Qualities of a Great Project Manager

25/05/2008

For those of us that have worked on numerous projects, it doesn’t take long to tell when a project is being managed well or poorly. But what in particular makes one project manager better than another? What is it about those project managers that make a project work as smoothly as possible but with other project managers, everything is a struggle? There’s not one specific quality that makes a great project manager but a collection of qualities that needs to be balanced to meet the needs of each project. There’s no specific order to these qualities, they all play an important role.

Attention to detail

I can’t imagine a project manager worth their salt that doesn’t have attention to detail. As they say, god is in the details. There are so many aspects to a project that can cause delays and issues that a project MUST be on top so that these issues are dealt with BEFORE they become a problem.

For instance, in almost every web based project, the client will be required to supply content or data. To have an item on the project plan that states – “client to supply product data” is not enough. You need to specify details such as the volume, format, structure…etc of the data. If you don’t, it will cause delays when the data arrives. This is just one of those details that can cost time, by not paying attention to these types of details, days and weeks of time can easily be lost.

It’s not good enough to rely on your developers or other team members to be aware of these details – ofcourse they should, and a good developer will remind you of these details ahead of time – if they don’t you’re bound to loose time trying to make up for lack of preparation.

Knowing What Really Matters

Even though attention to detail is important, also important is knowing which details are going to make or break the project. There isn’t always enough time to deal with every detail before development starts (even though it would be ideal, it’s just not always practical), therefore it comes down to knowing what details will have the greatest impact on the project and which details can be worked out along the way. Some details can be dealt with adequate during the project, some we need to know ahead of time. This is in line with the agile mindset that focuses on delivering working software. Using this mindset, having a completed contract is a detail that can be sorted out during the project whereas confirming database designs mid way through a is definitely going to impact on productivity.

Now it’s important to note here that in an ideal world, we sort out all of the details up front so that we know exactly what we are doing, ie. take the waterfall approach to development. But, in reality, we don’t always get all the details and to try to do so can lead to what seems like a never ending documentation stage. So, the key is to be able to identify when we have enough detail to move forward. Naturally it’s a risk, but so too is trying to perfect documentation at the risk of the project never getting off the ground.

Guts

This is probably one of the hardest qualities to find in any manager, the guts to say it as it is. Too many times, we sit in meetings listening to the goings on while inside we are shaking our heading and thinking to ourselves that the situation is crazy, it’s just never going to work. But we don’t say it there and then, we wait until after the meeting and say it to our co-workers and friends and go on about how the situation is absurd. It takes a lot of guts to stand up and say that out loud and to not back down until the situation is accepted for what it is.
The most common situation I find is with deadlines. The project manager dutifully creates the project plan based on the information they have received from the appropriate team members (architects, developers, designers, testers..etc). Taking into account the various risks and issues associated with the project, the timeline is created. For example, let’s say Project Guts is scheduled to take 112 days to complete and will be delivered on 8th August if the project starts on the 3rd of March (taking into account holidays, leave entitlements..etc). The deadline is present to the client, the client says that’s not acceptable and that the project MUST be delivered by the 30th of June at the latest. This represents a reduction in the time line of over 20%. This is only possible if the other factors of the project, ie resources or scope are adjusted.

The dilemma in this situation is the company that the project manager works for is keen to please the client, they put pressure on the project manager to meet the deadline regardless of the fact that the client doesn’t want to adjust the scope and there are no more resources.

This is crunch time, this is when real project management starts. This is when the project manager has to have the guts to say no. That it can’t be done without making changes to resources or scope. This is the way it is. The easy path here is to accept the revised deadline knowing it’s unrealistic and manage expectations at a later date. Sometimes this will work as once the project is well underway, the client is less likely to abandon the project. However, it’s more than likely to go over time which means as a project manager, you won’t be delivering on time and on budget. This is when you have to have the guts to push back and say you won’t do it. This is when you have to put your job on the line – which is entirely likely, to back yourself and what you believe in as a professional project manager.

This is not easy, this is why most project managers will take the easy path upfront and deal with it later. It takes real guts to stick to your guns and some companies will not accept this stance and you may need to find alternative employment, but then again, do you want to work for a company that doesn’t trust and respect your decisions?

Determination

Detemination and guts go hand in hand, it’s one thing to have the guts to say something, it’s another to have the determination to follow it through. Having the guts to say in a meeting “this is crazy” is only half the battle, the other half is having the determination to follow through and convince management on both sides (yours and the client’s) that something has to change for the new deadline to be accepted and that if it’s not, then it won’t be delivered on time.

Another aspect of determination is getting what you need to keep the project moving forward. There are all sorts of pitfalls that can befall a project. For instance, a developer may not have the right version of software required to commence a task and that needs to be organized. The usual process in my company is to submit an issue to the help desk and then it will be done in due course. Sometimes it requires a greater level of determination in order to make sure it gets done when you need it. Sometimes you’ll need to go to the IT department and speak to them directly, sometimes you’ll need to follow up every day to make sure it will get done, sometimes it’s a matter of sitting in the IT department and waiting until the technician actually performs the task. If it’s important, you need to be determine to make sure it gets done and not accept excuses or you’ll risk the project running late.

Now that doesn’t mean being rude or pushy (unless you need to be), quiet determination can be effective as well as being loud. The key is to make sure your intentions are clear, that you won’t rest until you get what you want.

Empathy

So far, all the qualities I’ve mentioned are not personable traits, ie. they are not the type of qualities that is necessarily going to help you make friends. That’s fine, being a great project manager is about earning respect first and foremost. However, that doesn’t mean you can afford to be a tyrant. That will work against you. What’s important is to get people on side so that you can achieve what you need to. This might sound mercenary but it’s important. You need to understand what matters to the key people on the project team (or all members for smaller projects). This is important as what matters to them will impact on the project and your relationship with them. You do need to really care about what matters to them, and that applies equally to the client.

If you don’t understand what matters to your team members then you can’t effectively manage the situation. What appears on the surface as a minor issue might actually be a festering problem that will cause significant delays if not addressed. And these issues can take all manner of shapes, it can be about the project or about something personal. Just because we turn up at work, doesn’t mean our personal lives are left at the door. If someone is going through a divorce, has had a recent loss in the family, has a sick parent/child/spouse, these things will impact on the project. That doesn’t mean you become a counselor for the team but you must understand what is happening with each person to know how to deal with issues before they become a problem.

It’s not easy but truly caring does matter – to both your client and team members.

Diplomacy

This is another one of the ‘softer’ qualities that is important to be a great project manager. It takes guts to say that a deadline can’t be met, it takes diplomacy to deliver the message in a way that is sensitive to the true reason behind it, that a team member is under performing because they are suffering from depression after having been recently divorced. These things happen and it’s important to respect the individual who is creating the delay but also to ensure the project is managed appropriately. Ideally, the team member is taken off the critical path or gets help to complete their task without being made to feel like a failure. Similarly a delay can be caused by the client, but stating so in an email to all team members may prove to put the client offside and make them difficult to budge on other issues. As long as they accept their hand in the delay, then that’s what matters, making an example of the client won’t help the project get done any quicker.

The key is know when you need to be straight talking, open and honest and when to employ some diplomacy.

In Conclusion

A great project manager not only has to have all of these qualities but also to know when to employ them and to what extent. As each project is different and each person different, the approach will have to vary to ensure you get the best out of that person in any given situation. Some people need tough love, some people need straight talk, some people need to be reminded on a daily basis of what they are supposed to deliver. The key is that a great project manager will instinctively know how to balance a situation and will do whatever it takes to get the job done. Which if you want to it sum up is what makes a great project manager, ie someone who is willing to do whatever it takes.