I’ve often mentioned that a project manager is the CEO of his or her project. Knowing that a CEO needs to be able to communicate in many ways, the project manager has to have a wide variety of communication skills in order to be effective.
Verbal Communication Skills
The most obvious and critical communication skill is the ability to speak. The project manager spends most of his day speaking to people. I’ve known a lot of people who can talk. But sometimes they say very little. The project manager must be able to speak concisely. Why say seven words when four will do.
When reporting to an executive on the status of a project, she doesn’t want to hear every detail. Talking in circles and never getting to the point can be even more annoying. When describing an issue or situation to an executive, the PM has to determine how much detail to provide. It is important to know how to build it into an understandable story that gets the point across as economically as possible.
I’ve found it better to provide just enough details to get the basic point across. If the executive asks for more detail, provide a few more details until they are satisfied. It always depends on the executive. Some want as much detail as possible. Others want the bare minimum.
When talking with team members, it is important to speak to them as equals. Assuming a superior attitude may intimidate them. This could result in receiving less information than you need. It also creates poor relationships on your project.
Written Communication Skills
Just like verbal communication, a project manager’s written communication must be concise. Co-workers receive emails, reports, and many other forms of written communication. When someone opens a 10-page email, their eyes are likely to roll back. Their likelihood of reading what you wrote is just as unlikely.
A project manager should also write clearly. Proper grammar is of the utmost importance. It is distracting and unproductive for someone to read and reread a sentence trying to figure out what the author is trying to say. A strong vocabulary is also essential. Do not mistake having a strong vocabulary with having knowledge of long and confusing words. A good vocabulary means knowing the right word for the right situation.
Graphical Communication Skills
Whether you like the tool or not, MS-PowerPoint is a staple of the business tool kit. It has a reputation of being overused and, to many, boring. One of the main reasons that people dislike PowerPoint is that people don’t use it well to communicate.
We’ve all seen PowerPoint slides with more text than a page from a Shakespeare play. And most of us have seen diagrams with the complexity of a nuclear submarine design.
It is important for a project manager to be able to create clear and concise PowerPoint slides that have the proper mix of text and graphics that make it pleasing visually, while communicating a point.
If you must show a complex diagram, it should be broken down into manageable pieces on subsequent slides so that the audience can break it down mentally and put it together easily when you are done.
PowerPoint is the tool of choice in most business settings. The Project manager’s job is to learn how to use it as an effective communication tool.
Technical Communication Skills
Many project managers work in technical arenas. Industries such as information technology and health care rely on technical language and complex details.
A project manager often plays the role of liaison between technical workers and business people. It is important for a PM to learn how to translate business requirements so that they are understandable to technical people.
It is even more vital for a PM to understand technical issues that have been explained by the technicians. Once understood, these issue need to be translated into understandable terms to the project sponsors. This description should also address how the technical issues affect the business.
Know your audience
As I addressed above, who you are talking to determines much of your communication. You obviously communicate to executives in a much different mode than to technical team members.
Each level within the organization needs to be considered. Copying a director on an email to one of her direct reports may be acceptable on a regular basis. Copying the vice president at the next level may not be. If there is an acceptable time to do that, extra scrutiny should be taken. You may want to have it reviewed to ensure it is clear and uses appropriate language.
Knowing your audience includes having a flexibility of tone. If you are communicating with a business associate with which you have a close personal relationship, it may be appropriate to joke around and discuss personal issues. This would be inappropriate with someone you don’t know well. The formality of the language you use is determined by the rank and familiarity of your audience. It is also is governed heavily by the culture of the organization.
One of the most important skills a project manager develops is the ability to communicate. It requires many modes depending on how, why, and to whom you are communicating. It also requires being a liaison that can explain issues between people with different skills and education levels.
What communication issues have you experienced on your projects?
In my early days of managing projects, the tasks ran the show. I was the man with the to-do list. I filled it out every night before leaving work. Every morning I religiously reviewed it, verified the priorities, and executed each item for a successful day.
The disappointment I felt if I wasn’t able to complete the list was measureable. It wasn’t just my own tasks that I managed that way. Every member of the team had their tasks, if not for the day, at least for the week. I felt it was my job to make sure everyone got their tasks done for the good of the project.
The tactical mind
By following that task-mastery approach, I know that I got a lot done. The team got a lot done. I felt like I was managing the project effectively by following this tactical approach. And to some degree I was. I was identifying what needed to get done and driving it to completion. Continue reading Thinking a Step Ahead of the Project Owner→
I once worked for a man that had a defined process for everything. He tracked everything with a spreadsheet. Everyone was expected to follow all of his processes to the letter. People became so bogged down following process that they got little else done.
We’ve all heard of back seat drivers. They sit in the car and criticize the driver. They tell the driver when to turn, when to slow down, and when to speed up.
Not all passengers are like that. Some just sit back, close their eyes and nap through the ride. It is indicative of how we manager our careers. A driver is one who takes control. The driver of a car has to monitor how fast traffic is moving and adjust accordingly A good driver will look ahead to see if there is a slow down or an obstacle in the distance to be able to adjust before there is a problem. Continue reading Are You a Driver of Your Career or a Passenger?→
Whether you went to college, trade school or jumped right into the work place. Your initial goal was probably to get a job. It may have been in your area of study. You may have gone in a different direction depending on the job market.
Once someone gets into their job, they get comfortable, complacent even. He learns the job well. He gets an annual pay increase. He eventually gets married, buys a home, and starts a family.
I recently met a college student who was studying psychology. He was one of the brightest and most ambitious young men I’ve met. He had dreams. He wanted to own his own business.
“Not just a little sole proprietorship,” he told me. “I’m willing to start small. But I want to grow this business and someday have something on a national scale.“
“That’s great. How do you hope to do this?” I asked.
“Well first, I want to get my PhD in psychology.”
“Why do you want to do that?” I asked, trying not to sound too incredulous.
“I want to be the best I can be.” Was his response. “So I want to get the best education I can get.”
It occurred to me that he had the idea that the more education he got, the more he would be successful. More is better. I talked to him about the fact that, unless you are going to go into research, there are diminishing returns to education at some point. I suggested that once he gets his bachelor’s degree, he may want to get some experience.
I asked him if he was familiar with the Pareto principle.
The 80-20 rule
The Pareto principle, also known as the 80-20 rule, stipulates that roughly 80% of value comes from 20% of one’s effort. You want to prioritize your work so that you are always doing that 20% that produces the top 80% of outcome. I explained to him that he could get a lot of value from earning his bachelor’s degree. That is focused on the 80%.
Someday, maybe a master’s in business administration (MBA) will be helpful. But probably not until he’s had some experience in business, either working for a company or running his own.
I told him that getting some business experience would probably be more focused on the 80% of value than a PhD.
Applying the 80-20 rule to big decisions
It’s normal to apply the 80-20 rule to major business decisions. In a consulting environment when we consider selling to a client. Are we spending 20% of our time seeking a client that will give 80% of long term value through additional business?
A manufacturer may identify that 80% of their customers buy 20% of their products. This can help them make decisions about whether to introduce a new product or to discontinue one.
Those of us who apply the 80/20 rule, tend to use it for major decisions. But it can also be used for everyday decisions.
Planning: When you start a project of any size, it is important to spend time on planning. That is an area that provides 80% of value. I have always been a pretty organized person. I always have a daily to-do list. And I usually put it together the night before. I know people who don’t use a daily to-do list. I’ve found that they aren’t usually as productive.
Planning your day, whether it is through a to-do list or another means, allows you to lay out everything that needs to be done. But more than that, it allows you to prioritize.
Once you have listed everything you want to do, you can compare the tasks. You can identify the “80% items” to make sure you are working on the right things.
I have spoken to people who call themselves “perfectionists.” It almost always turns me off. I’d probably never hire someone who calls himself a perfectionist. I’m a firm believer that perfect is the enemy of good.
Instead of doing the 20% of work to get 80% of value, a perfectionist will go well beyond the 20% trying to get 100% of value. That last 20% of value is not nearly as valuable. And the effort expended to get it could most likely be spent getting the 80% of value of some other task.
Applying the 80-20 rule should become a regular habit. Everything you do, everything you say should have some Pareto in it. Before you start anything, ask yourself “Is this an 80% task?”
It is important to do things right. But it is more important to do the right things.
Are you applying the 80-20 rule in your everyday decision making?
Worried about your career? Afraid that you’re stuck in a career rut that you’ll never get out of? You’re not alone. Millions of project managers are out there feeling the same anxiety that you feel.
Should I move on? Should I ask for more responsibility? Or should I just continue doing what I’m good at and what I’ve been doing for the past few years.
Project management is a fairly unique occupation. It is broad enough that once someone becomes a PM, it can be a fulfilling career in itself. You can remain a project manager, going on to manage larger and more complex projects for the rest of your career.
Alternatively, you could use your position as project manager as a stepping stone, leading you on to other leadership positions.
Whichever route you choose, being a project manager can be part of a long and successful career, as long as you manage four critical aspects of your career.
One of the most critical aspects of leadership is credibility. Your team needs to believe what you say. It also needs to believe in you. Every stakeholder, from the team members implementing the project to the business user you hand the project off to, looks to your leadership.
If anyone on the project questions your ability or sincerity, you begin to lose their followership. So it is important to act with confidence. The best way to act confidently is to understand as much detail as is practical. Some project managers get so deep into the weeds that they don’t have time for higher-level management tasks. Others stay hands-off and don’t know enough of what is going on.
An effective project manager knows the right balance of detail to focus on in order to maintain credibility.
A project manager should also avoiding demotivating practices. When a project manager publicly criticizes anyone on the team for poor performance or a mistake, it can derail productivity. If a team member needs to make a corrective action, the project manager should discuss it with them in private to avoid embarrassing the individual in front of others. Any criticism should be constructive and provide suggestions for improvement. The manager should also include areas in which the person excels.
Empty compliments can also reduce morale and productivity. Cheering the team on with a lot of “rah rah,” and “you guys are doing great,” may seem like a good idea. But team members can see through that. Compliments should be for specific achievements. Everything you say should have a purpose and accomplish something. Empty praise accomplishes nothing.
Be a good team player. Project managers expect their team members to be team players. Project managers need to be good team players too. Being a team player is about being selfless. Team players help others whether it serves their own needs or not. Their top priority is the success of the team.
One of the best ways a PM can be a good team player is to avoid micromanaging. Allow the team members to do their job and provide updates. A project manager who is a team player doesn’t always need to be right. When a team member disagrees with something you do or say, allow them to state their case. If their idea will work better, put your ego aside and do what is best for the team.
Finally, when communicating with team members, put things in their perspective. Rather than saying, “I need this done so my boss doesn’t yell at me,” tell them how completing the task makes the team more productive.
Remove obstacles. Team members on the team have their job. They often work heads down trying to get tasks completed and can often run into road blocks. Maybe there is an uncooperative 3rd party delaying a dependency that the team member’s task requires. Perhaps they need help aligning task assignments with other team members. It could be as simple as enabling communication across the project. Anything the project manager can do to help keep people from spinning their wheels sets an example of leadership and helps the team be successful.
It is hard for someone to reach a career destination if they don’t know where they want to go. When managing your career as a project manager, you need to establish a vision for your future.
Define a purpose. Where do you want to go? Before you go on vacation, you decide upon a destination. You need to do the same for your career. Establish an overriding goal in the long term, preferably two or more years out.
Develop a plan. Once you have a long term goal, you need a plan for getting there. When you decide on that vacation destination, you may consider multiple modes of transportation or routes to get there. You will want to do the same thing for your career. Do you want to remain a project manager for the long term, or do you want that to be a stepping stone for other career goals?
The long term goal should break down to short term goals that break down to weekly and daily tasks. That approach works great for your personal agenda. You also have to do the same for the project team.
Define and communicate the purpose for the project. The individual tasks assigned to the team members will be much more meaningful if the team members understand the overriding purpose that the tasks are for. They will understand how their presence on the project contributes to the ultimate project purpose.
Develop a plan for getting there. The project plan should be a clear roadmap for the team on how their tasks will get the project from the current state to the desired state.
Involve key people in the process. It’s one thing to establish a vision, but if you develop it in a vacuum, it may be hard to get others on board. If you get input from a core team of leaders, more people will be represented. People will be more likely to feel buy-in and your probability of success will be greater.
Stay focused. Developing a vision is not a throw away task. You don’t establish it on the first day and forget about it. The vision should be part of every meeting and every decision. It may not be mentioned, but it should be the core driver of the project team’s work. If anyone loses sight of the vision and veers off course, the project manager’s role is to remind them of the vision and pull them back on course.
Every member on the team should know that the vision represents “why are we here.” It should drive everything you and the team do and every decision that you and the team make.
The most successful project managers have excellent organizational skills. When managing their own days, they have a filing system for paper-based documents, electronic documents, and emails.
Even the smartest people can’t remember everything they read. But if they have an efficient way of accessing historical data, they can be efficient at finding anything and refreshing their memory with the actual document, instead of relying on memory or searching endlessly for documents in a pile.
Organizational skills bleed into leadership of the team too. Project managers should help others be organized. If a member of the team has trouble getting organized, it is up to the project manager to mentor them on organization skills. Teach them how to categorize, plan and prioritize.
Organization is more than just filing papers and electronic documents. For a project manager to develop in her career, she must communicate in an organized manner. Organized communication means that the team and the leadership that you report to understand what you are saying.
When you assign tasks to your team members, they need to understand specifically what you are asking them to do. When you report status to the business users, any ambiguity will put doubts in their mind about what is really happening on the project.
Few project managers are successful in their career if they are unable to manage their time effectively. There is not enough time in the day to do everything you want to do. It is critical to make sure you are working on the most important tasks.
The best practice to do that is to make a to-do list every day. The tasks on that list should be driven by the project vision. Once you have identified the tasks you want to do for a day, it is important to prioritize the tasks on that list.
There are many approaches for prioritization. Some people like to number the items from 1 to N and do each one in that order. I like to categorize taks into three categories. A items are those that must be done today. B items are important to do if I finish the A-list. C items are nice to have if I finish the A and B items and still have some time. The important thing is to make sure you list out all tasks and do the most important ones first.
Monitor your time. We’ve all probably had that task that we were deeply focused on. At some point you looked out the window and it was dark outside and everybody had gone home. You lost all concept of time. It happens to everyone once in a while. But good time managers monitor how long things are taking. It’s not a matter of clock watching, but knowing how your actual progress is going compared to what you had planned is something successful project managers do as a matter of habit.
OPT – Other People’s Time: How often has this happened to you? You ask someone how long something will take. They reply with a number of hours or days. Something in your gut tells you that it smells fishy.
“How did you come up with that number?” You ask.
Their words say, “I just know how long it will take me.” But their attitude says, “Leave me alone and quit second guessing me.”
As a project manager, you may be pretty good at estimating how long something will take you to plan a task and execute it, in order to get it done on time.
You may have been doing it for so long that it comes natural to you. I actually plan brewing my morning coffee in the Keurig first, so that I can gather my lunch from the fridge while it brews.
Believe it or not, not everybody thinks like that.
Successful project managers can manage not only their own time, but they help others manage their time. Sometimes it is just a matter of helping someone to coordinate and prioritize tasks. Other times, it requires some mentoring on how to estimate, plan, prioritize, and execute tasks to help people be more efficient and effective.
Project management can be either a career destination or a route along the way to many other different career options. Regardless of the route that you choose, it is important to develop your personal skills in leadership, vision, organization and time management.
As a project manager, or in any other leadership position that you move on to, you will also need to develop your team members in each of these areas. You may want to expand your capabilities into managing more complex projects, or move into other leadership positions. If you don’t develop the people that report to you, there may not be anyone to take your place to allow you to move on.
What are you doing to develop your career as a project manager?
As a project manager, it has been instilled in me to seek tasks that can be done in parallel. I try to identify tasks that two people can do at one time. I pinpoint dependencies to make sure tasks are done in the correct sequence.
I do this at home too. When I do even small projects around the house, I inherently think in terms of dependencies. I prioritize every task to be done. I look for tasks that can be done in parallel.
If I have a task that requires something to sit for some time, I’ll see if I can set that task up first and work on other tasks while the other one sits. For instance, when I cook, if something needs to bake for some period of time, I’m always looking for things to do while it bakes. My wife ridicules me on my uber-efficiency.
The multi-tasking approach
She on the other hand, believes she increases her productivity by multi-tasking. She will fill the sink up with dishes and let them soak. Then she’ll fold some laundry. She may stop and pick up a few things on the way. Then she gets distracted by whatever distracted her.
When something finally brings her back to the kitchen, she sees the water glasses that have been soaking for over an hour. They’re now sitting in cold water. She will drain the water and re-run hot water into the sink to wash them.
She just ran dish water twice, soaking dishes that didn’t have caked on food in the first place. We’ve had “discussions” about how multi-tasking wastes time in the long run. I’ve tried to convince her how it ends up wasting time. Additionally, when one side of the kitchen sink is full of soaking dishes and the other is full of air drying dishes, the sink is unusable.
Just do it for better performance at work
My approach is to start something and finish it. That’s how I wash dishes. It’s also how I do other work. If I’m working on a document, I avoid checking emails, social media, and other interrupters that can slow the process down.
Every time you stop a task, go to another, and return to the first, you have used valuable time in the restart process. There may have been times when you were interrupted on a task and said to yourself, “Now where was I?” upon returning to your previous task. The reality is, you say that to yourself every time you return to any task that has been interrupted.
I used to do the equivalent of the soaking-dishes approach. I’d be writing one of these very blogs. I might get stuck and see if any new emails came in. I’d check my three email accounts. Nothing in since I checked five minutes previously. I’d return to my blog and take at least 20-30 seconds to figure out where I was.
I learned from that. When I write a blog now days, email and all of the other interruptions are out of sight and out of mind. I can now get a blog written in roughly half the time.
Doing tasks in parallel is not multi-tasking. If you put something in the oven to bake, you should definitely find other tasks you can work on. If you send an email to someone and have to wait for the answer, go ahead and work on something else. Ideally, the task you work on in parallel can be completed while the other one is working.
The key to better performance at work is to avoid the stopping and starting that cuts into the productivity.
How often do you interrupt your daily activities thinking that multitasking helps your productivity?
Managing a project can be a juggling act. There are always tasks to work on, other peoples’ tasks to track and external teams to coordinate. Therefore, it is imperative that a project manager develop and maintain skills to become an organized project manager. Continue reading 6 Secrets of an Organized Project Manager→
I once received a late-night call and was told to travel the next day to a project three and a half hours away from my home. When I reported to the project the next day, I learned that it was well behind schedule. They needed me to help them catch up and get back in good graces with the client.
At that time in my career I was trying to transition from a technical coder to a team lead or project manager role. I wasn’t happy about being assigned to the programming role for this project. I labored over the next seven weeks working long days to help the project get caught up. I felt like I was wasting my skills on that project. Continue reading That Bad Project Can Still Help Your Career→