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11 secrets of successful project managers

With project management skills in increasing demand, project managers have a sought-after skill set possessed by few.

They are at the heart of the rapid change occurring in industries all over the world.

“No day is the same,” says Bob McGannon, an honorary adjunct professor at Bond University.

"Virtually every organisation applies project management principles, one way or another.”

Bob is also an author and internationally recognised project manager with more than 30 years of experience and says project management is one of the most exciting and dynamic roles you can have.

With decades of experience behind him, Bob is well-placed to share the secrets of successful project managers.

1. They can curb their enthusiasm (sometimes)

While everyone is excited about the launch of a new project, Bob stresses the importance of not getting carried away.

As a project manager, you need to ensure everyone understands why the project is being launched, and advocate for that within the team.

“You’d be surprised how often a project is started for the wrong reasons,” says Bob.

“Understanding the ‘why’ is an incredibly important part of the project manager’s real-life role and can save businesses valuable time and money."

2. They understand their sponsor

Successful project managers are great at establishing relationships.

“Project management is a relationship business,” explains Bob.

“Establishing relationships with team members, vendors, peer managers and senior leaders is paramount to successfully managing projects. No relationship is as important, however, as the relationship that must develop between the project manager and the sponsor.”

The sponsor is the person who funds the project, has a stake in its outcome and controls the priority and resources required to deliver the project.

A successful project manager will be able to adjust their approach and project manage in a way most suited to the sponsor and their expectations.

3. They know how to motivate - without authority

Project managers may not have direct authority with the project team members, explains Bob, and successful project managers know how to motivate the team, bring them together to perform and deliver the project successfully.

Bob’s tips on motivating a team:

  1. Create a clear picture of what you want to and ensure the team understands
  2. Remember the team is made up of individuals with different motivations and fears
  3. Define roles and contributions to the project
  4. Focus on solving problems, not blame

4. They know how to obtain management decisions

Successful project managers are proficient at facilitating decisions from sponsors and senior managers, keeping the project moving forward.

“Senior managers can be incredibly busy,” says Bob

“In my experience managing a 450 -person program team, I was getting more than 300 emails a day.

“As a project manager, you need to get decisions made from your sponsor and potentially other senior leaders. How you go about bringing questions to the table has a significant bearing on how successful you will be getting decisions made in a timely fashion.”

Bob recommends presenting the senior manager or sponsor with a clear summary of the problem that exists of opportunity to capitalise on, investigating the possible root causes or solutions as well as the pros and cons for both. The pros and cons should include all potential impacts on the business, so the senior manager can make a decision.

5. They are responsible when things get difficult

Successful project managers sometimes have to say no.

When the sponsor has an ambitious and potentially unrealistic idea or expectations, it’s the project’s managers role to scope the project, working with the wider team to investigate possibilities and ultimately, set practical expectations.

“On any given day you may need to respond to the challenge of not backing down to the pressure of expectations,” says Bob.

6. They approach risk without pessimism

“If there was no risk, we wouldn’t have project managers,” says Bob.

An approach to risk is an important part of project management. It ensures the project is prepared to handle potential issues that can surface.

But as Bob says, “bringing risk management into the project management equation without being viewed as a doom and gloom pessimist isn’t easy.”

Successful project managers have strategies to approach risk, while avoiding the negative perception that may accompany those conversations.

Some techniques Bob has used in the past include dedicating a short period of time to ‘pessimist time’ in meetings, and ensuring the discussion is focused on mitigating risk, rather than dwelling on them.

7. They design the project approach strategically

There are lots of different approaches to project management, but successful project managers know one approach doesn’t fit all.

“Deciding on a project approach is no trivial matter, and a bit of strategic thinking should go into your decision making,” says Bob.

The strategic process should take into consideration factors like the detail of the requirements, the desired output, the resources available, and the customer.

8. They can juggle their workload

Project management can involve a heavy workload, ever-changing priorities and daily challenges.

Successful project managers skilfully navigate the daily juggling routine.

9. They can successfully manage conflict

On any project that involves a team, or different relationships, conflict may arise.

“There are a few common points of tension that pop up frequently,” says Bob.

“These are all solvable, but all require your project management attention.”

The common sources of tension include disagreements on technical direction, workload and scheduling, risk, and varying business priorities.

Bob’s advice is to take action when you become aware of conflict unfolding, and make sure you’re working to resolve the conflict.  

10. They balance quality with scope, time and cost

Expecting a high-quality product when you’re low on time and budget may be unrealistic.

Successful project managers balance scope, time and cost with the quality of the output.

11. They can deal with fear

“Dealing with stakeholders’ fear can be one of the most frustrating things a project manager can handle,” says Bob.

When a sponsor or stakeholder has fear surrounding a project, Bob recommends taking a few steps:

  1. Get the facts about the source of the stakeholder’s fear
  2. Provide your facts on the project
  3. Apply and manage contingency time and budget
  4. Reinforce and reassure with detailed reporting

Successful project managers will be able to implement these strategies and put their mind at ease.

“It’s a good day when you go home knowing you’ve made someone’s life more comfortable,” says Bob.

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