What’s the best advice project managers got when they were starting out—and what made it so valuable?
Project management requires a broad set of skills—formal and informal, “hard” and “soft”—and blending them together intelligently is often more of an art than a science. While there’s no substitute for the experience of getting your hands dirty on a complex project, many successful project managers learned their art faster and better thanks to mentors who guided them early on. That’s taught them to frame suggestions to help less-experienced project managers come up to speed.
Get Buy-In for a Defined Outcome, and Do It Early
Liz Kline, a certification manager at The Linux Foundation, has a long background in education and publishing. The #1 piece of advice Kline got was to “thoroughly assess and define the project to attain stakeholder buy-in before committing to a project plan.”
Her point resonates with Hallie Symons, an associate director at Uplift Family Services, who has managed many projects for mental health and social service agencies. Symons learned to start early and have a clearly defined end point.
Symons emphasizes the importance of tying the motivations of both executive sponsors and individual contributors to the project’s overall objective. “In effect, we are starting the process at the end,” she says. “We talk about the goal, engage conversation around how the end point will benefit employees—‘What’s in it for me?’—and get buy-in on the goal [so that] people will be more likely to move through the often daunting process to achieve it.”
The same approach works for Dan Naden, director of product management for the Lower Colorado River Authority utility in Central Texas. Across two decades of managing software releases and other projects, he’s seen how frequently project managers “inherit resources that might not be totally bought into the project or any additional work.”
Like Symons, Naden’s key for getting team members to buy in is to see it from their perspective: “What do they need to be successful? How can you make this project a growth opportunity for them?”
Stick with the Plan — to a Point
Once you have people on board, you need them to embrace the project plan. According to veteran technology project manager Andrew Geonetta, however, the plan itself “isn’t necessarily the valuable part”—and it certainly cannot be set in stone. For Geonetta, a senior program manager at HomeAway.com, what’s really important about planning is “the act of thinking critically about what it is you need to accomplish, allowing yourself and your team time to understand the reasons why they are doing something, and thinking through priorities against specific business goals and objectives.”
From that perspective, the plan is simply a useful artifact for capturing the team’s thinking, one that Geonetta says “can and should be expected to change for any number of positive or negative reasons.”
Manage Change by Managing Expectations
Geonetta adds that it’s vital to frame such an expectation of change early and often with stakeholders. Symons agrees, going so far as to say, “There can never be enough change management,” from the outset of a project until the goal is met and its outcomes have been fully adopted in the organization.
The biggest barrier is fear. “Employees get mired in fear and anxiety around change, even if the change is positive,” says Symons. Successful managers, she says, are alert to this fear so they can plan for it, acknowledge it, and address it as early in the process as possible.
Resist Scope Creep
Because projects naturally evolve, it’s all too easy to let them evolve out of control. That’s why Kline emphasizes how important it is to “manage feature creep, a.k.a. scope creep, from the beginning and throughout the life of the project.”
Kim Brushaber, a technical project consultant whose work has spanned roles in engineering, product management, client services, and business development, learned early on how tempting scope creep can be. When she was learning the ropes of project management in a college course, her group worked within a municipal EMS agency, diligently recording project requirements and repeatedly saying “Sure, we can do that,” without ever having done the tasks before. When the project stalled, her professor called it the best case of scope creep she had ever seen.
“What I learned,” Brushaber explains, “is to never say ‘Sure, we can do that’ until you really know what ‘that’ is.” She adds, “There’s no shame in saying ‘I’ll get back to you’ until you have all the details.”
Respect the Iron Triangle
One of the best ways to resist scope creep is to remember the so-called Iron Triangle of Good, Cheap, and Fast—or Scope, Cost, and Time. As Geonetta puts it, “You can pick two, but you can never have all three. It’s good to strive to deliver all three, but in 17 years of doing this, I can definitively tell you that I have never seen it happen.”
The Iron Triangle is more than just a good diagnostic tool to help you clarify challenges that arise, he adds. “It’s also a great way to help you frame those difficult conversations” when one of the factors threatens to spiral out of control. For example, if you need to sacrifice scope in favor of cost and time, you’ll be ready to explain, “We said that our budget absolutely cannot increase, so we should think about cutting feature X and Z for this release and consider them for further down the road.”
Listen to the Team
When you’re the project manager, you sit at the hub of the project, and you might well know more about it than any other one person. Still, keep your ears open. That’s the advice that Brushaber got from an early mentor, who praised her for her intelligence “but cautioned me to wait.”
In part, this is simple diplomacy: Nobody wants to be shown up. It goes deeper, though. As Geonetta explains, “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve just sat and listened and by virtue of allowing someone to vocalize what they are feeling—they just figure it out. Not only is that great for them, but it’s great for you because you may have just learned something new that you can apply later.”
By actively putting attention on keeping her mouth shut and listening, Brushaber started to pick up nuances more quickly and provide greater value to the team. “In the silence,” she says, “I started to learn more about the problem as I heard people rationalize it.”
Brushaber’s advice to newcomers to project management: “Allow people the chance to step through the steps because you could learn something in the tiniest of details.”
Manage Your Emotions
When you’re running a project, you can’t keep all the people happy all the time. Symons found this out with the first project she managed: a complex undertaking to develop service, billing, and documentation guidelines for managers from multiple programs. “It was a disaster,” she says. “I wanted consensus and, more destructively, for the team to be happy with the process and with me. We went around in circles for months.”
Symons’s mentor intentionally let her flail for a bit so the lessons of that experience would sink in. Symons learned, “There will likely never be a time when everyone is happy and in complete agreement.” She also discovered that “Avoiding conflict makes it worse,” which led her to adopt the practice of addressing ambivalence or nay-saying openly whenever they arise on the team.
Naden shares a related perspective that has stuck with him over the years: “People are emotional—projects aren’t.” While your project is operating within its Iron Triangle of scope, schedule, and budget, your people may experience a gamut of emotions, including excitement, frustration, anger, doubt, and fear. Naden says, “As project manager, you must be empathetic towards the team, but you must show leadership by staying out of the emotional roller coaster through encouragement, actions that [remove] impediments, and crystal-clear communication.”
Geonetta agrees. “Staying neutral, calm, and emotionally detached is of the utmost importance, he says, “if not for the sake of your sanity then because a very large part of your job is to serve as the calming and objective force every team needs to be successful.” That kind of calm serves you well when you need to step back, look at all the moving pieces of your project, and choose the best way forward.
Learn to Wield Influence
Finally, you must learn to do your job in the absence of formal authority over the individuals assigned to the project. Geonetta notes that “This requires a great deal of patience, diplomacy, empathy, and situational awareness to pull off.” That’s because “Everyone you work with works, thinks, acts, is motivated, and communicates differently.”
Administrative steps, such as building schedules, tracking costs, and determining dependencies are in fact the smallest and easiest parts of project management. “To put it another—more blunt—way,” Geonetta says, “Any trained monkey can move dates around, send out meeting notes, and track actions assigned to others.” The hard part is to figure out how people work and what makes them tick, and to do it quickly.
“In order to do that,” Geonetta says, “You have to have a lot of love for being around and working with people. You will be a successful project or program manager only when you understand that you have to love and empathize with people—even when you don’t want to.”