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Top 10 Tips to Being a Brilliant Project Manager

Throughout my decade of working in digital, first as a designer, then developer and project manager, I’ve managed to pick up a few tips and tactics here and there that I thought I should share. Why? Because they not only work, they work brilliantly. I don’t claim following my advice will turn you into a project god, but it will help you get a firm grip on how to handle your role and deliver successful projects.

1 - Know Thy Self and Stand Thy Ground!

By which I mean, know your role and remit, it’s this: a project manager defines and then manages time, cost and scope – that’s it - only focus on those three elements and only be distracted by real emergencies i.e. the building is actually on fire.

Stick to your remit as ardently as you can - few people will respect you if you cave in and start making decisions about the final product that go beyond your authority or subject expertise. Yes you may benefit in the short-term by making those decisions if it keeps things on track, and because the decision will have been made, but be warned: we all have our opinions and preferences about what the final product should be, look like or do, but you will be accountable for them even if you aren’t qualified to make them. If you’re a PM, be a PM, don’t play at being a designer, developer or anything else.

2 - Accuracy and Recency Matters

Have accurate and the latest information at your fingertips. Double check anything that seems out of context, conflicting or vague in meaning, especially if it’s information that will inform a subsequent critical decision.

3 - Planning is better than a Plan

No project will ever go completely to plan, and the plan is not your project, it’s a road map to guide you along the way. So be prepared to change direction, be flexible i.e. keep planning your way out of trouble and respond to the latest information with a positive attitude because even though changing direction can lose your momentum and cause frustration temporarily, it will ultimately save you from failure.

4 - Be Constructive

Go with solutions i.e. two or three simple choices (maximum) for the other person to choose between. And do make the differences between each option crystal clear because contrast enables people to make a quick and confident decision.

5 - Overestimate rather than Underestimate

You will always look good if you are seen to deliver early but look bad when it’s late (even if it isn’t your fault), the same applies to cost estimates: if your project comes in under budget - superb! everyone will love it - if it goes over then that gives people a headache.

6 - Clarity is Critical

Having a clear mandate is critical and so is understanding it because that is what drives the project. If you don’t know why you’re doing something then how can you articulate that to anyone else on the project? As a bare minimum you need to understand the mandate, the objectives and the benefits and results you’re aiming for.

7 - Scoping is your Strategy!

Start with the basics when you’re scoping out the project. The answers to these three questions will define your entire strategy:

1. Where are you now?

2. Where do you need to be?

3. And how are you going to get there? If you’re lucky you might get answers like these:

1. We have falling online sales

2. We want more online sales

3. Sell more product

Are they detailed answers? No. Are they helpful. Yes! Because they at least provide an insight into what is driving the need for the project: the thirst for revenue. You can keep digging by asking related questions like how many sales do you want? What products in particular will you focus on? Which channels should deliver the increased sales? Etc. Treat it as a process of investigation and refinement. Your client may not always know the answers, or they may not always know that they know, but you can help them find out.

  • Having a clear foundation will give you a rock solid context on which to base your future decisions.

8 - Set Super SMART Objectives and Tasks

Once you’ve got a clear strategy in mind, you should create SMART objectives (aka specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound).

Understand the impact, benefit and results of each objective may have on the client and their customers. This will help you develop a well rounded perspective.

So a super smart objective looks like this: we want to achieve a 25% increase in sales of mp3 players worth £100 or more via our website. We want to achieve this by November 30, 2014;

9 - When Times Get Tough

Use these two questions to help you get out of a tight spot:

1. What do you need to know to get something done?

2. What do you need to do to get something done?

Once you have the answers, you don’t have a problem any more, you have a solution.

10 - Risk is All Around

Risk is everywhere, it’s inescapable. But rather than panic or be frightened of it, first understand what the word risk really means: it’s an opportunity or a threat. For example, you can’t deliver any kind of project without taking some sort of risk e.g. spending the budget is an opportunity to create a return on investment, but overspending is a threat that could stall or derail the project. So don’t try to escape risk, learn how to manage it. You can use the IAMM approach:

1. Identify each risk and its impact (how it could affect the project)

2. Assess the impact i.e. is it an opportunity or threat i.e. good or bad for the project?

3. Mitigate the negative impacts by using a helpful RAT

4. Monitor the risks and return to step 1.

A Helpful RAT:

You have three basic options open to you when it comes to mitigating a threat:

1. Reduce it by limiting your exposure to the consequences;

2. Accept it by realising if you can’t do anything about the consequences;

3. Transfer it by shifting the consequences of the impact to someone or something else.

The Final Word

Learn to let the small things go. Pick your battles and win the war. Project management is like a long-haul flight: the inflight meals might not be that tasty, the movie might be a dud, and the turbulence disorientating, but the final destination is amazing! Stick with it. See it through. And lastly, fear not: a project is never as simple as it first sounds but it’s probably not as complicated either; There’s a lot to absorb here and it will take you some time to truly understand how each of these tips and tactics can work for you and your specific situation but therein lies the challenge! I want you to do it better than I do and tell me how to improve.