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Top 5 habits of highly effective project managers

Date

Sylvia Pennington

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Challenge or fight? Project management tips that can make a difference.

Challenge or fight? Project management tips that can make a difference. Photo: Jessica Hromas/Schlock Films

Executing a technology project successfully is no mean feat.

Our story last week on project disasters drew a slew of reminiscences from techie types who'd been involved in them directly, watched them unfold or helped mop up the mess afterwards.

Although it's not a guarantee of success, having the right person at the helm can mean the difference between a project that meets its goals and one that ends up out of time, over budget and on the autopsy table.

So what are the key traits of a kick-ass ICT project manager?

1. It's about the destination, not the journey

Any project manager (PM) can learn to do a Gantt chart, spout knowledgeably about Prince2 or throw together a dazzling PowerPoint presentation. A killer PM recognises these things are just fancy tools, says Chris Goldstone, managing director of ICT consultancy Strategic Directions.

“PMs have to focus on the business outcomes, not the project management process,” he says. “That's the difference between a PM and a project administration officer. They assess everything in the project to ensure it aligns with the business outcomes that are sought.”

2.Talk the talk

Having the gift of the gab is rarely a bad thing – but a good project manager is not just all mouth and trousers. He or she needs a flexible communication style that can build rapport in the executive suite and win the trust of the techies back on the office floor, says Jonathan Chapman, an associate director at IT headhunters Robert Half International. Politically astute, best-of-breed PMs can influence stakeholders who sit above them in the hierarchy, Chapman adds.

Being able to keep a project team motivated is just as important as having the boardroom backslapping schtick down pat, adds Helen Crossing, an organisational psychologist at Inspirational Workplaces.

“IT teams are full of introverts and lots of highly technical people,” she says. “You need to be effective in managing these types.”

3. A watchful pilot

'What happens if we strike a technical problem, miss a key deadline, can't get the contract staff we need till next month or they're going to cost more than we thought?' Good PMs have already thought about these things because they know their role is to anticipate and mitigate risks to their project, Goldstone says.

Risk mitigation can include putting the kibosh on requests to change course midstream, even if they come from on high, or being able point out the dangers of doing so if they're insisted upon.

“They need to be outcome-focused and able to say no, if something looks like jeopardising the project,” Goldstone says.

Practice manager at systems integrator SMS Management and Technology Michelle Lac agrees. “They must satisfy the stakeholders without allowing them to take over the management of the project.”

4. Devilish details

Keeping both eyes on the prize is vital but a top PM also has eyes in the back of their head. They know exactly what's going on in the trenches while they're sorting out the big issues and keeping the suits upstairs sweet.

"You need attention to detail," says Alan Hansell, an adviser on IT management issues at research house IBRS. "PMs don't have to do the small tasks themselves – but they do need to make sure they get done. It's good to be big picture but you also need to be very granular when it comes to large projects. Problems arise when small things are overlooked."

Knowing just how much governance to apply to project tasks can be an art in itself, adds Goldstone. Asking staff to write a 60-page scope document for a $100,000 piece of work can be overkill, he says, while the, 'it's only $100K – I'll just leave it to you' style of management may be the fast track to cost overruns.

5. A good crap-o-meter

It's always nice to be told by the team that things are going well – but a top PM doesn't just tick things off the list without checking for themselves.

"They need a good filter to be able to work out when the work is complete and when it isn't," Hansell says. "You can get into all sorts of trouble if everything is taken at face value. You need to be able to test claims."

Are you a kick-ass project manager? Or worked for one? Share your own Top 5 Traits with us…

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18 comments

  • I worked in many projects. There were many people who were technically average or below the line. They were all steered, by push or pull doesn't matter, into project management.
    It was in the past. May be the working environment has changed a lot since then.

    Commenter
    tarzan
    Location
    nsw
    Date and time
    August 02, 2012, 12:13PM
    • Oh dear ... PM's in the spot light ... Can't end well.

      1st rule, value your staff it is they that achieve the glory you bask in. It is our job to make you look great and it is your job to recognize this. Undervalue the 'workers' at your peril.

      2nd rule, with respect to talk the talk, drop the crap motivational or deflecting mantras - Management is not a "two way street" when you only go in one direction.

      3rd rule, when the sh.t has hit the fan don't stand over us trying to micro manage something you don't understand. Let us get on with the job and report to you when we need you, namely to understand what we intend to do and for you to authorize it. Until then, manage the flak it is what you are employed for.

      4th rule, when we tell you something is wrong or some process is a waste of time, we tell you this because it is true. Rewarding teams that create change records that have all the t's crossed and i's dotted does not mean it is a success needing recognition when the change fails. Once problems or problem processes are identified, it is then your responsibility to allow us the leverage to get a disfunctional or wasteful process improved, not to criticize those that are trying.

      5th don't expect us to do politics, that's your job. We are in the business of defining complex systems and resolving complex problems, ours is not the job of managing your expectations or nurture your ego. Don't bring corporate politics to the team, play that game with your bosses not your staff.

      6th be honest, then we will.

      Commenter
      Ex-NAB
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      August 02, 2012, 12:39PM
      • I’m going to take a stab here.... Spoken like a true engineer. Cynical and sarcastic, yet, holds some truth. The fact is, 1's and 0's only drive projects as far as the Engineers knowledge of the whole picture ie: political misfiring, egocentric management, budget freezes/drops/cuts ect . True end-game vision is required to deliver complex and detailed schedules and generally speaking, 1's and 0's make up a very small portion of the project being delivered on time and budget. If engineers were left to deliver the projects the goal post’s would mover so often that the preverbal umpire would top himself due to confusion. .

        Commenter
        JK
        Location
        Melb.
        Date and time
        August 02, 2012, 1:36PM
      • I'd add a #7:

        7th break huge projects into smaller projects and celebrate the milestones with the team and the customer. There's nothing more discouraging than not being able to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

        Commenter
        TC
        Date and time
        August 02, 2012, 2:04PM
      • I do love it when engineers are "blamed" for moving goal posts - Having had the pleasure of working with some "highly qualified business analysts", it is little wonder that the engineers/programmers/or even the pms have to "invent" requirements/solutions to fill gaps in specifications to simply see the project stand a chance of progressing.

        Commenter
        itsec
        Date and time
        August 02, 2012, 5:03PM
      • JK, the solution is simple. Take your tech lead with you into meetings. They'll be capable of handling a bit of business requirements (that's how they get to where they are).

        They'll comminicate that to the team too, and help you out with requirements. So the politics and budgeting hoo har will be visible to the team - and they will all end up with business focus as a result.

        Don't give them any more tasks than attendance - that will mean you'll only cop about 2 hours of downtime from them a week. I do realise that there is a 'need to know' factor in some projects - but overall they are in the minority (unless you're in a bank!)

        Commenter
        Jase
        Location
        Melbourne
        Date and time
        August 02, 2012, 9:46PM
      • Sounds like you have had some pretty poor PM's but having been asked to come in and present about the Project Management discipline I am not surprised at your comments. Good PM's address all your points and funnily enough you are both saying the same thing but in different ways. It ihighlights that the most important skill for a PM is communication, communication and communication. The team are the ones who deliver and it the PM who protects them from the outside world so that they can deliver while also making sure what they deliver is what the client actually wants. Good article and I am not ashamed to say that I am highly likely to be plagerising it in my next presentation to the junior PM/Tech leads.

        Commenter
        Lawrie
        Date and time
        August 03, 2012, 10:48AM
    • I've been on both sides of project management and never had an issue.. I don't see why people always make mistakes or set deadlines or don't double check things as part of the planning before a contract is even drawn up.

      Allow 120% time, complete it in 80%. that's the way I've always done it. Maybe I've just been lucky and had a good team each time.

      Commenter
      AnthonyS
      Date and time
      August 02, 2012, 5:27PM
      • "Any project manager (PM) can learn to do a Gantt chart"

        Then, pray: why don't they?
        NO!, an Excel spreadsheet with some dates on it is NOT a Gantt chart!

        It's been decades - and dozens of small to large projects - since I've seen a PM show me a proper Gantt chart! You know: the ones with planned AND actual dates, so we can check true progress?

        The ones I've seen in the last 15 years include only planned dates, and "miraculously" get edited with the actual dates as the project progresses. I call that sort of thing a DIARY. But it's not, by any stretch of the imagination, a complete Gantt chart.

        And don't get me started on Pert diagrams: they are simply unknown by the "kewl" PMs we have nowadays...

        Commenter
        Noons
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        August 02, 2012, 5:51PM
        • @JK, yeah, but do you dispute anything ex-Nab said??

          Commenter
          BothSides
          Location
          onFence
          Date and time
          August 02, 2012, 5:56PM

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