate, the professional relationship is irreparably broken.

These are the signs of a dysfunctional rapport between colleagues:

  • A senior knows more details about the project than the project manager;
  • The project manager is trying to convince stakeholders that he needs more time than necessary;
  • Seniors are questioning the validity of the plan proposed by the project manager.

Yes, plans are often subject to changes and can prove to be inaccurate when the true scope of a project is revealed. But there are also a lot of human factors at play when the plan is crafted:

  • Juniors that notice irregularities or want to propose improvements don't usually speak up;
  • Personality differences can cause miscommunication. For example, an introverted colleague might be hesitant to ask an extroverted colleague for clarifications;
  • A senior might demand an unfeasibly compressed timeline;
  • An expert can rely on outdated past experiences to influence how the project is timed.

In order to elaborate a plan like a true professional, you need your colleagues to contribute their own ideas and question the propositions of others. This can only happen if the work environment feels safe. You can sustain the process by asking questions such as: What are the alternatives? How would you do this? How could we do this differently? What are the chances of this failing?

The best practices of planning recommend that you involve the stakeholders in the planning process. Collect relevant data which you can use to back your proposition in case you have to ask for an extension. Additionally, you should never leave the term "due date" undefined - contextualize it using an adjective like "final", "intended", "confirmed", "last feasible" etc.

Be(A)ware Of Optimism Bias

What is the optimism bias? Simply put, it occurs when people believe that good outcomes are much more likely than bad ones. Even when all the signs point towards failure, this cognitive crutch keeps them hopeful.

While on its own it might sound endearing, in a project management scenario it can sabotage the iterative efforts of the entire team. Project managers plagued by optimism bias deflect blame for their past shortcomings and underestimate how much time tasks actually take to complete.

A bunch of balloons with smiley faces on them.
A bunch of balloons with smiley faces on them.

In order to avoid letting optimism bias dictate your project success rate, you can:

  • Review your successful and unsuccessful plans in order to pick the best, the worst, and an average course of action;
  • Build a database of stages, milestones, and processes that repeat themselves during the development process and the time it takes to complete them;
  • Create an environment in which team members can challenge each other's time estimates.

While optimism bias is partly responsible for our survival as a species, professional project managers should acknowledge it and work towards limiting its influence.

Wrap Up

Project managers are jacks of all trades. A great PM is a business-savvy communicator, a plan crafter, a leader, and a quality assurance specialist all in one. Running a company without a project manager is like attempting to drive a car blindfolded - it simply won't work, and the risks are not worth it.

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Created by

Dennis Lenard

CEO of top UX agency Creative Navy. Passionate about embedded GUI design and medical device design. https://creative.navy


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