There are countless project management certifications, methodologies and text books that give their own interpretation of what us considered a "best practice" and every methodology can bring value if applied appropriately.
Methodologies are better viewed as valuable frameworks or toolkits from which a skilled and experienced Project Manager can select the relevant components, probably different components for different projects, and apply them where appropriate, not just for the sake of it or because it says so in the manual. So, if the methodologies and certifications only make up a part of the profile of a good project manager, what the other attributes and traits do we consider to be most important in a project manager?
An often-used word, but project managers need to be able to react to change. They need to be dynamic, flexible and adaptable. Of course, setting out a comprehensive plan, with clear dependencies, milestones and completion dates is a key part of project planning but if all that was required to be a successful project manager was to set out a plan at the outset and then sit at the tiller and gently steer the project team through the plan, everybody would be doing it.
When the inevitable happens and the risk becomes an issue, or the customer changes their requirement, or a key engineer resigns, this is when good project managers really come into their own. The ability to react quickly, to have an answer before most people have even realized what the question is and to have a contingency plan, a Plan B and a Plan C sets good project managers apart.
The Project Manager who constantly falls back on, or some might say hides behind, process is unlikely to prosper in the real world. We'd all like to deliver our projects to the letter of a recognized methodology, but if it was as simple as just obtaining a PRINCE2 or Agile certification and then carrying the manual around with you, good project managers wouldn't command the salaries they do.
A successful project manager will balance the essential process and rigor with the need to be pragmatic at times and to bend the rules occasionally. There's no room for mavericks when delivering large enterprise projects, and we'd recommend that doing things outside of process first receives the endorsement of somebody with appropriate authority, but when rigidly adhering to process means that you miss a customer delivery deadline that you would otherwise have hit, possibly with financial or reputational implications, that's the time when an experienced and aware project manager will propose the pragmatic approach.
The ability to look ahead and logically fit together the pieces of a complex implementation is of great value to a project manager. A bigger picture view and understanding of dependencies and why certain activities need to be sequential makes project planning a lot easier and significantly increases the likelihood that a plan is accurate and effective.
Some of the best technical and innovative minds, the types of individual that are key to delivering technology, are hopelessly devoid of organization and methodical thinking. The project manager has to bring the logical outlook that pulls it all together, and a strong project manager will have the confidence to challenge the thinking of the most brilliant engineer if he or she is failing to look beyond their own small area of the overall implementation.
No surprises here. Most project managers would list communication as one of the most important aspects of project management. Indeed, most project management methodologies dedicate specific coverage to communication and the Comms Plan. How and to whom a project manager communicates is vitally important. All projects should set out at the outset how they will formally report progress, risk ; issues, exceptions and escalations. This is the formal part. In addition to this, a good project manager will make sure that key stakeholders always have just enough information but not too much and are never caught in a position where the first they know of an issue or problem is when the customer escalates it to them. Different stakeholders like different approaches and the project manager needs to quickly establish how best to communicate informally with stakeholders, be it email, phone, walking over to their desk, or a chat at the coffee machine. An important point made verbally is always best followed up in writing.
Good relationships go a long way when trying to achieve project success. The project manager who invests time into building relationships with key players will find themselves well positioned when the pressure is on and it's necessary to ask more of the project team, or when relationships with clients become strained due to delivery challenges.
Ten minutes invested in providing counsel to a frustrated engineer, showing some empathy and letting him get a few gripes off his chest, can pay dividends when you need that same engineer to work late on a Friday night to get an installation finished. It's not just relationships with key contributors in the project team that are important.
Forming a strong relationship with a delivery counterpart within the client's organization is also important. When you're both in front of the customer's programme sponsor at the monthly steering board and the meeting isn't going well due to challenges or delays on the project, you'd rather be side by side and aligned with your client counterpart, who reports into that programme sponsor, than be the individual who gets hung out to try and made a scapegoat.
Many a talented project manager has fallen down or been made the scapegoat for project failure because they didn't get to grips with the politics of either their own organization or that of the customer. A good understanding of when to speak, when to just keep your head down and listen, who to trust, who to be wary of, who you must keep on the right side of and where the real power and authority resides will all increase a project manager's chance of success.
Let's be completely honest, sometimes a project is just going to fail, regardless of who the project manager is. A project manager who can navigate the political landscape (as well as having a lot of the other traits we list here) will emerge from a challenged project with their reputation intact, possibly even enhanced.
A project manager who neglects this area runs the risk of being made the fall-guy and going down with the sinking ship. Some of this only comes with experience, and there are very few project and programme managers who would honestly tell you that they hadn't been burnt by organizational politics at some stage in their career.
Another area that sometimes only comes with experience, but being authoritative, or at least giving the impression of being calm and in control, even when you haven't got all of the answers, will inspire calm and confidence in stakeholders and project team members. Nothing erodes customer confidence or encourages an angry client to go for the jugular like a project manager who mutters his way through an update or shows uncertainty and hesitation when answering a difficult question.
Inclination to question and challenge
The project manager who takes everyone and everything at face value runs the risk of having the wool pulled over their eyes. Of course, delegation is a key aspect of project management and whilst having overall accountability, the project manager cannot take responsibility for everything.
But as a project manager, the ability to quickly identify the right questions to ask, who and when to challenge, and who and when you can trust is another key trait. As a Project Manager, you never want to be in a position where your senior stakeholder or customer is asking the questions that you should have asked yourself or is asking you questions that you can't answer because you haven't asked the right questions of your team.
Delegate but keep control
There is a place, on small, simple, projects for the "player manager" to use sporting parlance, the individual who does some basic project management as well as being responsible for actually carrying out some of the actions. Similarly, its sometimes valuable when a project finds itself in "all hands-on deck" mode if the project manager can roll up his sleeve and start crawling under desks to trace cables, deploy handsets or drive a piece of kit from one site to another.
However, typically a project manager can't afford to be in the detail of configuring equipment, taking part in the physical installations or touching kit. A project manager incapable of staying out of the weeds will eventually fall foul of this because they will neglect the true project management responsibilities and tasks that they should be carrying out. A project manager needs to establish the governance and rules with project team members in terms of what they need to be made aware of and what they are happy to delegate and leave in the hands of the project resource who owns the action.
Unfortunately for any new project managers on the block, the reality is that the big jobs normally go to project managers who have been around the block a few times. Not what you want to hear when you're trying to break into project management but, arguably more so than in a lot of other disciplines, the best project managers have normally been doing it for a while.
An installation technician can leave the training lab knowing all they need to know about how to physically rack and stack kit and connect it to the network. An engineer can attend a training course on how to configure a switch or router. Individuals with the appropriate training can be immediately effective in these types or roles, even if they have little or no real-world experience.
Clearly there are enough project managers around to demonstrate that a lack of experience isn't an absolute barrier to entry but if we're talking about the best project managers, those who are entrusted with the complex projects and the high-profile clients, experience plays a major part. With experience, all of the other traits on this list are likely to be developed and enhanced to a higher level.
When a challenge arises, the experienced project manager who has seen the same or similar situations before is more likely to have learned the lessons and gained first-hand knowledge of what will work and what won't work. Sadly, for those looking to enter project management and go straight to the top of the pile, you can't teach experience.