16 Tips for New Project Managers

Dealing with Challenging Projects

When I became a project manager, the first thing I did was print out a bunch of documents, the Statement of Work, some spreadsheets with basic financial information and put it all in a well-organized 3-ring binder.  Beyond that, I didn’t know what I was doing.  So I just got down to work.  That was 20 years ago and since that time, I’ve learned a few things.  Being a project manager can often feel like a thankless job because you’re always in the hot seat, you are ultimately accountable, and you find yourself chasing information on a regular basis.  But equally, you get to apply and test strategies, you get the opportunity to implement new ideas, and the personal satisfaction at the end of a project can be extremely rewarding.  With that, here are 16 tips for new project managers that I wish I knew when I put that first Statement of Work into a 3-ring binder.

1. Know the Scope

Every project has a purpose.  Maybe it’s to deliver a new product to a customer, maybe it’s to remove cost from your company, perhaps it’s to develop a new process.  The first rule, of any project, is to understand the scope of what it is you are trying to accomplish.  Equally, know what your scope does not include.  Over the course of the project, you’re likely to encounter moments when scope becomes blurry and you’ll need to make a judgment call as to whether or not you spend time and energy on something that may be outside the project charter.

2.  Know Your Customer or Sponsor

Just like knowing the scope, knowing your customer or project sponsor is also vital to every program manager.  The relationship you have with the customer or sponsor can make or break your efforts because you will need to call upon them regularly to align expectations and ask for decisions.  Conversely, if you are not in close contact with your customer or sponsor, you run the risk of spending a lot of time and missing the mark.

3.  Know What’s In Writing

In many organizations, a project manager may not have been involved in the original business capture effort or in developing the business case.  And while you don’t need to be an attorney to be a Project or Program Manager, you should know what the contract says.  If you are running a project that’s under contract with a customer or in support of some other business partnership, do yourself a favor and read the binding documents to know what you’re ultimately on the hook for.  Often times, those seemingly insignificant sentences in a Statement of Work or a contract can become extremely important.

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4.  Document Assumptions and Rationale Like a Bad Habit

If you were to ask any experienced project manager about something he or she wishes they would have known when they first started, it would be the important of documentation.  Specifically, documenting assumptions, decisions and agreements on a regular basis can become a project manager’s best habit.  Records and documentation become invaluable when trying to piece together history and decisions made in the past. Good documentation is doing yourself a favor in the future.

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5.  A Schedule is Just a Tool

An experienced Program Manager I once worked with would say it almost out of habit.  “We need to make a schedule and then the schedule will tell us what to do.”  And despite the success he had, he had a tendency to treat schedules as a supernatural object that made decisions for us.  The problem, though, was that after all the time we spent putting such plans together, it was only a matter of a few short days before something changed and the schedules became obsolete.

Schedules are simply tools to help forecast resource demands, arrange work and priorities, and identify challenges that are coming.  However, every project schedule is a living document that is there to help you make decisions, and not to make decisions for you.

One final point on making a project schedule – after all the effort you put into making one, be sure to share the schedule with the team to make sure everyone knows the critical project milestones.

6.  Planning For Phases

Every project is made up of key phases and milestones, including the project kickoff, need dates and milestones along the way, and completion.  While your schedule will help connect tasks and identify key dependencies, it’s important as the project manager to take a step back and focus on the key phases of work.  In the grand scheme of things, if a report takes an extra few days, its unlikely to cause a significant delay in the project.  However, if you fall far behind on a number of items, you can jeopardize missing a key milestone or a progress payment.  The point?  Don’t sweat the small stuff – things will happen that will impact day-to-day activities.  Focus your energy on the main event.

RELATED: How to Run A Staff Meeting

7.  Communication Is Paramount

If there is one single thing that can make how well a project goes, it would be how the team communicates.  But everyone talks about communication.  So let’s gone one step further; there are three specific areas of communication that are needed to run a successful project:

1. Communication to Others

Communication outside the team to stakeholders falls onto you and other leaders within the project team.  Identify a simple, standard way to communicate to individuals outside the immediate project teams.  Your audience should include your customer or sponsor, and other leaders within the organization.  Regular communication helps resolve issues and communicate change in a timely manner.Communication to stakeholders

2.  Communication to You

Of course, as the project leader, you need the team members to communicate with you.  But you can’t be everywhere at once.  Schedule a weekly team meeting to discuss progress, issues, and changes.  Take effective notes and action items.  Additionally, if  the team is large enough such that you are unable to connect with everyone on a weekly basis, ask them to send you a few bullet points or updates at the end of the week such that you can keep tabs on progress.Communication to manager

 

3.  Communication Between the Team Members

The third aspect of communication is the one that is often overlooked and is the one that can lead to strain on you as well as problems within the team: communication between the team members themselves.  While you want to be kept in the loop on communication, you also don’t want to become the bottleneck.  An effective team will be one in which team members collaborate and work directly with one another even without your involvement.  You want the team members to collaborate with each other more than they work through you.Communication with a team

8.  Learn the Power of a RAIL

A RAIL, or Rolling Action Item List, is an invaluable tool to help you track and manage activities.  A RAIL does not need to be fancy – create a simple spreadsheet that you can easily edit and track action items and activities over time.  What type of information should you put in a RAIL?  Keep it simple: Action, Owner, Due Date, Comments.  Find whatever works for you, put it in front of the team every time you meet, and stick to it.  Here’s an example of a Rolling Action List (RAIL):

What to put in a RAIL

9.  Don’t Hide From Risk

Every project and program has some sort of risk.  Risk can come in the form of cost overruns, scope creep, schedule delays, and even failure to meet the desired end results.  Don’t stick your head in the sand or run away from it.  Capture the risks, estimate the likelihood and compute the expected value.  Be realistic, be fair and keep an eye on them.  Share the with the team and gather their input and feedback on ways to de-risk the project.  When risks go unmanaged, they can quickly and easily devalue the hard work you put in.

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10.  Master Your Ability to Influence

Just because your job title is ‘Program Manager’ doesn’t necessarily make you a manager of people.  In most organizations, project and program managers are not actually managers of other people in the typical sense.  Yet project managers have tremendous responsibility to make sure things happen.  It is the classic responsibility without authority challenge that we all face at some point in our careers.  Thus, as a new project manager, you should make it a point to develop your ability to influence others.  And of course, build strong relationships with those individuals who can help you get things done.

11.  When Reporting, Manage the Message

One of the thankless parts of being a project manager is reporting.  You report to your boss.  You report to management, you may report to your customer and you may report to executives.  Unfortunately, reporting is often done in short spurts or at infrequent intervals, forcing you to share a lot of information in a short amount of time.  When reporting, your first priority is to focus on what’s important and to manage the message you are delivering.  If things are going well, highlighting dozens of inconsequential issues will only make people think otherwise.  If things are not going well, objectively present the issues and where you need help.  Bad news won’t get better with time.

RELATED: A Slide Presentation is Just a Message Delivery System!

12.  Involve Others When Making Big Decisions

Decision making is perhaps the most frequent “thing” you’ll do as a project manager.  But don’t carry all the weight on your shoulders. When facing a big decision like making a large purchase, or how to deliver bad news, talk to key players on the team.  Often times, people close the situation may have a different way of seeing and presenting the facts.  Consider your options carefully, talk it out with whom you trust, and follow your instincts.

13.  Focus on Solutions

No project or program ever goes as planned.  Problems will always arise – changes, mistakes, finances, delays, etc.  Dwelling on issues doesn’t solve them.  Rather, focus the team’s attention on adapting to the circumstances and finding solutions to the challenges. The sooner you work towards a solution, the sooner you’ll overcome the hurdle.  An unwillingness to change or adapt to challenges rarely ends well.

14.  Spend Wisely

Just like in our personal lives, it’s important to managing project expenses and costs well.  To start, get your hands on the original financial model or business case behind the project to understand what assumptions and analysis went into the project’s make-up.  This simple step (which most project managers actually fail to do) can help you avoid blowing your budget.  When you’re under budget, most people won’t care.   When you’re over budget, everyone will care.  Take it personally, as if it were your own money.  Buying a business class ticket to Taiwan to see your customer?  No problem.  But reconsider the $13,000 direct flight and take a connection and spend only $5,000.

15.  Document What You Learn.  Review What Others Did.

These days, the documenting of Lessons Learned is often deemed a great management invention and a miracle in the world of project management.  But how many times do you REALLY go back and look at them?  And what about the lessons learned of others?  Documents the mistakes and things you learn through every project, and share with your team, your peers and other program managers.  Equally, review theirs.  Or at a minimum, when you encounter issues, talk through your challenges with another project manager or team leader to get an outside opinion.  More than likely someone has been in your shoes.

16. Recognition of Effort Helps Keep Things Moving

The reason the role of a project or program manager is so rewarding is because you’ll hit struggles along the way, and overcoming those challenges is satisfying.  And more than likely, it wasn’t just the result of your efforts, but the entire team’s.  Recognize contribution, celebrate milestones, and share in praise.  Simple things like t-shirts for the team, a Friday luncheon in the office or a souvenir mug are inexpensive ways to motivate the team and keep them performing in good times and bad.

 

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