Expertise-specific tasks usually get left up to the person bearing the title, right? Writers write, salespeople sell, marketers market. But as corporate hierarchies flatten out into a pancake of shared initiatives and collaboration, there’s at least one role that’s sneaking its way into everyone’s responsibilities: project management.
So, what do you do if you haven’t been formally trained? Where do you even start? Luckily for the rest of us, old-school PMs have spilled some of their best secrets for managing projects, encouraging communication, and keeping teams on track. Here are a few of our favorites.
Be Good at Dishing it Out — and Taking it, Too.
Not everyone can handle criticism, and not everyone is tactful enough to give it, either. That part’s not exactly a secret — but successful project managers have to be great at both. There’s a very thin line between constructively explaining how to get something done and belittling someone for not doing something right. People mess up, and good project managers cushion things like deadlines and budgets to allow for that eventuality. Be accepting of learning curves and stupid questions. They’re going to happen whether you are or not, but it’s how you face them that defines your abilities as a leader.
Equally as important is being able to handle it when someone calls you out. Planning out every detail, completing a thorough risk management assessment, padding your resources and assembling an incredible team don’t keep you safe from peer critique, and it’s pointless to convince yourself that you’re untouchable. If you’re defensive when questioned and fail to see criticism as an opportunity for growth, your project and your team will suffer.
Pro tip: Address discord immediately. Mediating issues isn’t easy, but it’s nothing compared to losing time and talent.
Make Estimations in Effort, Not Time
Calendar time may be the standard unit of measure, but it’s not really the most accurate way to assess project schedules — at least not at first. A lot of the time, we specify nebulous target dates and depend upon ambiguous assumptions that deadlines are both doable and within scope, but that doesn’t take reality into account.
It’s much more effective to estimate deadlines in terms of labor-hours, priorities, and workload. Determine what actual time spent on-task will mean with respect to the entire team and project. Will the person completing the task be dependent on a colleague, vendor, or availability of a resource? How many other projects are they working on? Will they require approval from a person or department? What steps are necessary for them to obtain that approval, those resources, or that colleague’s support? Getting into the nuts and bolts allows you to translate real-time commitment into projected calendar dates and properly prepare for any potential roadblocks.
Pro tip: Don’t expect people to dedicate more than 80% of their time to a single project (and that’s generous!). Assuming that a person’s attention to one activity can be maintained on four is a big mistake.
Management vs. Bureaucracy: Not Really the Same
Knowing the difference between getting something done for a purpose and getting something done simply because you were told to is important. Unnecessary paperwork and steps clog up the project pipeline and add superfluous hurdles.
An excellent project manager readily makes this distinction, but more importantly, shuts down extraneous tasks up front. Defining best practices, aligning them with reporting needs, and getting buy-in from stakeholders on processes should be done long before the project is underway, and duplication of efforts should be avoided at all costs.
Pro tip: Learn when to say no to admin. If the paperwork’s there to serve processes outside of the project and it’s not vital that someone on the team takes care of it, work with the person who requested it to find a compromise that suits both of your needs.
Project management is much more complex than it often seems. It requires a decent amount of patience, willingness to learn from failures, and total business agility to be effective in today’s collaborative work atmosphere.