Top 5 habits of highly effective project managers
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…