What distinguishes them from their peers, and why are they notably more successful and better at delivering projects on time and on budget?
Of course, there are some simple steps that any project manager can take in order to better structure and optimise project delivery, such as using an established project management methodology like PRINCE2. Of course, many of the best project managers excel at balancing the framework and structure of the project methodology they are using against the specific demands of the project they are currently working on. In other words, methodology will only get you so far.
So what are the skills inherent in great project managers? Some may be learnt and acquired through training and experience over the years and others simply come down to attitude and aptitude. Let’s look at some of the main traits then
Strong organisational abilities
More often than not, staged planning is required in project management. Methodologies like PRINCE2 and Six Sigma equip qualified project managers with the skills to analyse the project in its constituent phases but organisational acumen can also be an inherent trait. Some people are just more comfortable managing multiple tasks, people and processes at once, while others will find it very stressful.
Leadership and diplomacy
Effective leadership combines skills that are both acquired and innate, such as emotional intelligence, which includes self assessment, empathy and the ability to listen effectively. A leader has to exercise judgement as to when leadership is required, and when communication is more important. The best PMs inspire loyalty in their teams, which keeps morale up when the project faces serious challenges or conflicts of interest arise.
Another important part of leadership is diplomacy; project managers need to have an awareness as to when tact and discretion are required, particularly when there are competing agendas and interests that may hinder the progress of the project. Finally, leadership also overlaps with good managerial skills; a good leader understands how to manage their team members and guide them with regard to which tasks to prioritise.
Project managers must be able to demonstrate both integrity and accountability in order to achieve the best possible outcomes during and at the end of a project. Loyalty, objectivity and honesty all contribute to this quality. Being able to demonstrate integrity will keep team members on board and motivated to see the project to the end. This relates to reputation and how it is established. Delivering projects often means working with people from across an organisation, all with their own often competing interests, agendas and ways of doing things. Establishing a reputation for integrity will help to establish that all important trust that will enable people to come together towards a shared goal.
As far as effective project management is concerned, communicating effectively is both a tactic and a skill. Both empathy and insight are required to communicate with people in different departments and at different levels in the organisation. As we’ve discussed, individual agendas and personalities come into play in this context and the ability to talk to people on their level is key to unification behind a common purpose and set of goals. What one person finds urgent and pressing may be an unwelcome distraction for another. Good communication can bridge these divides to some extent, allowing project managers to help team members work effectively and productively.
Another important element of communication is effective feedback, and having in place a reporting structure that creates an atmosphere of openness and transparency. The channels of communication must move in both directions through the project hierarchy, from the project board to the manager and down to the team. These processes must strike the correct balance: too little information leaves team members feeling left in the dark, while too much leads to confusion as to which part of the project to prioritise.
It's also important to keep open lines of communication outside the project with the wider business and potential users. This is especially the case if buy-in from users is an important goal.
Even though a project manager may be using a structured management methodology, project management is not a one size fits all discipline. One core principle of PRINCE2 is the need to adapt the project method to the environment. As well as being management and process driven, project managers need to be strategic thinkers.
Experienced project managers will already have learned to think strategically but being able to plan and adapt to unpredictable situations and having the ability to keep the project on course comes with experience and, at the end of the day, it’s experience that is one of the greatest traits of all.