How to Be a Successful Project Manager


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There’s a hugely successful book that you’ve probably heard of and may have read called The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey.

It identifies seven habits that can help people be more effective in personal and professional environments. But what habits apply specifically to successful project managers?

Well, let’s start by acknowledging the value of good habits in general. They take a helpful behavior and move it towards being automatic. When you have good habits, you just follow them, almost without thinking. And that frees up your attention to focus on the other important details on your task list. So, habits amplify how effective you can be and, therefore, how successful your project management practices are.

Two Essential Habits for Successful PMs

I want to assume two habits that you may already have. I consider these habits to be non-negotiable. Without these, I think you’ll fail to make any sort of worthwhile career out of project management – or anything much else.

Following the Project Process

Let’s not get into which project process. Your job is to determine the approach that will give you and your team the best chance of delivering your project safely, accountably, on time and on budget. Once you’ve done that, you’ll follow that process – adapting it, of course, as necessary. This is about technical competence, at the least, and technical excellence if you want to really succeed.

Acting with Complete Integrity

The habit of speaking honestly and dealing fairly with people is obvious to most of us. But there are some people who seem to need to think this through, at each opportunity. But your habit should be to only take actions that represent absolute integrity, and not to consider whether or not to pursue them. But don’t for one minute think that this will always be an easy matter to assess.

My Seven Habits

With those two habits under your belt, what should you focus on to build constructive habits that will enhance your long-term career success? I’d like to offer you seven. Not because this is a magic number (although some cultures do believe so), but because that’s the number that Stephen Covey chose.

Habit 1: Shift Happens! Prepare for it.

By now, I am sure many readers will be familiar with Tim Lister’s wise comment: “Risk management is how adults manage projects.”

So, get into the habit of thinking in terms of risk. See the possibility of failure in every part of your plan. It’s too easy to study a plan – especially one you have created – and see the risks as variances to the plan. But what about sudden bends or alternate routes?

Successful project managers have two habits that complement one another:

  1. Looking for problems and planning how they will deal with them.
  2. Constantly working their risk register. They review outstanding risks on a regular cycle and push constantly for progress.

Without action, a magnificent risk register is nothing more than Exhibit A in a failed project’s post mortem.

Habit 2: People Make Projects Tricky. Always be Listening.

I have my own variant on Tim Lister’s maxim. If risk management is how adults manage projects, then: “Stakeholder engagement is how sophisticated adults manage projects.”

Your stakeholders have the capacity to make or break your project. So, communicating with them must be right at the top of your priority list. There’s another assertion that I agree with; that project management is 80 percent communication.

That communication splits three ways, and not evenly. The same goes for your governance tiers, your boss, client or sponsor, and some go to your team and colleagues. However, most of your communication will be with stakeholders.

You need to inform, consult, cajole, persuade and so much more. So, the one habit that makes all this easier, that wins their respect, and feeds your insights is simple: always be listening.

Habit 3: There’s Always Too Much. Find the Big Lever.

Projects are big, complex endeavors with lots of moving parts. They can suck you in and drain your energy. You will never have time to do everything you want to do. Therefore, prioritization and focus are the orders of the day. But there is one thing that a project manager craves above all else: control.

If you think about it, that’s the job of a project manager: to bring control to the messy, chaotic, uncertain, changing environment that is a project. And there is one thing I figured out very early in my career as a project manager, which I think made all the difference. That is, every project is unique, and therefore each one has its own priorities and points of impact.

For each project, find the one or two levers that give you maximum control over your project. Make them the focus of your monitoring and control. When you find the right levers, and learn how to work them, everything else will fall into place.

Habit 4: Focus On Your Strengths. Default to Delegation.

No project manager will be truly successful until they learn to delegate effectively. It confers so many benefits that it should be your standard solution for getting things done.

Delegation frees you up for your most valuable single role: thinking. It engages your team members and motivates them. This is because it shows trust and confidence. But crucially, it’s the way most of us learn best; by doing the things we need to learn. A delegation is a premium tool for developing your people. And that does not just benefit them. It builds resilience into your project and therefore mitigates some substantial risks.

Habit 5: The Team Delivers. Serve your People.

Try not to fool yourself. Unless you’re leading a small project, where you are the team, as well as the project manager, you won’t be delivering your project. Your team will. In the context of project delivery, therefore, your job is simple. You must make it as easy as possible for them to do their jobs.

So, you can forget about stale stereotypes of being the boss. The habit to get into is making the coffee because your role is to serve your team, to provide them with the resources they need, to thrive and succeed. And, to shield them from the corporate meddling that constantly frustrates our day-to-day efforts to get on with our work.

Habit 6: Take Nothing on its Appearance. Ask Questions.

Excellent projects often benefit from excellent governance, and I think there is a strong causal link. Sadly, though, you can’t always ensure that your project gets the high-quality governance it deserves. But what you can control is your art in some of the governance roles. Because good governance takes responsibility – on behalf of the organization – for strategy, oversight and decision-making.

To play your part in this, you need constantly to be questioning, challenging, and looking for new evidence. Avoid confirmation bias by preparing your project reports from the bottom up. Project reporting tools can really come in handy here. Start with raw data every time, rather than gathering data to illustrate your main points. Seek out wise counsel, and test your ideas with experienced and senior colleagues.

While cynicism can drain the energy from a project, skepticism is healthy. Make it your habit to ask questions when you don’t know, and to quickly move past things you know already, so you can find out more.

Habit 7: Who Are You? Keep Learning.

Humans evolve. Successful professionals evolve faster than other people because they have an “always learning” mindset. Get into two valuable habits that will keep you learning:

  1. Invest in your own knowledge, learning and skill set.
    Read books. Go to events. Take courses. Lifelong learning is more than just a CPD obligation for members of a professional body. It’s the surest route to flexible career options, fulfillment and even good mental health.
  2. Review your experiences.
    Are you wise? It’s not for you to say, so don’t try to answer. But here’s the interesting thing. The people whom others most consistently rate as being wise, the people whose opinions we seek out and value, have one habit in common. They make time to reflect on their experience. Often, they keep a journal. They record their thought processes, their choices, their reasons, and their actions. And they also reflect on how things turned out, looking for patterns and lessons to learn.

Three Weeks For Habit Formation

It may be a myth that it takes 21 days to form a new habit (see research by Lally, van Jaarsveld, Potts, & Wardle, 2010) but habits do form. The research suggests that an average of 66 days is more realistic, but it depends on you, your motivation, and what habit you’re trying to form.

But 66 days, or even 266 days is a small effort to commit to a life-changing habit. And if you want a long and successful career as a project manager, then I suggest it’s a worthwhile effort to invest.

To reinforce those good habits you just formed, give yourself the best project management tools available. ProjectManager is a powerful online project management software that helps you with everything from project planning to scheduling to stakeholder management. Take a free 30-day trial and put those good habits to use!