The second law of thermodynamics states that randomness and disorder never naturally decrease in a system. That’s why our job as project management professionals exists in the first place. We bring order to the chaos that surrounds most projects, and it can be incredibly challenging.
Good project managers possess an interesting balance of nature vs. nurture in their abilities. I do believe that great project managers can be made, but having the right mixture of innate skills and temperament is a great place to begin.
Here, we’ll let’s look at four key traits that natural-born project managers possess.
Trait #1: Being able to identify, and focus on, what’s important
In the movie Sargent York, Gary Cooper portrayed a real-life war hero who was an amazing marksman. He accomplished this by the strange ritual of wetting the front sights of his rifle, claiming that it “cut down on the haze.” He had an uncanny knack for being able to strategically identify, prioritize and eliminate targets. This is also a value that effective project managers bring to a project.
Natural-born PMs are highly attuned to their environments, cutting down on the haze that often envelops project success, and finding the signals that exist in the midst of the noise. The best of the best make it look easy.
Think about Man of Steel, where Superman struggles as a child to harness his powerful senses. He sees, hears and experiences so much of the world around him that he has difficulty functioning. Most project management professionals can strongly relate to this. It’s not so much that we hear or see more than others but rather that everyone competes for our attention and resources, and the volume of input can overwhelm. The renowned psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi discusses the ability to tune out distractions in his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. He estimates that we encounter approximately 40,000,000 elemental “bits” of sensory information that compete for our attention each day.
People with innate project management skills have the ability to function efficiently through the distractions. Some of us might not possess that natural ability but can still accomplish it through training, brute force and discipline.
Trait #2: Being able to build consensus and lead
Leadership abilities share some interesting similarities with athletic abilities. We are born with varying capacities and potentials, but our habits and practices are what make the difference.
Consensus is reached when members of a group agree to support the group’s decision even if that decision is not their personal choice. And getting stakeholders to agree on anything can be devilishly challenging and can test the strongest leaders. The difficult part is that building consensus often requires compromise from the leader, and that runs counter-intuitive to the way most people think about leadership.
Leadership has more to do with molding people than with teaching techniques. In the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Steven Covey referred to this as the “character ethic” that begins with who you are and translates into how you behave. The best leaders I’ve ever seen have been authentic, emotionally mature people. Many other behaviors can be faked, but authenticity and emotional maturity cannot (at least not for any length of time). After that, leadership takes on lots of different forms (visionary, servant, charismatic, directing, etc.), but it has to emanate from a genuine and authentic place.
Truly great leaders can be measured by how effective they are at bringing out the best in others (and themselves). The best natural-born PMs bring strong leadership potential in this area.
Trait #3: Domain expertise
Domain, or subject matter expertise is actually a controversial topic within project management, and to be fair, it’s something that no one is truly born with. The long-running debate in the project management field is about whether strong PMs can manage any kind of project or whether they have to be an expert in that field. Here’s what I do know: I’ve been able to navigate projects with much greater ease when I’ve understood the nuances of the job and how the work is done than when I’ve been new to the field. Why? Because the more you understand the field you’re working in, the more you’ll be able to accurately measure results, evaluate people’s agendas, and navigate the decisions in the interest of project success.
There’s a counter-argument that a great PM does not need domain expertise. This can be true if there are team members who are experts and the PM can fully trust them, but all other things being equal, the more the PM knows, the better his or her chances of success will be.
Trait #4: The ability to adapt to change
The ability to adapt to change is another key trait that all of the really great project managers share, but this is one that is often overlooked. PMs are often chosen and promoted for their ability to plan when a more useful project management skill may be the ability to know when to scrap the plan and embrace change.
Before he was the thirty-fourth U.S. President, Dwight D. Eisenhower planned Operation Overlord, which included the largest amphibious invasion in history. Eisenhower was Supreme Allied Commander; yet, even with this elaborate set of plans, he stated, “The plan is nothing. Planning is everything.” In other words, planning is an incredibly important exercise to undertake, but the end result will be a flawed plan, and we should expect flawed execution. Over time, the plan becomes less important while the abilities to adapt and improvise become more relevant.
The conundrum that emerges is that the same skills that contribute to producing a good plan often work against you when it comes to embracing change. Plans are about predicting and controlling uncertainty, while change introduces uncertainty, upends the plan, and makes many of us downright uncomfortable.
The natural-born PMs expect change and make the necessary course corrections, all while keeping the critical success factors in focus. All of this is easier to write about than it is to actually do.
What if I have none of these?
The natural-born PMs of the world are not necessarily the list-makers or the hyper-organizers. They are the ones who keep their eye focused on success and help others do the same.
If you’re reading this and are beginning to worry that you’re not a natural-born project manager, take heart. These skills can be learned and the ones who succeed never stop working at getting better. As Kevin Durant said, “Hard work beats talent when talent fails to work hard.”
What do you think? Share your thoughts on what it takes to be a great PM.
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