Just because someone has the title of project manager doesn’t mean he or she knows how to effectively manage projects, as many CIOs and other IT executives have learned the hard way.
To be an effective project manager, one who can keep projects and the team on track, takes more than technical know-how. It also requires a number of non-technical skills, and it is these softer skills that often determine whether a project manager — and the project — will be a success.
So how can you tell a good project manager from a bad one? CIO.com surveyed project management experts and executives to learn what skills are required to successfully manage projects — that is, to ensure that projects are kept on track and stay on budget.
Following are seven of the most important non-technical skills for project managers.
Seven key project management skills
- Problem solving
“Being a good leader means that you do not only oversee and coordinate tasks and processes as a manager, but also outline the vision and define the road map, motivate and encourage,” says Tatiana Danielyan, deputy director of R&D at ABBYY, which provides document recognition, data capture and language processing software.
It is also critical that the project manager has the ability to quickly analyze data – or a given situation – and make good decisions because, she adds, “at the end of the day, you are the one who has the final call – and the final responsibility for whether the project is successful or not.”
“A great project manager is able to keep their team happy during the tough times,” says Kofi Senaya, director of Product at Clearbridge Mobile, a mobile app developer. “Projects can get very difficult and stressful, typically when deadlines sneak up. As a project manager, your job is to ensure everyone stays motivated. Ultimately, this will improve efficiency and quality of work,” he says.
“Some tactics project managers can use is to praise good work, take team members out for a team building activity and cultivating a fun and collaborative environment.”
“Project managers must speak the same language as their clients,” as well as their team members, says Mike Mills, project manager at Sagefrog Marketing Group, a B2B marketing agency. “It’s somewhat of a cliché, but this phrase really does describe one of the most important skills that can make or break client relationships. Project managers are the sole translators, sharing information, updates and next steps from client to internal team and back again.”
“Communication skills are the core part of a project manager’s skill set,” says Danielyan. A project manager who is “a good communicator can resolve or prevent almost any issue by being clear [and] encouraging an unhindered flow of information, which means [getting] the right information to the right person through the right channel exactly when it is needed.”
A stereotypical image of a project manager is someone who is the consummate multitasker, but the ability to “multitask alone won’t help project managers meet all of the demands they face in their role; organization is key,” says Mills. “This means prioritizing tasks, compartmentalizing projects to avoid confusion, and neatly documenting anything and everything for future reference and easy access. Part of the organization process also involves envisioning all steps throughout the life of the project and predicting problems that might arise.
“As a PM, your task is to make sure processes run smoothly and are in line with the common goals,” says Danielyan. Therefore, “the ability to organize multiple complicated processes in uncertain conditions is essential – [and] prioritizing, planning and scheduling skills are critical. You need to always be ten steps ahead to quickly and efficiently achieve the desired outcome – or deal with a challenge if needed.”
“Information overload is a very real phenomenon, especially in the modern workplace,” notes Andrew Filev, CEO of Wrike, the developer of project management software. “There is a limit to the amount of stuff our minds can process, a.k.a. our cognitive load.” So “to succeed in the next decade, [project managers] must be able to manage this deluge of data and extract the useful bits from the noise.
“They need to be masters at prioritizing [and] time management if they intend to be successful,” he continues. And they have to stay focused and “be strategic despite all the pings and notifications that will have them running to put out fires.”
Much of problem solving in a project management context revolves around being able to identify and manage risk. “Many projects miss their scope, budget or delivery timeline due to unexpected surprises,” notes Tim Platt, vice president, IT Business Services, Virtual Operations, an IT support and managed services company. “The great PM is always on the lookout for risk – and how to mitigate that risk. He or she knows how to ask the hard questions of the team and continuously confirms decisions, timelines and dependencies. In a well-run project, there shouldn’t be a surprise. There should be a risk log and mitigation plans for all items, and the PM is in the best position to ensure that’s covered.”
“Dealing with obstacles is without a doubt an essential skill for a PM,” agrees Danielyan. “A good project manager [can] identify risk early, find the cause(s) of the problem, weigh different options [and] define and implement the best solution possible.”
“In a fast-paced environment, particularly in the tech industry, changes — whether that’s new processes, standards or technologies — happen fast,” explains Senaya. “Planning is vital, but the ability to adapt to changes and work with your team to overcome challenges is just as important.” That ability to quickly come up with a workaround or change course is absolutely “necessary to be successful in a fast-paced environment.”