8 Practices of Top Project Managers

The difference between decent project management and excellent project management can be measured in delays, cost overruns, lost customers, employee misery and business jeopardy.

So what are the secrets of top project managers? What do they do differently that makes their projects finish on-time, on-budget and with good results?

  1. The best project managers are always looking ahead, anticipating and preventing potential problems. By asking project team members good questions, they help the whole team anticipate and prevent problems. Many of these questions are generic. What are we taking for granted? What do we know least about? What is different or changed?
  2. The best project managers know the difference between relatively easy, familiar, predictable tasks and those critical components loaded with unknowns and risks. They know that the unknowns and risks must be investigated as soon as possible. They resist the temptation to get familiar tasks underway and out of the way. Doing the easy things first can lead to enormous waste when lurking unknowns can cause a major shift or even the cancellation of the project. In addition, doing easy things first creates false confidence.
  3. The best project managers know that detailed, accurate project schedules offer the illusion of control but are usually mostly fiction. They drive hard toward milestones that convert unknowns and risks into defined elements.
  4. They ensure team members have complete and clear instructions regarding who needs to do what and by when. Assignments are not just activity-based but they also define the outcome in terms of time and measureable elements.
  5. They track progress at a risk-based frequency. If the schedule can slide a month, they may follow up only monthly. If it can’t slide a day, they follow up at least daily.
  6. They know their team. They know when to push, when to be patient and when to intervene. Some people will ask for help at the first obstacle and others will spin their wheels for a week or more without asking. Some will slack off without external pressure and others always come through as promised. An excellent project manager knows how to keep each team member moving forward and feeling committed to the success of the project.
  7. They can distinguish between necessary structure and bureaucracy. Regular monitoring is important, but updating task progress charts from 25 to 30 percent is meaningless. Top project managers ask more telling questions. How do we know we will finish on time?
  8. Last but not least, top project managers shift easily between nitty-gritty details and high-level options and opportunities. One minute they are helping a team member tackle a technical problem and the next they are discussing project requirement modifications with the customer. This ability to deal with technical requirements and dig for solutions (while also learning from the development process and recognizing new opportunities that will benefit the customer) can result in better outcomes for all parties.

Consider the benefits of delivering great results on-time and on-budget. Invest in your project managers, and give the good ones the respect and tools they deserve.

Ann Latham, president of Uncommon Clarity, is a consultant, speaker and author of Clear Thoughts–Pragmatic Gems of Better Business Thinking.

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