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Sometimes a Great Project; Eight Secrets of Top Project Managers

The difference between decent project management and excellent project management can be measured in delays, cost overruns, lost customers, employee misery, and business jeopardy. A great example is the Dreamliner, Boeing’s latest aircraft that has received steady press for delays, cancelled orders, and the accompanying overruns and internal pain.

So what are the secrets of the top project managers? What do they do differently that makes their projects finish on time, on budget, and with good results?

  1. The best project managers are always looking ahead and anticipating and preventing potential problems. By asking project team members good questions, they help the whole team anticipate and prevent problems. Many of these questions are generic. What are we taking for granted? What do we know least about? What is different or changed?
  2. The best project managers know the difference between relatively easy, familiar, predictable tasks and those critical components loaded with unknowns and risks. They know that the unknowns and risks must be investigated as soon as possible and they resist the temptation to get the familiar tasks underway – and out of the way. Doing the easy things first can lead to enormous waste as long as lurking unknowns are capable of causing a major shift or even the cancellation of the project. In addition, doing the easy things first creates false confidence.
  3. The best project managers know that detailed, accurate project schedules give the illusion of control but are usually mostly fiction. They expect detailed tracking and planning for familiar elements and drive hard toward milestones that demonstrate the removal of unknowns and risks for unfamiliar elements. Those unfamiliar elements can’t be planned and tracked in detail until the details are familiar.
  4. They ensure team members have complete and clear assignments regarding who needs to do what by when. These assignments are not just activity-based but also outcome-based. How will we know we have cleared that hurdle? How will we know we are there?
  5. They track progress at a risk-based frequency. If the schedule can slide a month, they may follow up only monthly. If it can’t slide a day, they follow up at least daily.
  6. They know their team. They know when to push, when to be patient, and when to intervene. Some people will ask for help at the first obstacle and others will spin their wheels for a week or more without asking. Some will slack off without external pressure and others always come through as promised. An excellent project manager knows how to keep each team member moving forward and feeling committed to the success of the project.
  7. They can distinguish between necessary structure and bureaucracy. Regular monitoring is important, but updating task progress charts from 25% to 30% is meaningless. The top project managers ask more telling questions. How do we know we will finish on time?
  8. Last but not least, the top project managers shift easily between the nitty-gritty details of execution and the high-level options and opportunities that impact project scope and quality. One minute they are helping a team member tackle a technical problem and the next they are discussing project requirement modifications with the customer. This ability to deal with technical requirements and dig for solutions, while also learning from the development process and recognizing new opportunities that will benefit the customer, can result in better outcomes for all parties.

The difference between decent project managers and excellent project managers is usually years of sweat and struggle. Management respect and support for project managers is often inadequate. But the best project managers, those constantly committed to honing their project management skills, can make a huge difference in company performance, customer satisfaction, and employee commitment and happiness.

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Ann Latham, president of Uncommon Clarity in Massachusetts, helps clients get better results faster. She is a consultant and board approved Master Facilitator. She is also a frequent speaker and author of Clear Thoughts – Pragmatic Gems of Better Business Thinking. For more information or to signup for her free newsletter, visit or call 413-527-3737. Her blog can be found at

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