PM-Foundations – 10 Capabilities of an Effective Project Manager

When interviewing potential project management candidates there are certain qualities, skills, and experiences you are looking for that are part of the DNA of a successful project manager. These qualities, skills, and experiences define the capabilities of a project manager, and their ability to consistently deliver positive project outcomes. These capabilities represent a point in time “snapshot” of where they currently are in their career. I try to look at the “real” potential of a project manager by assessing the impact additional experience and professional development can have on some of their capability shortfalls. You need to consider the candidate’s current capabilities, potential capabilities, and the perceived desire to achieve their potential when making hiring decisions. In this blog I touch on what I consider to be the key capabilities of an effective project manager.

10 Capabilities of an Effective Project Manager

Below are the top 10 things that I believe that project managers must demonstrate or perform well to consistently drive positive project outcomes. As with most of my lists, these are not necessarily in ranked order.

1. Facilitation – Much of what a project manager does involves facilitation – enabling project teams to collaborate to get work done. Project managers facilitate meetings, decision making, and issue resolution (to name a few). Effective facilitators understand the impartial role of the facilitator, ask good questions to promote meaningful discussions, and leverage facilitation tools to achieve the desire results.

2. Attention to Detail – Project managers must “roll their sleeves up” to understand and manage the details associated with the project. Activities like creating/updating a project schedule, tracking the project budget, and managing project risks & issues require the project manager to be comfortable and efficient working with very detailed information. Part of paying attention to details is identifying the details that are important to the success of the project – too many project managers get “lost in the details”.

3. Credibility – It is almost impossible to effectively lead a project if the project manager has not established credibility with the team and key stakeholders. Establishing credibility involves showing you have the confidence, knowledge, and experience to lead the project team. Credibility is established by “saying the right” things during interactions with the team, and more importantly “doing the right” things to drive project results.

4. Financial Aptitude – My major in college was accounting, so I am probably a bit biased on this point. In order to create and manage a project budget, as well as manage key project metrics (e.g., earned value, variance analysis), the project manager must have a strong aptitude to perform financial analysis related activities. Based upon my experience, project managers that do not have a strong financial aptitude try to ignore these aspects of the project, with not so successful results.

5. Technical Understanding – Even if you are not working on software development projects, most projects today involve some sort of technology. Project managers must be able to talk to technical resources and at a minimum understand the essence of their message and the implications on the project. I always cringe when I hear a project manager say, “I am not a technical person.” In my opinion this type of statement has a negative impact on the project manager’s credibility with the technical resources on the team.

6. Tools Savvy – Tools are a significant element of managing projects in most project environments, and the project manager needs to demonstrate the ability to use them effectively to manage the project. This includes project scheduling tools (e.g., MS Project) to manage the schedule, spreadsheets (e.g., Excel) to manage the budget and other project metrics, and presentation tools (e.g., PowerPoint) to facilitate project meetings. In addition, collaboration tools (e.g. SharePoint) are rapidly expanding in the project delivery space to provide a platform for easy access to project information/artifacts.

7. Embrace Conflict – Many people go through life trying to avoid conflict – conflict is unpleasant and stressful. In the context of project management, conflict is often required to get things “out in the open” and resolve issues. Embracing conflict does not mean that you go to project meetings seeking to “pick a fight”. It means that project manager must ensure that the difficult topics get discussed by the team in a timely manner. Project managers must rely on their facilitation skills to bring these difficult discussions to a positive conclusion. Potential problems left unattended do nothing but get bigger over time.

8. Continuous Learning – Every project I work on introduces me to something new. It may be a new tool, a new client industry, a new business process or a new technology. It is this opportunity to learn new things that fuels much of my passion for project management. Lou Holtz’s statement, “If you are not growing, you are dying” is very applicable to the world of project management. Our project environments are ever changing and therefore a project manager must enjoy and seek the opportunities to learn in order to sustain their effectiveness as a project manager.

9. Active Listening – I find that my most effective contributions on the team are achieved by listening to what the team members have to say. Active listening is required to understand what people are doing, identify challenges team members have encountered, and capture ideas to improve project performance. Active listening also provides the project manager with better “peripheral vision” (things that are not in the project manager’s direct line of sight) to identify potential problems or risks. Many project managers feel that leading involves a lot of talking, and I would argue that leading involves much more listening.

10. Flexible – Very rarely does the execution of the project turn out to be exactly as the project has been planned. Therefore the project manager must be able to respond to a “change in plans” and quickly adjust the plan in a manner that keeps the project on-track. The other important aspect of flexibility is the ability to accommodate the needs of your team and key stakeholders. There are many times that a project manager must lead by being a “servant” to the team – happy team members are productive team members.





PM-Foundations – Implementing Project Management Best Practices

My company’s project management services are built around the idea that project management is a very mature competency with many available sources of knowledge, and yet companies still struggle with challenged or failed projects. We firmly believe that the implementation and consistent application of project management best practices is what differentiates successful projects from challenged projects. The more ingrained these best practices are in the project management culture, the lower the dependency on the talents and heroic efforts of individual team members.

What Do Best Practices Look Like?

Best practices represent the practical application of the concepts, processes, and tools defined in the PMBOK® and other sources of knowledge. To better explain best practices, below I have broken down the elements of a successful project management best practice implementation.

  • People – Best practices start with hiring good people – people that have the desire, capabilities, and core knowledge to be a professional project leader. When mentoring potential project leaders, I usually recommend pursuing the PMP certification path to validate that they have the base knowledge associated with the project management competency.
  • Concepts/Approach, Processes & Tools – Represents the components of the project management knowledge base utilized to define your best practices, including the knowledge created within your company’s project environment. This knowledge establishes approaches, processes, and tools associated with solving project management problems. The key is to leverage existing sources, and not spend too much time creating new content. This content should be upgraded on a frequent basis through on-going continuous improvement, in the context of completing work in your project environment (e.g., actions from a lessons learned process).
  • Critical Few – Best practices focus on the “critical few” areas that if performed well on a project significantly improve project outcomes. Organizations often “get lost” in building out elaborate processes and tools, when a limited set of best practices is what is required to deliver a project successfully.
  • Practical Application – Best practices are not theoretical or text book solutions. They represent approaches, concepts, and tools that have been consistently and effectively utilized in “actual” situations to delivery positive results on projects. If you cannot provide examples of the best practice in use then maybe you should consider dropping it from your arsenal of best practices.
  • Appropriate Situation – The best practices define the situations that specific approaches, processes, and tools are most effective. “One size does not always fit all” when it comes to use of best practices. The appropriate situation is learned over time, and through collaboration with colleagues and mentors.
  • Artifacts – Creating artifacts within the project office’s knowledge base converts something “done well” on a project into something that can be leveraged for future project efforts. Process documentation and templates are required to ensure that best practices can be implemented in a consistent and effective manner across all projects. I also find it helpful to maintain a library of examples (reference stories) of best practices applied to solve specific problems on projects.

Are these really the “Best” Practices?

One of the notions often challenged around the topic of best practices is that it may be a bit arrogant to propose that your practices are the “best”. There is generally more than one way to solve most project management problems, and very often one way is not significantly better than another. The goal is to consistently utilize project management practices that deliver positive project outcomes. Whether or not the practices are the “best” is irrelevant if they consistently drive the desired results. I use the term “best” practices because it is a term that seems to be understood across the industry, and represents an aspirational goal for the project office (vs. a factual statement).

What are the Benefits of Best Practices?

A thoughtful implementation and diligent application of best practices will drive tangible benefits realized immediately within individual projects, but more importantly by creating a project management culture and competency that consistently meets or exceeds customer expectations. The following represent specific benefits you can expect by implementing and re-enforcing project management best practices:

  • Results – The cornerstone of project management best practices is driving positive project outcomes. These best practices are utilized to ensure that quality products are delivered when they are supposed to be delivered, and based upon the estimated effort / cost to deliver it.
  • Ramp-up – Project managers will become productive leaders on new projects quicker, because they understand the key areas to focus on during the on-boarding process.
  • Productivity – An effective project manager will use and tailor existing approaches, processes, and tools, vs. building and inventing processes “on the fly”. Use of best practices increases the project manager’s capacity to take on more work (increasing their role on the project, or assigning them responsibilities on other projects).
  • Consistency – Consistency unto itself is not a tangible benefit. However, if projects are managed in a consistent manner it is easier for team members to engage in project work because project managers “speak the same language” (utilizing the same processes and tools) across the portfolio of projects. This consistency also improves the ability to integrate projects in a multi-project environment.
  • Continuous Improvement – Placing emphasis on best practices establishes a “baseline” for continuous improvement in your project environment. As teams identify new practices, or enhance existing practices (in the context of completing project work) it becomes natural for the project office to capture the improvement and incorporate it into the best practices utilized across all projects.

How do you Implement Best Practices?

Below are the steps required (not necessarily in this order) to implement a strong best practices centric project management culture in your project office.

  • Identify / Define – Identify the “critical few” best practices that if applied effectively in your organization drive positive project outcomes. Leverage existing resources (within the project management industry, and within your organization) to define these best practices. These best practices are defined in the form of approaches, processes, and tools.
  • Assemble Team – Build a project management team that has the capability and desire to effectively apply the best practices in the context of completing “real” project work. I find that having a core of experienced and skilled project managers is a requirement to a strong best practice centric project management culture. Less experienced project managers can “lean on” the core of experienced project managers for professional development counseling, and advice on specific project situations.
  • Train – On-going training on the best practices is a must. I recommend focusing the training on how to apply the best practices when performing project work. Therefore it is logical to organize the training around the project life cycle. I also recommend that ALL project managers (even senior level project managers) participate in the training – you will not achieve the desired results without getting “everyone on the same page”.
  • Re-enforce – How many times have you attended a training course that you thought was pretty good, and then you did nothing different when you got back to your “real” job? The best practice implementation must involve re-enforcement of the best practices. Our training involves a case study that requires team members to apply the practice in a real situation. Mentors are assigned to the participants to help coach them on the application of the practice, and ensure they really “got it” for effective use on future projects.
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