7 Lessons to Make You A Better Project Manager
6 min read

7 Lessons to Make You A Better Project Manager

An experienced PM who has run complex program management provides the hard fought lessons you can use to breeze through your next project.
7 Lessons to Make You A Better Project Manager

Project management must be one of the most written about topics on the internet. It can be really difficult to wade through all of the information and methods to get to the things that will actually make a difference. Well, it doesn’t have to be this way.

You don’t need all of the fancy certifications to be an effective project manager, you can Google most of that. What will set you apart is an understanding of what truly matters to a successful project and how you should best spend your energy.

In today’s post, I’m going to share 7 lessons to make you a better project manager. These are the tangible things you can do to go beyond status reports and plans, toward being a genuine leader of successful projects.

Lesson 1: Set an operating cadence that feels like clockwork

Bringing structure to chaos is one the superpowers that people look to project managers for

You will never remove all of the complexity - the technical problem, multiple workstreams, vendors, changing timelines - but you can control how you track and manage all of those things.

The operating cadence that a project manager puts in place can be the one constant that grounds the whole team when other variables cannot be controlled. When you set out a thoughtful “operating cadence” (read: a repeatable set of stand-ups, meetings and governance forums with clear purpose, attendees and outputs) everyone knows what updates they need to provide and what information they will receive about other parts of the project, and when decisions will be made.

A good operating cadence then fades into the background, everyone just understands what is expected and can focus their brain power on the content of the project.

Lesson 2: Master the content, not just the process

It’s not typically a project manager’s job to understand all the technical details. But great project managers aren’t typical, either.

When you take the time to learn the subject matter, two things happen:

  1. You ask better questions: you know where to prod and can genuinely assess all the information and status updates you are being given, and
  2. You earn the respect of the team: they see you as a genuine and capable thought partner rather than an administrative burden.

Getting into the content takes time and additional effort, but it allows you to transcend status reporting and deliver unique insights from your unique position across all the workstreams.

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Lesson 3: Find the dependencies to avoid domino effect delays

A big part of planning is gathering all of the plans across different workstreams and putting them into a single view. When you have this view it can feel like the job is done, there is a master plan (tada!).

However, your most important planning task is about to begin: identifying the dependencies. Dependencies are relationships between products or tasks, some activities require others to be finished (or require input from other activities) before they can begin.

Dependencies often bring a project plan unstuck because one task is behind schedule and the team didn’t realise how many other tasks that would hold up. It creates a domino effect, blowing out the schedule and forcing everyone to re-plan.

You need to ask critical questions about what inputs different workstreams need for them to fulfil their plan, identify the dependencies and then account for them. You should keep a close eye on the most critical dependencies to make sure they stay on track throughout the project.

Lesson 4: Focus on what actually matters, the Critical Path

A lot of people think project management is about tracking anything and everything, but the best project managers track what matters.

To keep a project on track and identify, prioritise and mitigate the biggest risks early, you need to be able to tell what the most important activities to the program actually are.

The Critical Path method is all about identifying tasks that are absolutely necessary for project completion - if they don’t happen, on time, the whole project slips. Other tasks may still need to be completed, but you have scheduling flexibility on those.

When you focus on the critical path, you are scrutinising the activities that the project depends upon. That means (1) you are spending your time on what matters and (2) you are asking for additional updates and reviews for good reasons, and the project team understands that.

Lesson 5: Use potential disaster to your advantage, do a pre-mortem

We often do retrospectives (aka reviews, debriefs, etc) after a project is completed. What went well? What didn’t go well? What could we have done better? What should we have planned for? It’s a great exercise, but it’s far more useful when you realise these things ahead of time.

A pre-mortem is a process where you (and your team) imagine that the project has spectacularly failed and then work backwards, thinking of every possible reason for the failure.

You have to truly suspend disbelief to draw out the most obvious, all the way to the most left-field possible reasons for failure.

This long list of harrowing possibilities is your superpower.

It helps you make the overall plan more resilient and identify where you may need contingencies. The best pre-mortems involve a diverse set of project team members (even some outside the project who have fresh eyes) who think differently and cover a broad spectrum of ways a project can fail.

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Lesson 6: Be a great boss… to your executive stakeholders

We’re led to believe that the executive stakeholders on the project are our bosses, but a great project manager is in fact their boss.

Great bosses have a vision, provide clarity, are honest, provide motivation, instil trust and steady the ship when the team is going through a crisis. You completely change the dynamic between yourself and your executive stakeholders when you accept that you need to lead them, and not the other way around.

Executives may be the ones who are the face of the project, but you are the one keeping all of them on task, asking the right (hard) questions, focusing them on what matters to get to the right end outcome.

Use your perspective across the whole project to help them find novel solutions or spot patterns that might point to a bigger issue. Use your objectivity to mediate different opinions in the leadership group. And use your position as a bridge between leadership and the project team to ensure that leadership scrutiny is helping the teams, not harming progress.

Lesson 7: Consider yourself the custodian of the culture

Culture (in a work context) has many definitions:

  • The character and personality of your organisation,
  • The environment that surrounds us all the time, and
  • Values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviours.

Although we may not agree on a definition, we can definitely agree that culture is the foundation of a successful project or business.

Just like you flip how you think about leadership (Lesson 6), you must do the same for culture.

Culture doesn’t come solely from ‘the top’, it comes from what you do every day, consistently, that sets the tone for the team. From the way you open stand ups, to the way you recap key decisions and ensure everyone has been heard, to the way you debrief after something has not gone to plan - that is what creates your project culture.

The person at the centre of those everyday moments is you, the project manager.

The most challenging project I’ve ever done, with the most crises, was also the one where leaders and team members alike looked back when we had finished and said “It sounds really weird to say this, but I sort of… had fun”. That is the power of culture. You don’t need to be the CEO to have a positive influence on the culture, you just need to think about how you show up every day, in the moments, and how you can have a positive impact on the team.

Final Thoughts

I hope these insights from a project management professional informed you about the true nature of project management and provided useful information on how to take the next step towards being an incredible project manager.

Project management is an unwieldy topic to navigate, with countless paid courses and certifications. But to be the best, you need to learn from the best and not necessarily from an outdated textbook. You need to find ways to have an impact across all of your work. If you want to find ways to 10x your impact, you should sign up for free and I’ll show you how.

I have interviewed 500+ professionals, surveyed thousands more, and I am always probing for their best tips, tricks and hacks to get ahead. There are five that stand out above the rest and you can get them right now by joining my free email list. You won’t find these ideas anywhere else.