You may think being a great project manager is about creating colorful project plans, completing action items, and tracking dates. But it’s not - checking these boxes is the realm of an average project manager.
To be a great project manager who takes full ownership of an initiative, you have to master influence and psychology. You have to deeply understand your business, organizational structure, and what you’re trying to achieve. You have to be a mile wide and a mile deep. Great project managers are unsung heroes fighting in the trenches, moving businesses forward.
More than other roles, project managers have to go above and beyond to prove their value, earn respect, and establish themselves as more than just human calendar reminders.
But how do you do that?
- How do you ensure a group of people with diverse skills, ideas, and motivations both understand and march toward a common objective?
- How do you give direction and candid feedback when you have no direct line of control?
- How do you win the confidence and support of engineers, product managers, designers, and accountants?
First, understand the business
To be an effective project manager, you must understand how a specific project ties back to broader business goals. This first step will not only provide a clear target to use throughout a project, it will also make you more valuable to your organization.
If you don’t know what outcomes your project is serving, then you are likely a date jockey who does nothing but push on deadlines without understanding the context and goals of your project. In this case, the team you work with probably doesn’t like you very much (sorry, but you need to hear the truth).
Before beginning any traditional “project management” activities, you need to make sure you scratch this one off the list.
Influence is the currency of project management
As a project manager, your greatest weapon is influence. You have to motivate individual contributors, managers, teams, and senior leaders to take action in service of your (and hopefully the organization’s) goals.
The fastest path to influence is by earning trust and respect. The fastest path to respect is to be interested, curious, and to have a learner’s mindset.
Put the work in to understand what each team does and their contribution to the organization.
- What tools do they use and how do they work?
- How do their internal processes function?
- How do they assign and prioritize work?
People are happy to teach those who show a willingness to learn. You’d rather have people think you ask too many questions than too few.
Map out the potholes
Every team operates within constraints. They may be within the technical infrastructure, code base, work queue, tools, processes, or politics. You must understand where those "potholes" exist, and more importantly, why. There will be times when you have to circumvent those constraints and other times when you must shield the project team behind those same constraints to avoid shouldering the team with unnecessary or duplicate work.
Stand up for your workstreams
Now that you understand how the people, technology, tools, and processes work, you're ready to activate the flywheel of respect and influence that gives you your project manager superpowers.
The better you understand how each team functions, the better you'll be able to facilitate decision-making and understand why certain trade-offs are necessary to accomplish project goals and stay on track. You can serve as an ally to your project team by taking ownership of and clearly communicating those difficult decisions to leadership or customers. Doing so earns you more respect and influence.
Push back with care
You understand the team, you facilitate decision-making, and help communicate those decisions to the broader team. You’ve activated the mythical respect flywheel and have a bank full of influence. Now you can use that influence to push the team when things seem to be going sideways or taking longer than expected.
Push back and ask questions to dig deeper, but remember that you aren’t the expert. The people you’re working with are subject matter experts paid to do specific work because they’re really good at it. Once a definitive estimate is given, don't judge the difficulty or length of time required to build a feature, fix a bug, create a presentation, or design new creative. Doing so will only serve to annoy and frustrate the project team and make life more difficult for you.
If you can get these things right, you will be a stronger project manager, a better teammate, and you'll build a positive reputation. When people enjoy working with you, see that you're willing to dig in and learn, and know that you'll have their back when things get difficult, people will want you managing every project. You'll be more visible within the organization, and you'll find yourself squarely in the middle of the fast-track.