A professional services organization in the digital, marketing, and creative services fields lives and dies by the strength of its project managers. But because theirs is a fairly behind-the-scenes role, project managers often don’t get the credit they are due until things go wrong. Was the project on time and on budget? Hurray, we did it! Did scope creep and miscommunication issues eat the team alive? Blame the project manager.
It is a thankless job to be the person trying to keep everything humming like a well-oiled machine. It’s such a hidden job that many people don’t understand what project managers actually do. There is also a dizzying array of different methodologies and approaches to project management and every project manager brings a slightly different flair and emphasis to their work. This can make the field as a whole seem impenetrable to outsiders.
Even seasoned project managers might not know how their industry peers approach the same issues; whether others are kept up and night by the same problems, or if it’s just they who feel so stressed out.
The purpose of this article is to provide a holistic overview of the weird and wonderful world of project management, and to offer clear points of improvement for even veteran project managers. Specifically, we’ll cover:
- Key project managerial responsibilities
- Qualities of a great project manager
- What project management tool should you use
- How to be a better project manager and improve your project management skills
What does a project manager do? Key project manager responsibilities
Regardless of field, methodology, and individual style, the key responsibilities of a project manager almost always involve several critical skills:
Depending on the organization, other staff or teams might help with some of these tasks. A traffic manager might assist with resourcing; other support staff or financial folk might assist with invoicing. But ultimately, the oversight of all of these areas is what the project manager does all day.
Project Management is a “Business within a business”
Being a good project manager requires mastery of the “business within the business.” Every successful business requires a leader with the critical managerial skills of running a profitable budget, assigning the right resources to tasks, and being able to make tough decisions.
Managing a project is a microcosm of managing a business.
For each project, the project manager establishes a clear timeline; sets a budget that not only factors in costs, but also the margin that will be made on every single hour of work; manages the expectations of stakeholders; and handles the discipline and motivation of the team.
A project manager who can look beyond the scope of their role to the wider business goals will be of greater value and will avoid being stuck in their own silo.
What qualities make a good project manager?
If we could distill the vast role of a project manager down to just 3 critical skillsets a project manager needs to succeed, those would be communication, expectation management, and resource utilization.
Project managers have to be great communicators
The project manager is often the point person between the client, the management, the project leads, and even sometimes the company board. They have to be able to:
- negotiate the definition of success for the project
- referee interpersonal conflict and navigate difficult personalities
- motivate a variety of working styles
- maintain good rapport with the PMs of other projects
- interpret client demands into project requests
- and say “No” in a way that doesn’t shut everyone down
Project managers must help keep the sales team grounded in the reality of what they can offer a client, without dampening their enthusiasm so much that their sales mojo is damaged.
Project managers need to be able to take the demands of the boss or the client to the project team, and relay them in a way that gets the team to buy into the mission, rather than grumbling about another late night or a piece of copy rejected once again.
Project managers have to convey the scope and significance of the project to the team; keep everyone on task (and get them to use their timesheets!); and maintain the 10,000 foot view of the project and company goals that will allow them to make fast, decisive moves to keep the project viable and profitable.
The very best project managers can say No in a way that feels like a Yes to everyone involved.
All of this requires the project manager to adopt the communication and management style appropriate for the conversation at hand, while maintaining a fundamentally consistent character and being genuine in their interactions.
Project managers must excel in expectation management
Project management is successful when the project launches on time and within budget, all while keeping the team and the client happy. Yes, that’s a tall order – that’s why being a project manager is so hard!
The Triangle of Expectations
One of the most critical but overlooked skills for any project manager is the management of client and team expectations. Expectation management is a fancy way of saying that the project manager has a clear view of the project’s scope, budget, and timeline, and can wrangle the client and the team within those parameters throughout the entire process.
A simple way to think about project parameters is with the “triangle of expectations.”
The three main considerations of a project are time, money, and quality – and the client can only pick two. The project manager needs to communicate these choices to the client in a non-intimidating way, help them establish their priorities, and then firmly maintain these expectations in the client relationship, and with the team, throughout the duration of the project.
Here’s a breakdown of how this “pick two” process works in a few cases. A client can choose:
- Money + Time. If the client’s priorities are affordability and speed, the project manager will budget fewer hours into completing the work, and those hours will need to come from junior resources that come with a lower rate for their time. The client needs to know that for a quick turnaround, they are going to sacrifice some quality.
- Time + Quality. If the client’s priorities are speed and high quality work, then the project manager needs to increase the sales rate, and draw from their pool of contractors to immediately get additional resources on the project. The client needs to know that a shortened project timeline equals an increased project budget.
- Quality + Money. If the client’s priorities are high quality work and affordability, the project manager needs to set the expectation of a longer timeline. They could use junior team members to do the initial work, and then have senior staff review and polish. The client needs to know that high quality work is more affordable if it doesn’t have to be delivered quickly.
Using the triangle of expectations as a metric helps the project manager avoid scope creep. It makes the project’s goals clear and concise, which increases the likelihood of happy customers and a team satisfied with a job well done.
Project managers need resourcing & utilization skills
Resource utilization is critical to the success of a project. As project manager, you must know what resources (people, tools, materials, etc.) are available, and how they affect the budget and timeline. It’s all very well to form a clever project plan to deliver work on time and within budget, but if you don’t have the people with the right skills to fill up those hours, then it’s all for naught.
Ensuring that the right resources are available and in place can be a massive headache for project managers. It’s time consuming to keep track of timesheets & availability data and then align it all to the project plan. The more people involved in the project, the easier it is to make mistakes. More and more project managers are beginning to automate this process, using professional services automation tools (PSAs) like VOGSY.
VOGSY makes calculating utilization rates a streamlined part of its PSA dashboard. There, project managers can see – in real time – the rates and availability of different employees or contractors. This transparency allows a project manager to hire the team that can most effectively keep the project within its projected margins, and monitor team productivity to prevent burnout. Read our blog post on Why Employee Utilization Rates are the Key to Driving Profitability.
Another aspect of resourcing involves bringing in outside help. Sometimes a project requires a skillset outside of the company’s talent. The best project managers work to maintain strong relationships with a pool of freelance contractors who can be dipped into to provide key skills required for delivery, or to fill a gap in the necessary supply of hours. The project manager needs to know who will mesh well with the existing team, if they’re available, and how adding outside talent will affect the project’s KPIs.
What tools do project managers use?
Core project management methodologies
There are a great many planning methodologies from more traditional models such as Waterfall or PERT, to more modern approaches like Scrum or Agile. Being fluent in different types of project management tools and methods is a strength all project managers must have. A good project manager should be able to draw from a variety of methods and adapt one to their own organization, even on a project-by-project basis.
Of course, the success of the project management tool relies on the team’s willingness to use it and the project manager’s ability to manage with it. Your Scrum certification won’t matter if you can’t get the team on board with the burndown chart! One size does not fit all. Don’t force a project to fit the tool you’re most familiar with; take the opportunity to familiarize yourself with the method that will serve the project best, and be flexible enough to modify a tool to fit the project and the team.
Professional services automation tools
As mentioned above, a good professional services automation (PSA) tool gives transparency to many of the processes that a project manager relies on, all within one tool. For instance, from VOGSY’s dashboard, the project manager can view:
- Project timelines and team collaboration
- Timesheets and expenses
- Resource management
- Real time sales, customer, project and utilization metrics
- Customer relationship management
How to be a better project manager & improve your project management skills?
The great Scottish poet, Robbie Burns said: “Best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men, Gang aft agley.” Now, you might be wondering “What on earth does that mean, and what has it got to do with project management?” A rough translation is that even our most carefully made plans are bound to go awry. Americans might be more familiar with Eisenhower’s quote “Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”
No matter how carefully you construct a plan, what project management tools you use, or how effective you are throughout the process, things will go wrong. There will be volatility in the timeline, to put it delicately!
Even the most seasoned project managers will at times find themselves in circumstances that will challenge their abilities; when the job requires not just management, but mature leadership. There are two qualities you can begin practicing right now that will help you be a better project manager when things “gang aft agley.”
Humility comes from truly knowing yourself: your strengths and your limits. When you have a humble, realistic self-assessment, you are more likely to know when to ask for help (and be more willing to do so when it really matters). Your ego doesn’t take a hit when someone on your team has a better idea than you. With humility, you’ll be able to listen better to everyone, and be less attached to personal success for the sake of the project and your team.
For more on how to cultivate humility into your project management style, Harvard Business Review article offers Six Principles for Developing Humility as a Leader.
Being a project manager is a stressful job; the success of the project – and possibly the entire business – often sits on your shoulders. The pressure can get intense!
When things go wrong (as they certainly will) you need to be able to bounce back quickly, readjust your strategies, and keep going with a positive attitude. This requires resilience.
Luckily, resilience is like a muscle: anyone can build it. You can add exercises into your day that will improve your resilience, making you a much stronger project manager.
The role of project manager is a demanding one. It requires all the skills of running a successful business, with the perspective and flexibility to adapt to different team dynamics and project requirements as they come. Despite the variability of the job, project managers need to create consistency, predictability, repeatability for their teams – and for themselves, so they don’t get bogged down in the details.
Professional services automation tools like VOGSY can help project managers stay on top of details like resource management, team collaboration, timesheets, and finances. Automating as much of the project management work as possible allows the project manager to spend their energy where it counts: on the interpersonal and leadership skills so highly demanded of the role.
The qualities of a humble, resilient project manager are calm and reasoned decision making; adaptability; and the ability to navigate the politics of everyone involved. It’s a tall order, but if you can do this successfully, your “business within a business” will thrive.
Learn how VOGSY, the only PSA solution for Google G Suite, can support project managers.
Matthew works as VOGSY’s international Business Development Manager, drawing on experience in enterprise level software sales, and the production of world-leading oil industry conferences. He led strategic lead generation efforts for SolarWinds MSP with a focus on high turnover clients, and has organised a number of the world’s foremost offshore oil & gas conferences.
He holds a degree from the University of Edinburgh in Business & Economic History.