Over the past 15 years of my consulting work, I’ve had the opportunity to serve as an external project manager on dozens of software implementations. This has given me the opportunity to hone my own project management skills and allowed me to watch other project managers in action (from the software company’s side and the client’s side).
What I’ve learned is that the single most important quality of a project manager is the ability to communicate. More than domain expertise, more important than knowing how to operate project management software or how to run a meeting, the ability to communicate trumps all when it comes to being a successful project manager.
So what does a strong project manager communicate?
- Focus. The best PMs clearly explain the objectives of the project and reemphasize those objectives throughout the project. With software implementation projects, it’s very common for the project team to get hung up on one particular issue, when that issue isn’t necessarily critical to getting the software implemented. A good project manager will keep the team focused on what’s important and not allow minutiae to derail the project.
- Progress. A good project manager keeps the team up-to-date on where the project stands. Regular and consistent “check ins” are key. The most successful projects I’ve worked on have included weekly meetings where the project team discussed what happened last week, what’s happening this week, and what’s planned for next week. Sometimes these meetings are only 15 minutes long, because there’s not much to discuss but having them consistently ensures that everyone can celebrate accomplishments and knows what they need to do to keep the project moving forward.
- Problems. Few people are comfortable “rocking the boat” when it comes to working in large teams or on significant projects. No one wants to look like a jerk for complaining. But another important skill a good project manager brings to a project is the ability to speak up when something is not working. I tell my clients to speak up early and often when the project is not going in a way they expected it to. It may only be perception (i.e., the project is moving along fine but the client doesn’t realize it) or there may be a real problem with execution (i.e., the project is NOT moving in the right direction). In either case, communication about the issues will increase the likelihood of success.
- Respect. The most common complaint I hear from my clients about working with their software vendors is, “When we submit a request or complaint, we never hear back on whether it’s been addressed.” This is what I call the black hole of software companies and it is disrespectful to the client. Very often the complaint or request from the client has been addressed by the company, but they fail to tell the client. A good project manager knows that when a request or complaint is presented, it’s their job to close the loop even if the answer is “We’ve heard you, but there’s nothing we can do about that right now.” Any answer shows more respect than no answer at all.
The likelihood of a successful project outcome increases dramatically when a project manager communicates Focus, Progress, Problems, and Respect.
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