Five Ways to Think and Act Like an Effective Project Manager

You don't have to be a project manager to think like one and benefit from their approach to project work.

Getting work done, and done well, usually involves having a plan.  But where does that plan come from?  How do you get started, and how do you see it through?  These are questions I hear often and as one of the greatest sources of frustration.  The idea of a project plan is straight-forward enough, but these days we have specialists for every aspect of project management which has left the normal business professional to think that project management is a specialty they either need to learn and know fully themselves, or they must hire such expertise.  Neither scenario is very time or budget-friendly.  And so they, and their projects, get stuck.

Step back, take a deep breath, put down that dummy book, and change your approach.  Any business professional's work will benefit from thinking like an effective project manager.  There are five very direct ways to think and act like a highly effective project manager, and they will help you to successfully drive nearly any project and deliver real results.

See the big picture, and sweat the details.

This is one of the most important attributes of highly effective project managers:  The ability to coexist in two "worlds" simultaneously—that of the Big Picture and of the Details.  Many project managers get lost in a limbo between the macro (big picture) and the micro (details) management of their projects, effectively losing sight of how the big picture drives understanding of the project goals, and the details view drives understanding of project execution.  Maintaining and switching between both the macro and the micro are necessary for effective project management.

A project's macro view has a primary focus on how the project hooks into other work as a dependency (predecessor, contributor, or successor to other project work) or perhaps as a pilot effort for a larger program.  From this "big picture" vantage point a project manager understands how one project relates to another to drive some larger end goal.  With this view, an effective project manager can help to steer a project accordingly—around and through risks and the competition for resources.

A project's micro view is focused primarily on the details of the project.  This is the execution view, where the rubber meets the road.  The micro view includes breaking down the larger work into specific tasks, sub-tasks, timelines, and the progression toward specific deliverables.  The micro view is the incremental and daily snapshot needed to manageably walk the work forward.

To think like an effective project manager you must work at seeing the big picture and sweating the details simultaneously.  These two views are needed for different reasons.  Project sponsors and your project management counterparts driving other projects need to understand the milestone-driven realm at the macro level and are not (and should not be) interested in the details of when specific tasks will occur.  The team driving the project forward needs to be very aware of the work immediately in front of them, and how it connects to the bigger picture.  It is your role to navigate and bridge between these two "worlds" in order to drive the project forward.

Challenge assumptions, all of them.

A classic missed opportunity to avoid project calamity is accepting assumptions at face value.  Projects are very often about doing something that has not been done before, exploring uncharted waters, or involve some other unknown.  We establish assumptions in order to manage the inputs into a project that are unknown, need to be proven out, or to simply postulate where it would be too onerous to do otherwise.  Assumptions are often placeholders for that which we have not or cannot define with detailed understanding.  However, assumptions are dangerous when not vetted and fully understood.

Effective project managers both identify and push back on assumptions and ensure they understand them fully.  Discovering and challenging assumptions exposes hidden risks and can help to highlight areas that will need extra oversight.  Assumptions are not bad, and in fact they are necessary.  But assumptions can have consequences that must be understood.  Project managers who have challenged assumptions, even the seemingly innocuous, will understand better the  risks and challenges tied to their milestones and deliverables.  They will be in a far better position to successfully course correct their project efforts when the work hits a bump that stems from an assumption.

Understand the real timeline you are working with.

Projects happen over the course of a pre-determined timeline.  That timeline is often more ambiguous at the outset than most project managers wish to admit, and many people measure success based exclusively off of dates and deliverables.  Worse, timelines are frequently riddled with booby-traps that spring up at the most inopportune times.  However, just like those scary movie moments in a haunted house or tomb, those booby-traps are actually much more obvious when you dial down the sound.

Effective project managers dial down the noise around their project timelines and focus initially on the end goal and the milestones and accomplishments needed to get there.  They can address what is going to be delivered and by when at any given point in the lifecycle of a project.  As more detail becomes available they feed that into their plan to ensure they are on track and understand issues that could knock them off their projected course.

Have supporting information in place and at your command.

There are significant inputs to any project, including scope, dependencies, resources, assumptions, timelines, and more.  Building a solid project plan involves knowing your facts.  Those facts are derived in large part from the previous three activities that give you the big picture and the details, a clear understanding of assumptions, and the timeline for the project.  All of this together generates a progress history for the project.

Effective project managers have all of this information, and more (including notes, budgets, resource needs, etc.), available to them on demand via a repository for the project (as simple as a folder on your desktop).  By maintaining a folder that includes iterations of project plans, notes and emailed summaries from meetings (such as when key decisions were made), and supporting information (such as definitions or calculations used for assumptions), an effective project manager is able to demonstrate that they are knowledgeable and in command of their own facts, which in turn conveys confidence and enables the project manager to very directly, quickly, and effectively address stakeholders' questions or concerns in real-time as they arise.

Set and manage expectations.

The binding golden rule that brings together the previous four activities, and that every project manager should live by, is to set and manage expectations.  This is a short phrase with far-reaching effects.  Setting and managing expectations is a more robust extension of communicating effectively.  Project managers manage more than just the project itself, but also sponsors, stakeholders, resources, participants, decision makers, influencers, and so on.  These audiences need different updates at different times and with varying kinds of detail and information about the project.

Effective project managers first set realistic expectations at the outset of a project.  Over the course of the project timeline they then consistently and proactively manage those expectations.  As some things go more smoothly than anticipated, and others get tangled in unforeseen challenges, managing expectations for the project prevents unpleasant surprises and provides opportunity for collaboratively addressing issues.

Managing expectations with consistent and predictable updates, as well as quick turn-around times for ad hoc questions, is an involved and engaged process over the full course of the project.  However, the result of setting and managing expectations is often the key difference between being seen as a successful project leader or a project manager who failed.  Even troubled projects—especially troubled projects—benefit immensely from proactive communication that keeps stakeholders in the know and prevents surprises.

Adopting all five of these thinking tactics of effective project managers will put you directly on track to achieve your project goals.  You do not need "project manager" in your title in order to successfully lead a project and do great work.  Acting like an effective project manager in these five ways will help you to deliver real results and get noticed in the process.

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