10 Essential Skills for Project Managers – And Why They Need Them

Project Manager Skills

One of the biggest problems within the project management space is that many project managers aren’t equipped with the necessary skills to consistently deliver successful projects within their respective organizations.

According to the Project Management Institute, the main reason project managers fail is that they aren’t given the proper opportunities and training to develop these skills. Thus, it is important for project managers to understand what these skills are and how their organizations can help develop them.

Project Manager Skills - Infographic

Why are project management skills critical to the organization?

Projects are inherently challenging to execute. They are costly, time-bound, and have many variables that can affect their success–and not all of them are directly within the organization’s control, such as market sentiment and competitive products.

Despite their difficulty, these projects still have to be executed well to generate value and key results.

In the new world of Digital Transformation, projects are becoming central to an organization. Project-related expenses are increasing while Operations expenses are decreasing as a percentage of the overall total.  Delivering projects successfully is crucial to all organizations.

For projects to be successful, project managers have to be equipped with the right skills to lead their teams and deliver results. Having these skills can be helpful throughout the various stages of the project, from planning to delivery. These skills are separated into two main categories: hard skills and soft skills.

Essential Hard Skills for Project Managers

Hard skills, or technical skills, are skills that can be taught, practiced, and measured in a measurable way. These skills are necessary for project managers as being equipped with them allows them to excel at specific tasks, such as project planning, documentation, and more. These skills can be taught through

1. Practical Knowledge of Project Management Methodologies

Project managers should be knowledgeable on the various project management methodologies that are used today across different industries. These methodologies can help project teams structure their workflow, set priorities, organize tasks, and execute work.

There is no “silver bullet” methodology in project management as every project has different needs, thus it’s important that project managers understand the various project management methodologies and why they’re used. Knowledge of these methodologies allows project managers to apply fit-for-purpose methods and practices when executing projects. Some examples are:

Traditional Project Management Methodologies

Traditional project management methodologies and frameworks, such as Waterfall, Prince2 and PMBOK, focus on setting clearly defined goals at the start of the project and following a linear sequence of steps to achieve those goals. Each phase begins as soon as the previous one ends.

For a project manager, this methodology is useful for smaller, internal projects with predictable requirements. It is also the preferred methodology in certain industries that do not require much business agility, such as construction.

Agile

Agile project management is about executing projects in smaller chunks (instead of a single large milestone or deliverable), getting customer feedback and continuously improving the final deliverable. Instead of setting a plan months ahead of time, Agile emphasizes shorter cycles, spanning weeks at most, and receiving feedback.

Agility is a requirement for many projects, thus project managers must be familiar with the Agile methodology and how it is used. Additionally, the project manager can govern the team using Agile’s core values and principles.Agile-Method

Scrum

Scrum is a specific Agile methodology that focuses on delivering value to the customer throughout the entire project development cycle through communication, transparency, and continuous improvement.

Scrum starts with a general idea of what the customer wants to be built, then the team is given a backlog which is prioritized based on the customer’s needs. The team then delivers these items in the backlog in (typically) 2-4 week cycles called Sprints.

Hybrid Agile

As the name suggests, Hybrid Agile is a combination of the Agile methodology and non-Agile techniques and practices. As a methodology, it is highly adaptable as it does not follow a single, sacrosanct flow of work. As such, teams can combine a variety of Agile and non-Agile practices as deemed necessary by their customer’s needs and expectations.

For example, a Hybrid Agile approach can appear as a team iteratively improving a product’s design, but implementing it with a single, plan-driven approach as well as detailing a project’s requirements up-front followed by a series of sprints.

Kanban

While Kanban is not a project management methodology, it is nonetheless a method that can help project managers track the flow of work and deliver results. It is a work visualization system that teams can use to monitor progress and improve workflow.

2. Project Planning and Work Breakdown

As mentioned previously, projects can be challenging to execute for a number of reasons, but a well-made project plan is the blueprint that makes delivery much easier. Project managers should know how to create a project plan, pitch it to stakeholders, and of course, execute it.

As the saying goes, “every plan is a good one until the first shot is fired.” Project managers should also know how to plan for contingencies as somewhere during the project, they will occur.

Similarly, project managers should know how to break down the overall project plan into smaller, executable tasks. While every project is different and no single framework is perfect, a simple, but effective, way for project managers to break down their project’s results into smaller tasks is to ask three key questions:

“What do we need?”

First, the project manager needs to understand the overarching goal of the project. This enables the project manager to identify which tasks are necessary to achieve this goal. Once the tasks have been identified, the project manager should also be able to identify the team members who are most suitable for certain tasks and assign them accordingly.

For example, if the project is to create a new user interface design for an application, the project manager should be able to identify what this would need, such as a color scheme, mock-up designs, and the coding. With the requirements laid out, the project manager can then create a detailed project plan and assign tasks to team members accordingly.

“What should we do first?”

The product or service that a project is delivering needs to be built or developed in a certain logical sequence.  The foundations of a building need to be built first before the construction of the walls can begin.  Design must precede development in most projects. Returning to the UI example, before a new UI can be finalized, there needs to be an approved mock-up design. Before that, there needs to be a color scheme for the mock-ups.

The project manager should be able to identify which tasks should be prioritized to minimize delays.  There are “natural” or logical dependencies between different tasks in a project. The project manager and their supporting team must know – or be able to determine – how to identify the various steps and the dependencies between them and set priorities for his or her team. This enables project managers to identify possible bottlenecks and other workflow problems, and potentially how to manage them.

“When do we need it done?”

Project managers should be able to create a clear timeline with key milestones mapped out. Visualizing through the use of a tool like the project roadmap gives teams an idea of when they should achieve certain tasks.

Project managers should also have a high level of understanding of the tasks their teams will be doing to be able to set reasonable deadlines. As such, the project manager should be able to gauge the task’s difficulty, individual/team’s level of familiarity with the task, and resource availability.

Project Management Team

Similarly, a project manager should be able to tell when a task is too much for his or her team to complete in a reasonable amount of time or if the team lacks familiarity with the domain. When this happens, the project manager should be able to utilize domain experts and SMEs to help the team break down the work to be more manageable.

3. Budget and Resource Management

Keeping a project within its budget is as important as delivering it on time. Project managers should know how to manage resources, such as equipment, finances, technology, and time, to minimize costs while maximizing their effectiveness.

Resource management is not just about cutting costs and keeping the project within the budget, but also using resources where they’re most effective. It is the practice of planning and allocating them to where they can generate the greatest value for the project. In fact, a project that is kept under budget while still executed successfully is usually an effect of good resource management.

A project team’s resources aren’t just its budget, time, and tools, but its individual members as well. Project managers should also understand who among their team is most suited for certain tasks based on their familiarity and experience.

4. Technical Writing

From drafting a plan to presenting to stakeholders at the end of a Phase or a Sprint, project managers will find themselves writing a great deal of words throughout the course of a project. Project managers need to be able to write detailed plans and reports in a manner that is easy for readers to understand while also having a grasp of business terminology.

Technical writing isn’t just about writing clear and concise reports, but also about tailoring reports for stakeholders. Project managers should be able to identify and highlight key milestones and other information when writing for readers to take note of.

5. Proficiency with Project Management Software

As the workplace is becoming increasingly digital, proficiency with enterprise software has become an even greater requirement for not just project managers, but for workers in general. Even if 64% of enterprise application features are rarely or never used, project managers should be familiar enough with their organization’s chosen software to use it effectively.

This is an especially important skill for project managers in hybrid and remote teams, as software applications may be the team’s secondary or even primary means of communication and collaboration.

Essential Soft Skills for Project Managers

While technical skills are important for project managers, they are only one part of the story. Project managers should also be equipped with soft skills–skills that cannot be measured by conventional means, but are helpful, and many times, necessary, for a successful project execution. Most of these soft skills cannot be learned through reading a book or watching a video tutorial, instead, they are gained through experience and mentorship. Examples of soft skills include:

6. Communication and Expectation Management

The most important skill for a project manager, besides people management, is communication. As the leader and member of a project team, the project manager will have to do the brunt of communication between collaborating internally with team members and meeting externally with stakeholders.

The difference between a decent project manager and a great one lies in the way they communicate. Internally, a decent project manager will define expectations, work to achieve them with the team, and answer any questions given to him. A great project manager sets a good tone for the team, leaves no questions unasked or unanswered, and is generally pleasant to work with.

The project manager also has to know how to set and manage expectations with stakeholders. Timely communication is important in an Agile environment as it requires constant collaboration with the client. Keeping a client up to date with milestones not only keeps them informed of the project’s progress but also demonstrates that the team is delivering value.

There are also cases where stakeholders can be a little too intrusive to the team, thus the project manager must also know how to establish clear boundaries without harming the relationship.

7. Motivation

Teams will have fluctuating levels of motivation throughout the different stages of an initiative, especially long-term ones. With this in mind, it’s important for project managers to know how to keep their teams motivated to deliver quality work throughout the course of a project.

There will be situations that can arise and derail motivation and kill morale during any project, such as unsatisfied customers and untimely events. While these cannot always be avoided, it would be helpful to the team if its project manager knows how to inspire them to keep themselves committed to delivering quality work in spite of these circumstances.

Team-Leadership-And-Motivation

8. Leadership and Team Management

A project manager leads the project at every stage. He or she is responsible for setting goals for the project and having the team reach them.

While individual project managers tend to have their own leadership style, this should not be set in stone. Teams can respond differently to alternative styles of leadership, or the situation or environment may call for a different style as well. For example, while an authoritarian project manager may be able to hit deadlines more consistently, this sometimes comes at the expense of a team’s mental health which can cause further issues, such as lowered morale and quality of output.

Managing a team means managing different personalities and work styles. In many cases, the project manager has to be the grounded personality on the team that aligns everyone to achieve the project’s goals. This means being able to engage with people in the team, ask them what they need, and subsequently provide them with it.

9. Critical Thinking

Project managers can expect to encounter issues with solutions that aren’t always clear-cut. Critical thinking is a skill that helps project managers in these kinds of situations. With critical thinking skills, a project manager can come up with solutions that not only solve the immediate problem but also address the root cause.

10. Conflict Resolution

Conflict can arise from anywhere during a project. Two team members may not see eye-to-eye when solving a problem or there might be a stakeholder that seemingly disapproves of everything a project team does. These are situations that project managers will likely have to face at some point.

Thus it is vital that project managers understand how to manage disagreements (and egos) between people. As mentioned previously, the project manager often times plays the role of the level-headed leader who can help multiple parties.

Summary:

The role of a project manager is incredibly demanding, but the best project managers understand this and equip themselves with the necessary skills they need to help their organizations succeed.

Besides skills, project managers also have to be equipped with the best tools. SwiftEnterprise has a variety of built-in features useful for project managers and their modern teams. If you are interested, you may request a demo here.

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