The title of Project Manager (PM) assumes a specific set of skills. While PMs certainly qualify as leaders, and the best possess the same qualities that define a great leader, project management is not an abstract art.
PMI defines a framework that is universal enough to apply to any project execution, anywhere in the world, under any conditions, yet, with a very precise set of tools. Some innate talents cannot be taught, but for the purposes of project management, the most important skills can (and should) be learned—and they improve with experience.
The following four abilities are critical for PMs to be successful in any setting:
1. Break It Down
PMs need to demonstrate the ability to translate strategy into specific tactical steps and execution plan.
Every project has an end state that typically stems from business goals, organizational strategies, and a high-level set of requirements. The PM’s ability to independently break those down into an execution plan and outline the specific steps that need to be performed directly impacts the quality, cost, and timeline, of the project.
Project phases, work units, and a general work breakdown structure is not always handed to PMs, so the successful ones need to recognize what needs to be achieved and define how to get there. Keep the end state in sight during planning and execution, and understand how specific actions will play out—these are the basics of breaking down the whole into the sum of its parts.
PMs need to demonstrate the ability to use project performance data to make decisions.
It’s imperative that PMs not just follow a project plan, no matter how great and detailed it may be, but also seek and evaluate information from the project team to make decisions on if and how to adjust the project in flight. PMs need to be able to interpret what data is important, what it means in the context of the project, what factors play into it, how to use it, and what subsequent steps and decisions need to be made.
PMs need to demonstrate the ability to effectively communicate with each and every project stakeholder.
Communication on a project is not just about writing a good status update email or delivering an engaging presentation. A wide spectrum of roles, seniority, personalities, influence, and interests determine what to communicate when, to whom, and how.
PMs must adjust their communication style and strategy based on the multiple factors that define the stakeholder’s involvement in the project. A high degree of emotional intelligence, operating with full transparency and honesty, and knowing how to manage the specifics of each relationship are just some of the factors that influence this skill. Communications tailored to each stakeholder ensures all decision makers are informed and given the opportunity to remove impediments or add value when needed.
PMs need to demonstrate the ability to proactively identify and manage risk.
Project management and risk management go hand in hand. Successful PMs identify risks before they become issues, outline a specific plan to deal with risks when and if they materialize, and continuously monitor project conditions to reassess risk status as they go. With this skill, PMs avoid undesired events that can have a negative impact on critical project constraints.
Too often, risk management is reactive—an adjustment to project execution once something unplanned happens. When the project plan reflects a best case scenario, the outcome can only be realized if risk is proactively managed.
Developing PM Skills
All of the above skills can be learned, but they are improved and perfected through experience managing multiple projects. Organizations, technical specifications, methodologies, and people may change, but a PM can always rely on the above 4 capabilities to steer a project to a successful outcome.