1 February, 2024

Project Management Attitudes 101 – The 10 Ways a Great Project Manager Thinks

By Mike Clayton


Effective Project Management has three components. The first two are the topics of most articles, training, videos, and books. First, the systems, processes, and methodologies. Second, the tools, skills, and methods. The third component is the attitudes we bring to our professional work.

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Project Management Attitudes 101: 10 Ways that Great Project Managers Think

Control

Projects exist on the edge of chaos. They need to deliver something specific in an environment of uncertainty. And they need to do so within deadlines, with a constrained budget and resource pool. And of course, you will have multiple team members and stakeholders to co-ordinate and please.

So, Project Management is fundamentally about bringing control to this environment. So, a key attitude of a Project Manager is to want nothing more than to feel a sense of control. Many of the Project Management tools and techniques, and systems and processes that we use are designed to help you, but the core is that driving desire to bring control to a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous situation.

Scoping

Scoping is the hardest part of project management. I take the attitude that scoping your project is a process of negotiating with your stakeholders, all of whom will have different wants and needs. Your job is to balance those wants and needs, and come up with a set of features that best meets the different priorities. And, as if that is not hard enough, your final scope must also reconcile with your available time, budget, and resources. If not, you need to go back and do some more negotiating.

So, we need an attitude of willingness to facilitate, listen, and synthesize the different perspectives.

Project Success

It doesn’t matter how well you define your project, the rigor of your planning, or the excellence of your execution. If your stakeholders don’t like or accept what you have delivered, you have failed. Because your stakeholders are the ones who turn your deliverables into outcomes.

While it may suit you to assess your performance on the quality and functionality of your deliverables, and on the time and cost of your implementation, your stakeholder will evaluate your project on its outcomes.

So, you need a ‘stakeholders first’ attitude to producing your deliverables.

Stakeholders

As soon as you manage to please some of your stakeholders, you will inevitably start to upset others, with contradictory expectations or aspirations.

So, to paraphrase a famous quote, your attitude needs to accept that you’ll be able to please some of your stakeholders all the time and all your stakeholders some of the time – but you won’t be able to please all of your s/s all of the time. Whether the credit should go to Lincoln, Barnum, or Lydgate is not clear. But this well-used quote contains an important truth for Project Managers.

Planning

‘Failing to Plan is the same as Planning to Fail’ is most often attributed to Benjamin Franklin. It is at the heart of what most Project Managers believe is the essential secret of our success: robust project planning.

But what about agility and the need to adapt? There is another quote, which I find myself using more often…

‘In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.’

This is attributed to President Dwight Eisenhower – formerly a senior US general during the Second World War. We don’t plan because we believe that our plans will come true: no experienced Project Manager would be that naive. Rather, we plan because the process of planning helps us understand what we need to do, and sharpens our senses to recognize the conditions and events that will warn us of problems.

Have the attitude that a plan is something to vary in the light of change; not something to stick to rigidly, regardless of circumstance. This brings me to…

Commander’s Intent

‘No Plan Survives Contact with the Enemy’

My final planning quotation comes from the Prussian General, Helmuth von Moltke. It suggests that, as soon as you start implementing your plan, the real world will step in and get in the way. Shift happens and soon your plan will be out of date.

Von Moltke had the concept that Admiral Lord Nelson referred to as ‘Commander’s intent’. He would share with his senior colleagues what he intended to be the outcome, leaving them scope to improvise to achieve it.

As a Project Manager, you will have the definition of your project, an understanding of your stakeholders, and a framework of governance. Within these constraints, you need to be able to sense deviations from your plan and adapt accordingly. You will need to keep your plan under constant review, update it in light of changes to your situation, and allow your team leaders to do the same.

Fizzing Bombs

Project Management would be easy if it weren’t for the people. We know that all sorts of issues crop up during your projects. And you will be tempted to ignore them as a minor irritant, and hope they will just go away. In the meantime, you focus on the plan.

A lot of these things are about people: conflicts and disputes, under-performance, behaviors…  Another strategy you’ll be tempted to use is to pass on the issue to someone else. A bit like Tom and Jerry passing a lit bomb to each other.

The fact is, though, that if you don’t deal with these things properly, they tend to go off in your face. And that can mean singed whiskers for you, just as it does for Tom in the cartoons. The sooner you pinch off these kinds of issues; the less pain they will inflict. So, take a proactive attitude to even the smallest and most annoying issues.

Being Right

Being right feels good. But that is not your job/ Your job is to get the project delivered, to budget, on schedule, to specification, and with good governance. Everything else is just a step. Give up the need to be right and to be seen to be right. Be prepared to change your mind, or to let others take the credit for what you knew all along.

You won’t get the next project or a big promotion because you were right. You’ll get it because you did a good job. So, avoid the attitude that you need to be right!

Adopt or Adapt

Sir Isaac Newton claimed he saw further because he was able to stand on the shoulders of giants. We can do that too. There have been generations of talented, innovative project managers, who have created a wide variety of useful tools and assets. And there have been engineers and architects, marketers and accountants. Every profession has a powerful set of tools.

Great Project Managers have a scavenger and maker mindset. We look for great ideas and, if they can help us, we adopt them for ourselves. Sometimes they look useful, but are not quite what we need. So, if we cannot adopt them, we adapt them.

Keep Learning

If you want to keep finding a stream of great new ideas to adopt or adapt, there is one more attitude you need. The scout mindset that has you out looking for new ideas all the time. Relentless curiosity for new information and deeper understanding. In short: keep learning.

Carefully curated video recommendations for you:


What Kit does a Project Manager Need?

I asked Project Managers in a couple of forums what material things you need to have, to do your job as a Project Manager. They responded magnificently. I compiled their answers into a Kit list. I added my own. 

Check out the Kit a Project Manager needs

Note that the links are affiliated.

Learn Still More

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If you want basic Management Courses – free training hosted on YouTube, with 2 new management lessons a week, check out our sister channel, Management Courses.

For more of our Project Management videos in themed collections, join our Free Academy of Project Management.

For more of our videos in themed collections, join our Free Academy of Project Management

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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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