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The real top five skills for a project manager

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Many articles list the presumed ‘most important skills’ for a project professional. The typical list includes people skills and specific techniques—for example, communication, leadership, negotiation, scheduling and planning. But these can be too generic or too technical.

The generic skills are more like idealised values; how do we immediately apply them? For example, ’communication’. Communicate what? Or ‘leadership’. Ok, but lead who to where?

As project managers, we never use pure skill or technique. Everything we do requires applying composite skills, for example, briefing stakeholders on your budget and schedule and negotiating their objections.

There are many skills project professionals need, but here's a refreshed look at the top five skills that characterise excellent project managers:

1. The ability to enable an outcome

An outcome is the intended effect of a deliverable. A project is the aggregate of all the outcomes throughout its life. As project managers, our job is to lock in outcomes at every level and stage.

We start with simple interactions — a quick discussion in the office, a decision in a meeting, a signoff of a specification, or an agreed prioritisation and estimation of a backlog. Progressively, we build up to the delivery of all the project components, which enables the outcome.

It's just like the process of selling, which involves a series of steps that gradually lock in progress towards a closed sale. The ‘art of closing’ is all about getting that last step to a locked-down outcome.

A project professional should ‘always be closing’.

2. The ability to take action

By their nature, projects test or break assumptions and boundaries – they are disruptive. Project professionals must be able to take action, often in the face of uncertainty, and sometimes, not knowing what the results may be.

The phrase ‘easier to seek forgiveness than permission’ might hint at an action-oriented strategy but is often seen as disrespectful and disruptive. But don't forget that you're responsible for the successful outcome of an approved project. Projects may disrupt but have a high payoff. Your formal delegation of authority may conflict with the project's objectives so try to find a way through.

It's easier to negotiate new boundaries when your project has momentum and the smell of incipient success. And to get that momentum, you need to take action. As the project moves forward, your engagement with authority may sometimes lag events. So you must be comfortable taking action and taking responsibility for those actions.

3. The ability to manage specialists

Successful projects must leverage multiple specialist and technical domains. We must deal with domain experts from our own or other organisations.

There is a delicate balance between these experts and the project professional. Experts know more than us about their speciality. They know less than us about the project. And they normally don't have the big-picture mindset that a project professional must master (see next skill).

You need to get the specialists involved with the project team, make sure they understand the goal, give them the resources they need to do the job, and then (largely) stay out of their way. You also need to know enough about their domain to sense issues or head them off if they are going in the wrong direction. And of course you might need to help if they get into dysfunctional interactions with other experts .

But always remember, this is a double-edged sword: once you make a decision on something, you’ll always be expected to do so; once you intervene, you become part-owner of the outcome.

4. The ability to envision the future

For projects to succeed, we project managers must create and maintain a future-oriented mindset. Stakeholders need to believe in the project's ability to achieve its goals, even in the face of current or imagined problems.

We can unpack this mindset into two components:

  1. Optimism: breeds grit and the ability to keep turning up even when things go wrong.
  2. Pragmatic prospection: a two-step process of thinking about the future. First, envisioning the best possible outcome, and second, thinking about obstacles standing in the way of success.

Process alone won’t get you there. Envisioning the future helps us with planning, with building an aligned and motivated team, and with identifying the best solution available for our stakeholders.

5. The ability to evolve

Everything in a project (ideas, needs, people, teams and technology) evolves, regardless of the approach or methodology employed. Evolution is the natural way people think and work together.

In successful projects, evolution proceeds along three threads:

  1. Product / feature / tech stack development
  2. Team efficacy improvement
  3. Personal capability growth

Unsuccessful projects either don't evolve or don't leverage all three evolutionary threads. Agile projects build in evolutionary structures in the first two. In many (almost all) projects, the thread of personal change is left to individuals.

But even when retrospectives and improvement discussions occur, formally or informally, they are often blocked or impaired when team members don’t self-reflect and understand the needs and thinking of others.

Managing all three evolutionary threads is not easy and requires a level of maturity in both the team and the project professional. Not everyone will be where they need to be on day one.

Organisations can help their teams progress towards higher levels of development, e.g. providing a safe environment for growth. As a project professional, you need to understand where you are and take steps to help yourself evolve towards a higher level of development. You need to also think about facilitating growth opportunities for your teams. It won't be easy.

The bottom line

These five composite skills are the minimum needed by a project manager to be effective and successful. None of them is easy to acquire, but they differentiate an ordinary project professional from a gun project professional.

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