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Thursday, 10 November 2016 10:12

Developing Project Manager's Skills

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What makes successful project managers?

I have been interested in the way the best project managers think and behave for a long time. Back in 2005 I wrote the first edition of my first book The Project Manager, Mastering the Art of Delivery. The genesis of this book was an observation made from roles I had running large teams of project managers. The observation? There is limited correlation between how well qualified someone is as a project manager, and how good they are at project management. 


I wanted to know why this was. I spent quite a lot of time systematically analysing the people I worked with – observing the behaviour of the most successful project managers and that of their less successful peers. I have continued to do this and have made lots of detailed observations and a few, I hope pretty non-contentious, overall conclusions. 

Two conclusions

My first conclusion is that the most successful project managers focus on different things from their less successful colleagues. Yes they utilise the tools and techniques of project management – but they recognise them as tools, not as the answer. They think about different things and behave in different ways. And for me, the best way of coaching and developing project managers is to try and encapsulate the behaviours and patterns of thinking of their experienced and successful colleagues. 

The aim in doing this is not to encourage people to exactly copy successful project managers’ behaviour but to try and understand why they behave in a certain way and how this leads to successful outcomes. Once you can do this, you can start to think like a successful project manager yourself. 

My second conclusion was that the successful project managers make sure they get the basics right. There are all sorts of clever and powerful tools in project management, but unless you get the fundamental basics right these tools will never help. If you get the fundamental basics right then you are well on your way to success whether or not you use the more advanced tools. 

What sort of fundamental basics do I mean? I mean things like being absolutely clear about the goal and scope of the projects. I mean working with a team who understand their roles, the expectations of them – and whilst there is a structure of control it is light touch giving individuals the space to deliver the project in their individual ways. I also mean that dual focused habit of constantly switching between looking at the micro focus on day-to-day details and not losing sight of the overall goal. I could go on listing several more key habits, but I don’t have the space in this article. 

Developing Project Managers

I spend a good proportion of my work supporting and coaching project managers. Most of my work is with people with a good deal of experience. I tend to focus on behaviours to help individuals improve their performance. 

However, occasionally, I work with groups with little or no project management experience. Here I try and work with them to build an understanding of the fundamentals of project management. What makes projects work? What are the core things they must get right? What are the basic skills they must learn?

It is with this second audience that I recently teamed up with the serious games developer Totem Learning to develop a new project management game called Unlock: Project Management. This is aimed to provide an introductory level experience of a project and to learn by doing. It is an online, interactive game based around a disaster recovery scenario. To succeed in the game you must manage a project to provide facilities to people impacted by the disaster, on time and budget, and also managing the satisfaction of key stakeholders. 

The importance of a foundational knowledge of project management

I believe this foundational level of knowledge of project management is important for everyone, even if you do not plan to become a project manager. There is a huge advantage in having some foundational level project management skills. In every-day life you will find activities which can be done much more effectively and efficiently if you apply some simple project management techniques. In professional life, project management skills will really show their value. 

Most people will spend some time in the careers in project teams. Beyond this, you will find yourself interacting with professional project managers, and it helps to understand some of their language, concepts and tools. Unlock: Project Management provides a great basis to do this. 


Richard's game, Unlock: Project Management, which has been developed in partnership with Totem: Learning and will soon be available – find details on www.enixus.co.uk or www.totemlearning.com . He recently published a second version of his best-selling introductory guide to project management – Project Management Step-by-Step, to work hand in hand with Unlock: Project Management.


Read 2824 times Last modified on Thursday, 10 November 2016 10:18
Richard Newton

Richard Newton wears many hats. Included amongst these are his work as a consultant, author, blogger, change leader, company director, and program manager. His most well known project management book is The Project Manager: Mastering the Art of Delivery. He is also the author of the best-selling Dream It, Do It, Live It which applies project management principles to achieving personal dreams.

His articles and blogs can be followed at www.changinghats.com. Information about his company can be found at www.enixus.co.uk. His books are available at bookshops and online sellers worldwide.

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