What the Project Manager Knows About Getting Work Done

Businesswoman using interactive screen for planning
GettyImages/MontyRakusen

The project manager is increasingly one of the most important roles in today’s initiative-filled, world of group work. After all, projects are everywhere in our organizations.

By definition, a project is all of the work we do once; it is temporary and unique. We develop new products in projects. We implement new software programs such as our corporate enterprise resource planning or our customer relationship management software via project teams.

Even the work of innovation and strategy development and execution take place in the form of projects.

The individuals occupying the role of project manager in our organizations are essential to our firm’s survival and success. They facilitate and coordinate and drive getting the work done, and they do it by applying both science and art.

Experienced project managers are adept at helping groups take complex ideas—product specifications or customer requirements and break the ideas down into digestible chunks of work. They coordinate the resources and flow of the work; they manage and report on budgets and importantly, they lead and guide their team members through tough decisions and challenging problems.

The best project managers are priceless productivity resources, and the lessons they learn and skills they cultivate are readily applicable to all of us in our “not enough hours in a day” working lives.

Nine Lessons on Productivity from the World of Project Management:

1. Time spent planning pays dividends. In our fast-paced world, we have a pronounced tendency to rush into initiatives without taking the time to clarify and plan. Your project manager understands that time invested in the upfront planning pays the team back with time-savings in the form of reduced waste and rework in the future.

In my MBA courses on project management, this point is reiterated time and again by students, describing their new found perspective on the benefits of investing ample upfront time clarifying and planning. As I learned from my father a long time ago when working on household improvement projects, “measure twice, cut once.”

2. A clear charter is priceless. The charter document in project management is effectively the birth announcement of the new initiative. It describes the purpose of the project and key timing parameters. It identifies key roles, including: the customer, the project manager, the project sponsor and the core team members. Expanded versions of the charter can include a list of key stakeholders and additional expectations for the project. The document is shared across the organization, ensuring everyone understands the importance of this initiative and the individuals involved. It minimizes churn and confusion and lays the groundwork for widespread cooperation.

You can adopt the concept of the charter to any activity on your team as a means of informing everyone and empowering responsible team members. Keep it simple and draft a brief announcement outlining the initiative.

Explain the purpose, identify the key participants and ask for everyone’s support. Your team will appreciate your information sharing.

3. Know who is being touched by your initiative and involve them! Experienced project managers understand how critical it is to identify and engage with all parties (stakeholders) impacted by an initiative. An uninformed stakeholder is likely to be an uncooperative individual. To help identify stakeholders, create a picture or map outlining everyone impacted by or involved with your project. This includes managers providing resources, departments that will have to change processes because of your initiative and of course, your customers.

Proper, timely and consistent stakeholder involvement reduces confusion, improves cooperation and speeds problem-solving.

Apply the lessons of project managers for stakeholder management with your own programs and activities. Draw a diagram of the individuals touched by the initiative and meet with them to gain their support and input. Make certain to keep them appropriately involved in the communication loop as outlined in point nine below.

4. Teams become productive faster with coaching. Project managers are adept at forming productive teams for temporary and unique initiatives, often with individuals who have never worked together. They understand the challenges of assembling a group and moving them from the forming phase to the performing phase, and they coach their teams through these challenges. They place particular emphasis on helping everyone understand their roles and on developing standards for discussing, debating and deciding. They offer ample feedback to team members and they foster a culture of accountability for performance.

Whether you are a leading a function or assembling a work group to tackle a new initiative, do not assume your team will become productive quickly just because you issued a charter and empowered them to get the work done. In reality, groups form faster and learn to perform when they are guided and coached.

5. The work of assessing risks never stops. The best project managers understand that all of their work is about managing risk. They are relentless at all stages of the project in working with their team to identify potential risks and develop strategies for mitigating or avoiding risks.

Incorporate risk identification and risk assessment techniques into your own work. Make certain to identify individuals responsible for identifying risks, and develop a mitigation plan for the largest concerns. Whether you work in sales, customer support or operations, risk planning and active risk management will save headaches, time and money.

6. One approach or tool does not fit all. From agile practices to critical path or critical chain project management techniques, the right approach depends upon a variety of factors, including: the nature of the project; the experience and education of team members on different approaches and the access to supporting resources. Great project managers select the approach they believe best maps to the situation and environment.

As managers, we often get stuck in a rut on approaching the work of our teams. In reality, there are multiple paths to solving every problem. Processes can be streamlined, new approaches or new technologies can be adopted. Be flexible and encourage your team members to identify different approaches to their work and to problem-solving. Give them autonomy to adopt the approach they believe best fits the situation.

7. Change happens, but it must be managed to avoid chaos. Every experienced project manager understands that change is inevitable during any given project. Instead of resisting change, they develop processes and tools to evaluate, decide upon and communicate changes in prior plans.

Uncontrolled change to prior plans breeds chaos and confusion. Adopt the practices of the project manager and create and share a change management process that allows people to propose ideas, gain approval and then communicate the changes.

8. Leadership is the difference-maker in project team performance. The strongest project managers wear multiple hats, and the role of the leader is perhaps the most important of all. They understand they are responsible for providing a clear vision, setting direction and forming and framing the environment necessary for the team to succeed. They ensure that clear values for performance and accountability are established and enforced, and they use coaching skills to guide continuous learning and improvement.

It is easy to get caught up in the endless stream of tasks in front of you and your team. Remember that your team needs you to lead, not do the work for them. Make certain to approach every day as an opportunity to support, guide and coach.

9. Communicate at just the right volume and frequency. When it comes to commmunicating information about the status of an initiative, effective project managers understand the need to tailor to the needs of key stakeholders. The CEO does not want the level of detail required by the quality manager. A distant stakeholder does not need daily updates.

Work to assess your audience’s true needs for information detail and frequency and tailor your updates accordingly. You will engender goodwill and minimize time spent generating reports and updates that no one reads or needs.

The Bottom line for Now:

There are more than a few great lessons on productivity, management and leadership to learn from great project managers. Apply the lessons wisely and you will improve your own personal and team productivity and performance.