Monday, 12 January 2015 00:00

4 Ways to Succeed as an Accidental Project Manager

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Your career goal wasn’t to be a Project Manager (PM). You haven’t read the 589-page tome, Project Management Body of Knowledge, and you don’t include “PMP” among your professional credentials. Yet you find yourself making schedules, dealing with budgets, and reporting success metrics to stakeholders. What’s going on?

You’re not the first person to have fallen into the role of “accidental project manager.” As hierarchy is becoming more horizontal and org charts have more dotted lines than solid lines, the administration of work is no longer reserved for trained specialists. For all intents and purposes, work is comprised of projects, and projects need to be managed—by someone.

In the IT world especially, accidental project managers fall into two groups: those who are managing projects but don’t think of themselves as PMs (i.e., pretty much everyone), and those who have fallen into a more official PM role because of their natural aptitude or inclinations.

No matter which group you fall into, you can increase your effectiveness and work satisfaction by brushing up on four project management essentials.

1. Don’t Just Manage - Lead

PMs, especially accidental ones, are increasingly facing “the challenge of gaining contributions and buy-in from people who don’t report directly to them,” according to seasoned project management professional Neil Walker.

Your project’s success may depend on your ability to influence people at every level of the organization, and for that you can’t rely on position power. It takes leadership.

Business guru Seth Godin recently outlined ten essential steps in “Project Management for Work that Matters” on his blog. Two are especially important for accidental PMs:

  1. Resist the ad hoc. Announce that this is a project, and that it matters enough to be treated as one.
  2. The project needs a leader, a person who takes responsibility as opposed to waiting for it to be given.

The remaining eight steps are worth considering as well, but these first two provide a critical foundation. Wondering why your work feels fractured and stressful? Consider switching from a reactive, ad hoc approach to projects—where everyone on your team is trying not to be in charge—to a more mindful approach. First, admit that it’s a project, and then admit that you’re in charge of it, even if your project contributors don’t fall within your direct chain of command. You’ll inspire others to follow suit.

2. Think Like a PM

If the bulk of your time is spent managing processes and projects, rather than completing hands-on development tasks, then it helps to stop thinking like an IT professional who manages projects—and start thinking like a PM who has extensive IT expertise.

Taking the time to understand and apply trusted methods of project management has the power to create more efficiency, organization, and output across your organization. Theories and processes for effective project management abound, but all are based on a few basic tenets. For me, it’s hard to beat the simplicity of the “Five Immutable Principles of Performance-Based Project Management.” Whether you’re working on a space-shuttle launch or a website redesign, you need to know:

  1. Where are we going?
  2. How are we going to get there?
  3. Do we have everything we need?
  4. What impediments will we encounter, and how will we remove them?
  5. How are we going to measure our progress?

If every project plan takes into consideration these five questions, success will be much easier to define, measure, and achieve.

3. Work On Your People Skills

A survey of 4,000 employees of large organizations—administered by training and consulting firm Global Integration—found that the average worker is, at any given time, a member of five different teams. This statistic was cited in an article by CEO Kevan Hall, along with this conclusion:

“The ability to get things done irrespective of reporting lines will surely become an even more vital skill.”

“Many more managers need to have the skills to get things done without having direct control over people and resources they need to deliver the result. Multiple bosses, competing goals, accountability without control and influence without authority are no longer just the preserve of project managers.”

What does this mean to you? It’s time to start working on those people skills. You can’t just manage the tasks and the work; you need to focus on building relationships and teams that will span multiple different projects over the course of many years. Sometimes you’ll lead, sometimes you’ll follow someone else’s lead—so get comfortable with both roles.

4. Pick a Process, Any Process

If you’re new to project management, or new to realizing that you do indeed manage projects, you may not see much value in focusing on the “process” side of things. But it’s essential. Most problems you encounter can be traced back to a process problem.

Dealing with too many client changes? You probably didn’t spend enough time clarifying the initial scope. Stuck in the never-ending project that just won’t wrap up? You likely didn’t clearly define how you would measure success and get buy-in from all appropriate stakeholders.

While there are countless tools available to help you plan and track projects, online and otherwise, Glen Alleman’s five basic steps of project governance can give you a great starting point:

  1. Organize the project.
  2. Plan, schedule, and budget the work.
  3. Capture actual costs of the project.
  4. Assess cost and schedule outcomes against technical performance.
  5. Record all changes to cost, schedule, and technical requirements.

From Accident to Asset

As org charts continue to flatten out and technology makes it easier for individuals to manage their own and others’ work, everyone’s becoming a project manager these days—some more effective than others.

Whether you’re in an official PM role or are simply weaving a little bit of project management into your daily work, you’ll achieve greater efficiency and efficacy if you’ll learn to lead instead of just manage, embrace your inner PM, build relationships at all levels of the organization, and value the importance of process. You may have fallen into your role by accident, but these proven principles could help you become an irreplaceable asset.

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Shawn Dickerson

Shawn Dickerson has over 15 years of experience in managing projects for Fortune 1000 companies, venture-backed firms and small startups. In his current role, he oversees the go-to-market strategy for the IT/PMO business at AtTask. Prior to AtTask, Shawn led market research and project teams at Domo, Novell and other tech companies.

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