15 April, 2024

New Project Manager? 6 Parts to My Most Important Advice

Congratulations! You’re a New Project Manager. Now, sit down, and let’s take a moment to go through my most important advice. I’ve divided it into six areas.

New Project Manager? 6 Parts to My Most Important Advice

Our Agenda

Few experienced Project Managers will be surprised by anything in this article. So, if you think that’s you, then you’re dismissed. But, if you are experienced and want to stay, please do let me know in the comments, what you would add to this.

I’ll be discussing:

  1. It’s The People
  2. What Your Project is – and What it is Not
  3. Risk Awareness
  4. Make the Lifecycle Work for You
  5. Zoom-in and Zoom-out
  6. Keep Learning

In amongst these, I have numbered some specific tips, for those who like a nice checklist approach.

Note: this article is an enlargement and updating of a short article written for us in the very early days of OnlinePMCourses, by Ron Rosenhead.

It’s The People

Projects may be there to do things and make stuff. But neither of these mindsets (doing and making) is the key to a successful project. It’s the people. And, in particular:

  1. The client, boss, sponsor, steering group, or Project Board for whom you are doing the project. We often refer to these, by the way, as the ‘governance tier’ of a project.
  2. The users, customers, clients, and stakeholders who will both feel the impact of what you are doing and can, themselves, have an effect on your project.
  3. Your team – the people you gather together and collaborate with to do the work and deliver the products (or deliverables) of your project.

Tip 1: Keep Your Ear to the Ground

Listen out for the messages from your governance tier and your stakeholders. They will give you helpful information that you will need, to be successful.

However, passive ‘listening’ on its own is not enough…

Tip 2: Actively Engage with Your Stakeholders (or they will try to manage you!)

Stakeholders are those people who have an interest in, or are impacted by, your project. Their impact can range from clear support to active efforts to derail it. This means you need to understand who your stakeholders are, what their priorities are, and how they behave. Equally, you need to identify what you need from them.

Then, you must plan out how you will engage with them to learn from them, influence them, and…

Tip 3: Build Alliances

Whether it is with your governance tier, your team members, or your stakeholders, your ultimate goal should be to create productive working relationships with each individual and each coherent grouping. But, where you can, aim to move them into alignment with your project’s goals and objectives – and therefore, your own.

These alliances will build powerful commitment, make advocates for the project, and provide you with valuable support when you most need it.

Tip 4: ABC – Always Be Communicating

It is a much-quoted cliché that ‘Project Management is 80 percent communication’. I have never seen any data to provide evidence for this, yet I suspect, if we could find a way to gather it, we may well find this to be an underestimate.

However, the statistic is irrelevant; it’s just a headline. Focus on the principle at stake here. Your job, as a Project Manager, is, and will always be, largely about communicating. So, if you are wondering whether Artificial Intelligence may one day take your job… No, it won’t. But, if you don’t learn how to use it to improve the quality of your communication and make it more efficient, someone else who does, will!

Tip 5: Don’t Forget Your Project Team

Your Project Team will amplify both your capability to do the different things the project needs, and your capacity to do more and more work. In all but the smallest projects, you will need a team to support you.

And, when you have a project team, invest in them. Look after, for example:

  • their development needs – allocating work that stretches and motivates them
  • internal communications within the team – ensuring that you are never a bottleneck
  • how they participate in solving problems and making decisions

One person in another department may only be involved in your project for half a day. But they are still a part of your team. So how do you engage with them?

What Your Project is – and What it is Not

Early on, make sure you focus on a solid Project Definition: what your project is – and what it is not. This means articulating clear:

  • Drivers and benefits
  • Goal and objectives
  • Scope and exclusions
  • Uncertainties, assumptions, and risks
  • Dependencies and constraints

Tip 6: Benefits First

Before anything, satisfy yourself – and demonstrate to your governance tier – that your project will deliver value. That is, the benefit will exceed the total cost. This may mean that there is a single, clear and compelling driver: a reason why the project must deliver. Or, more likely, that there are real benefits to the organization, if you deliver the project.

Without a strong benefits case, your project will lack justification, your stakeholders will lack motivation, and it will be impossible to properly gauge its success at the end.

Tip 7: Ensure You Have a Clear Project Goal

This describes the destination for the project; it explains to the client and stakeholders what you will deliver in a way that they can easily understand. Without this clear sense of direction, how will you know where to go and whether you have actually arrived? A typical mistake that new project managers make is to speed past this vital step.

Tip 8: Avoid scope creep

It is all too easy to take on board a change that someone requests: ‘Oh, just add this to the project’. But, this may have an impact on your ability to deliver your goals and objectives. Therefore, when you identify your objectives, you also set out what is included and what is excluded from your project scope.

Your scope is the breadth of your ambition for the project. You can express it either as:

  1. The things (products/deliverables) the project will produce
    This is the favorite approach among US-influenced Project Managers
  2. The tasks or activities you will carry out
    This is the favorite approach among UK-influenced Project Managers

Be as specific as possible and ensure that you monitor any subsequent requests for changes, and ensure they get formal approval before you commit to enact them. Even the ‘good ideas’ need to go through this process.

Risk Awareness

Projects are novel and they have consequences. So, risk is an integral part of a project. Therefore, risk management must equally be an integral part of Project Management.

Tip 9: Not Having a Risk Assessment is Risky

Ensure you carry out risk assessments throughout the life of your project. I regularly speak to people who tell me ‘We were hit with a sudden issue that really set us back’. Risk management is a proactive process and will aid the delivery of your projects. It gives you more control.

By actively working on identifying and assessing new risks, you can pre-empt the emergence of unexpected issues. This will make your project less stressful, less expensive, and less likely to fail!

Risk Management 101: An Introduction to Project Risk Management

Another typical mistake new project managers make is to do their risk analysis once, and then move on.

Tip 10: Horizon Scanning

Throughout your project, make time to work with some of your team (and perhaps some stakeholders) to scan the horizon for trends and potential threats to your project. Use these to update your risk register. Then, plan out what you will do to minimize the threat that they pose.

Tip 11: Actively Manage Your Risks

It’s no good having a perfect risk register with excellent plans for tackling each risk. What matters is what you and your team actually do. For each risk, work the plan, to reduce its impact, likelihood, or both.

Make the Lifecycle Work for You

Projects have a lifecycle. At its simplest, they have a beginning, a middle, and an end. When teaching Project Management, I use a simple four-stage model:

  1. Project Definition
  2. Planning
  3. Delivery
  4. Close

However, in the real world, you need to adapt this to both the needs of your project and the culture of the organization where you are delivering it. I have already given plenty of attention to the project definition stage, so let’s turn our attention to the other three.

Tip 12: Plan to Succeed (Because ‘failing to plan is planning to fail’)

Be sure you build a really positive plan… And a plan that you can deliver. Many people tell me their plan is a list of activities, or ‘an action plan’. That’s fine. Not every project needs a Gantt Chart or a critical path analysis. Tailor the detail and style of your plan to your needs.

However, when I hear: ‘it’s in my head’, I despair. Too often, this means ‘I didn’t bother to plan’. Now, I am not saying that your project will always go to plan. It won’t. In fact, it rarely, if ever, will. What is certain, however, is that the process of planning is how you understand your project in detail. Publishing a carefully considered plan is what gives your team, your stakeholders, and your governance tier confidence in your project… and in you.

Tip 13: Monitor and Control Your Project Delivery

Keep your project monitoring simple. Be constantly aware of what is going on. Look at the data and speak with the people. That’s it.

But you also need to act quickly on what you learn. Minor glitches, events, and issues create small problems. So, you need to intervene to solve the problems and fix the issues. This is how you keep your project, its schedule, and your budget, under control.

And, of course, good governance, accountability, and the need to communicate status all mean you need to produce a regular report. Use a one-page report (a highlight report) and agree in advance on the frequency of publication. Even if no one asks you for a report, I would provide them for senior managers, your client, and your key stakeholders.

This form of communication is also important because it damps down gossip and rumor.  

Tip 14: Don’t Abandon Your Project

Have you ever noticed that some projects simply dribble on and on and on… A bit like a leaky tap.

Ensure you have a clean end to the project by having a formal project closure process. Meet with your team to discuss what you have learned and whether you achieved the objectives. And set up another review to look at the overall benefits of the project at an agreed date sometime after the completion of your project. Close out any final project admin. And last of all, get your team together, to celebrate your successes!

Zoom-in and Zoom-out

There’s a real tension in the Project Manager role. But it’s one you need to internalize and balance out. On the one hand, must not be afraid to get stuck into the details of your project. Sometimes, this will be absolutely necessary. But, on the other hand, you equally need to create dedicated time to consider the big picture of how your project is going, and what is coming around the next bend.

Tip 15: Build Project Management Time into Your Plan

Projects take time to deliver. But they also take time to manage.

Whether you are an experienced or a new project manager, you cannot spend that management time on other tasks. So build time into your project plans for actively managing the project. This needs to include time for managing your team and doing your admin. This will help ensure your plan is realistic.

Keep Learning

If you are a new Project Manager, you will feel like there is a lot to learn. And that’s because there is!

But, once you have some good experience under your belt, it will become important to… keep learning. In a professional career, there will never be a time when you can afford to stop.

Tip 16: Broaden and Deepen

Your learning needs to balance the twin priorities of:

  1. Broadening your knowledge base, skills, and experience.
    This will equip you to tackle a wider range of challenges and put each one in a broader perspective.
  2. Deepening your project management knowledge skills, and experience
    This will prepare you to take on bigger, more complex, and more consequential projects

Take a look at our video on T-shaped People.

Tip 17: Don’t Sweat the Qualifications

Certifications and professional qualifications can be a huge asset in growing a Project management career. But, learning the craft matters more.

And, the extent to which employers demand or value certifications will vary from place to place and from sector to sector. Some employers will place a lot of emphasis on them, maybe using them as a filter to include/exclude candidates. Others frankly won’t give a fig about them – they just want to know what you can do.

And then, of course, will be the challenge of discovering which certifications are worth the cost and effort, and which are pretty jewelry to show off, but deliver no career value.

What do you think?

So, these are my six most important pieces of advice – along with 17 tips. You may have others. So why not share them in the comments section below?

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Mike Clayton

About the Author...

Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 14 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to ProjectManager.com and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.
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