8 essential project management skills for success
March 20, 2021
This post was originally published on December 11, 2018, and updated most recently on March 20, 2021.
Project managers need to be a bit of an all-rounder. Emotional intelligence? Check. Laser-sharp organization? Double-check. Flexibility that puts Stretch Armstrong to shame? You betcha.
They need to keep track of budgets, resources, and schedule requirements while anticipating problems and making sure everyone on their team is happy and productive. No pressure!
Project managers also need a strong repertoire of soft skills — that’s non-technical abilities, such as common sense, a good attitude, emotional intelligence, and the ability to deal with people. The tricky thing about soft skills is that you can’t really measure them, but they are, without a doubt, the definition of a good project manager. Do you have all the project management skills to make it as a successful PM?
Skill #1: Leadership
Good leadership comes down to a combination of four qualities: flexibility, focus, integrity, and humility.
Good leaders adapt to different people and make decisions based on the bigger vision. They also recognize and appreciate that they have specialists on their team who know more about their specialty than they do. So rather than micromanaging those people, a good project manager will delegate, listen, support, set goals, and empower team members to take ownership of their own decisions.
It’s also important that a project manager can make quick, well-informed choices and take responsibility for the outcome. After all, when all’s said and done, the project’s success or failure rests on the manager’s shoulders.
As U.S. astronaut Chris Hadfield neatly summarizes: “Ultimately, leadership is not about glorious crowning acts. It’s about keeping your team focused on a goal and motivated to do their best to achieve it, especially when the stakes are high and the consequences really matter. It is about laying the groundwork for others’ success, and then standing back and letting them shine.”
There are literally thousands of resources available, so dig in and see what works for you. For starters, we recommend watching a few TED talks, then browsing the shelves of your local bookshop (or, if you don’t have one, the leadership section of Amazon).
Skill #2: Motivation
There won’t be a single project that hasn’t had its fair share of ups and downs; it’s the project manager’s job to deal with them while keeping the team happy and productive during the tricky moments.
Good project managers lead by example. They’re cool under pressure, positive, and energetic. And they always make sure their team’s spirits are high.
Regular feedback meetings help people feel involved, whereas team-building exercises and social events outside of the working day help strengthen inter-team relationships.
Skill #3: Perspective
As we mentioned before, project managers need to be good at seeing both the fine details and the bigger picture. This means not only overlooking the details, but also not getting distracted by the minutiae when a broader overview is needed. This also means they need to know when each takes precedent in a given context.
Good project managers keep an eye on big-picture things like budget, scope, and deadlines while being aware of individual goals and unexpected delays within the team. This brings us to our next skill…
Skill #4: Risk management
Risk management is a funny one because it deals with hypotheticals; it’s tempting to think you can skip over it because you’re discussing events that ‘might not happen.’
But consider this: Say you run a project and nothing goes wrong. But you spent time and budget upfront considering potential risks. Will you look bad? Of course not. You’re showing due diligence and forward-planning, which has the added benefit of reassuring your team you’re prepared for any eventuality.
Now, imagine something does go wrong, and you haven’t prepared. You’ll have to scramble for solutions while putting extra pressure on yourself and your team, which could send motivation and trust plummeting. You know the old adage: “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” You’ve probably heard it a million times, but it really does hold true.
No one has the gift of foresight, but risk management can get you pretty dang close.
Skill #5: Adaptability
The project manager’s world is an incredibly fast-moving one, and sometimes — despite the most rigorous planning and risk management — the proverbial you-know-what hits the fan. This is where adaptability comes in.
They say adaptability is the true mark of genius. And genius or not, it’s certainly true that the more adaptable you are, the better equipped you’ll be to deal with, well, everything. For project managers, adaptability means working with your team to reach the most appropriate solution as quickly and effectively as possible.
Listen to your Product Manager (not sure what a product manager does? We’ve got you) and make sure your next steps are aligned with the overall company goal. Listen to your team, and allow the experts to do their thing. After all, there’s no point trying to micromanage individuals when you have the wider team to think about.
Skill #6: Communication
Speaking of listening, good communication skills are also a must. A large part of a project manager’s job is to communicate information to the right people at the right time.
Negotiation skills are key. Project managers have to prevent scope creep and inflated budgets, all while managing expectations and keeping everyone informed. Tricky subjects require a degree of compromise and assertiveness, so brushing up on your negotiation skills will work wonders when the time comes to have that tough conversation.
Skill #7: Compassion
A little empathy goes a long way. Good project managers not only know how to talk to different types of people, they know how to empathize with their team members’ individual goals and personal needs.
This means appreciating the fact that people have kids to pick up from school, dinners to cook, doctors to visit, and sleep to have. Just because you survive on four hours of sleep and a strong black coffee doesn’t mean your team can!
And last but not least…
Skill #8: Organization
When people think of a project manager, they generally think of someone who’s amazing at multitasking. While it’s true that PMs have a lot to keep an eye on, multitasking isn’t actually something they should do. Why? Researchers have found it reduces efficiency, and that people juggling multiple streams of information cannot pay attention, recall information, or complete any one task particularly well.
So good organization for a project manager — who does have a bajillion streams of information to deal with at any one time — is more a question of prioritizing multiple issues, combined with a generous helping of focus.
Never underestimate the benefit of having the right tools for the job: choose quality project management software that lets you track updates, measure progress, and share information with clients. This way, you can focus more on the task at hand and leave the multitasking to the software.
It’s easy to read through this list and start to think of a project manager as some kind of superhuman on the team. While that is a little bit of a stretch, it does take a person who can keep their feet in several different places at once while maintaining focus and strong communication. A good tool can make their jobs just that much easier. If you’re a PM, consider adding our own project management tool, Backlog, to your team and see how much strain it can relieve from your workday.