In 1967, NASA began managing the most complex project to date: landing men on the moon. It’s almost hard to believe the entire initiative was planned using typewriters and rotary phones.
So, how it is that, today, with access to wide-spread, fast internet and advanced communication technologies, even modest projects are delayed, over-budget, or cancelled altogether?
Fortunately, you can avoid all of that with the right project management skills.
In a perfect world, every project you begin would be completed on time and within budget.
The reality is that it’s tough managing projects.
One study into IT projects found about 20 percent are cancelled and less than a third meet the deadline. Even governments battle to deliver on mega-projects: costs exceed estimates and implementation is frequently delayed.
Failed projects produce disappointing results: wasted time, lost money, and plummeting morale.
And with the modern workplace’s intense focus on improving efficiency, project management skills have never been more important.
We’ve sorted through data from industry papers, leading online course curriculums, and project management associations.
A few of the same skills emerge again and again.
Keeping people on the same page, managing expectations, and troubleshooting problems, are key project project management skills. But what’s clear is that you need more.
According to the Project Management Institute, modern project management is a “talent triangle”: a combination of technical, leadership, strategic, and business management expertise. And digital skills have been added to that roster.
Here we've gathered the must-have project management skills for the modern workplace.
Project Management Skills
Simply put, project management is defined as the control of “time, cost, and progress”.
Below, we dig into the technical project management skills needed to achieve that goal.
Planning and Scheduling
The key to a successful project is proper planning. Being able to organize tasks according to time and resources is crucial. On top of that, you’ll want an overview of the entire project.
The aspects of a project plan include:
- Statement of work
- Roadmap for execution
- Cost estimates
- Communication plans
- Risk management plans
Project managers have long turned to the Gantt Chart to keep projects running smoothly. By adding start and end dates, you get to easily visualize your whole project plan. And there’s room for tweaks as you go along.
Prioritization and Time Management
Most busy professionals are juggling meetings, instant messages, emails, and constant deadlines.
That’s where prioritization and time management comes in.
Effective prioritization keeps the focus on the project’s most important priorities. Project management software makes sure everyone has clarity on deadlines, workflows, and status updates.
When it comes to dealing with competing priorities, time management is crucial. What you want to do is align your effort with project goals and priorities. In modern workplaces, minimizing distraction is key to gaining control over your time. Strategic time management skills can reduce feelings of overwork and burnout, too.
In addition to time management and prioritization, task management is a pillar of project management.
Project management pointers for task management includes:
- Work breakdown structure. A work breakdown structure divides tasks into sections. You split a project into phases, milestones, and individual tasks. A benefit is that breaking large projects into smaller chunks can reduce that feeling of being overwhelmed.
- Program Evaluation Review (PERT). Originally developed by the Navy to manage the creation of a nuclear submarine, PERT is a surprisingly universal scheduling tool. The idea is that you provide estimates for how long tasks will take: a realistic time, optimistic time, and longest time. If you find PERT too complicated, the concept still remains useful. What you’re after is a reasonable, accurate estimation for how long project stages will take to complete.
- Task dependencies. Map the connections between tasks. Let’s say you’re redesigning the company website. You may need to complete a site audit before brainstorming the way forward, for example. By defining the relationships between tasks, team members can quickly assess what’s urgent.
Some days it seems like successful project managers need a crystal ball.
You have to predict what might go wrong and have a plan in place to fix any issues.
As if that’s not enough, you need to be a master at problem solving. The trick is that you don’t get confronted with any surprises that end up derailing the project.
And when roadblocks arise—because, let's face it, something always comes up—successful project managers jump into action with a plan:
- Communicate why the problem occurred
- Suggest a solution
- Implement that solution
- Outline risk management strategies
Fortunately, there are ways you can reduce risk.
Research encourages project managers to develop an early warning system. Common red flags include:
- Unrealistic deadlines
- Project management can’t communicate with team
- Little or no management support of project.
Key takeaway: If you see any of these warning signs, it might indicate your project is heading for disaster, and that an urgent intervention is required.
Develop a risk register to spot potential roadblocks. Start by listing all active risks, add ongoing status updates, and classify the severity of the risk.
This way if anything does crop up, it’s less likely to result in total project failure.
Instead of a narrow focus on technical skills, successful project managers set themselves apart with strategic business skills.
So it makes sense that the best project managers are great leaders too. They coordinate work, prioritize tasks, and encourage team members.
There are three areas where strong leadership makes a significant difference.
Project managers act as the glue that holds the team together. Think about it: when people battle to work together, performance suffers.
You want to build trust, encourage collaboration, and ensure accountability. Listen carefully to concerns and make sure teams have the tools and information they need to do their jobs.
As project manager, it’s up to you to keep the team motivated. Of course, it’s easy to start strong with tons of motivation. Sustaining that motivation, even when setbacks arise, is a different story.
One way to improve motivation is by rallying the team around a common purpose. This study into goal-setting and group performance found when individuals believed team members shared their goals they were more productive and satisfied.
Coaching is a critical project management skill. And you can coach peers and supervisors, notes the Project Management Institute.
Through coaching, you help team members identify their strengths and work on their weaknesses. The obvious benefits are improved performance and higher accountability.
It should come as no surprise that communication can mean the difference between project failure and success.
A lack of communication is usually the root of project failure, notes this research paper published in the International Project Management Association. What’s even more alarming is the tangled web of communication we need to navigate, especially for larger projects. The study notes that teams of up to 10 people usually have 45 potential lines of communication. For teams of 10 to 25? These lines of communication jump to 300.
As project manager, you stand at the center of it all. It’s your job to communicate with the project team, management, and external parties.
To begin, design a plan for how and when you will communicate. The best communication strategies are clear and consistent.
Consider a messaging tool for day-to-day communications. Of course, you don’t want to pull team members away from their work with constant notifications. And, in fact, a study into digital messaging showed asynchronous communication actually improved overall team performance.
Here's where it might be useful to set terms for responding to messages, so team members don’t feel pressured to reply immediately.
Project managers need to be comfortable with learning fast.
These days project managers have access to digital tools and new methodologies.
For instance, there are now several approaches to project management. In some industries, classic traditional project management has given way to agile, which encourages flexibility, making decisions based on real-time data. There are also hybrid models emerging. Studies show these blended models are becoming more popular in IT, for instance.
Technology has also changed project management, offering new tools like:
- Project management software, like Asana
- Document management tools, e.g., eversign
- Time tracking applications, e.g., Harvest
Of course, not every tool will be the best fit for the team or the project. The goal of any technology should be to make it easier to work, e.g., eliminate routine, manual process to free up more focus time.
Ace Your Next Project with These Project Management Skills
Great project managers set teams up for success. They bring calm, direction, and inspiration, to projects.
Over to you.
What do you think are the most useful project management skills?