5 Must-Have Qualities of Top Project Managers

As a project manager, it is essential to stand out and be recognised as a top performer. If you are able to achieve this, you will be highly sought after by stakeholders, who will have a greater level of trust in your abilities and will be more likely to take your advice seriously. Top project managers are in high demand in organisations of all shapes and sizes, no matter the type of project they are working on. Below are some of the key characteristics to look for in a successful project manager. Having these qualities can help you to become a top project manager, or to determine whether you already have the necessary traits.

  1. Fostering team trust

    Trust is an element of utmost importance in any team, and its importance is often discussed and written about. However, it is not always easy to observe its presence in project management. Acknowledging this, multiple Project Management organisations have recognised the significance of trust in the project management process and its vital role in ensuring the successful outcome of a project.

    The International Project Management Association (IPMA) has recently revised its International Competence Baseline (ICB4) certification, which is the globally recognised standard for assessing individual proficiency in project, program, and portfolio management. The new version has been designed to provide a comprehensive and reliable measure of the essential skills, knowledge, and competences required to effectively manage projects and ensure successful outcomes.

    It has long been established that trust is a cornerstone of empirical project management, with the Three Pillars of Empiricism in Scrum being an example of this. Similarly, trust-building is a common theme that can be found in LEAN and other traditional project management methodologies. Given that trust has been a prominent issue for such a significant period of time, the question arises as to what the main obstacles are that prevent project managers from establishing genuine trust with their teams.

    It is commonplace to hear people attributing issues to a “blame culture,” however, this approach is counter-productive and can be detrimental to developing a culture of trust. To promote the growth and success of a team, it is essential to move away from this mindset and view every mistake as an opportunity to learn and grow.

    Project managers should create an atmosphere of openness and comfort in order to maximise the potential of their teams. Encouraging an environment where team members feel comfortable to express themselves and make mistakes will help to create a productive and successful working atmosphere.

    As a great project manager, it is essential to lead by example and foster an environment of trust and collaboration. Showing humility and vulnerability is a sign of strength and will allow team members to feel more comfortable in opening up about their own mistakes. Sharing failure can be a powerful learning tool for everyone, helping to prevent similar errors in the future. For instance, if you have overestimated a milestone due to a lack of technical depth, be honest and transparent with your team rather than shifting blame. This will create a more open atmosphere, motivating team members to form stronger relationships with you and their colleagues.

    In order to ensure successful project delivery, it is important to understand each team member’s strengths, worries, and dissatisfactions, as well as their passions, dislikes, and how they interact with one another. When team members feel respected and appreciated, they are more likely to produce valuable results. To motivate your staff, provide strategies to encourage them to achieve the desired outcome, instead of imposing your objectives onto them. Establish clear criteria for success in the project and assign duties and responsibilities to the team accordingly. Allow your team to be experts in their fields and listen to their suggestions. Decentralise decision-making to grant your team more autonomy, but be ready to make difficult choices when needed.

    It is important for project managers to remember that their team is there to provide support. Without taking the time to build trust and understanding among team members, project managers may be tempted to take on too many responsibilities. To ensure the team is engaged in the project, project managers should ensure they are involved in the important aspects of the project such as scoping out work, developing user stories, and offering advice. When project managers have the trust of their team, they will be able to work together to create successful projects.

    Top-tier project managers understand that their team members are invaluable resources and take every opportunity to foster strong relationships with them. They act as both negotiators and facilitators, but, most importantly, they strive to be a part of the team. It is critical that the team members perceive the project manager as someone who is working on their behalf, and not just to fulfill the goals of someone higher up in the company. Establishing this trust is essential, as it will lay the groundwork for the successful implementation of a project and help prevent any problems that may arise.

    It is perfectly acceptable to demonstrate to others that mistakes can be made. When errors occur, it is important to share them with the team, to demonstrate that you are a supportive team player, and to emphasise the value of trust within the team. Doing so helps to create a positive and trusting environment.
  2. Finding out what your stakeholders really want and providing it to them

    As a project manager, you are no doubt familiar with the fact that many software projects often result in a product that is not aligned with the needs and expectations of the stakeholders. This phenomenon can be attributed to a range of causes and it has led to the emergence of a number of innovative strategies designed to address this problem.

    Even in this era of Agile development, it is still possible to fall into the pitfall of producing the wrong outcome. Conducting a stakeholder analysis is essential to avoiding this, but it is often initiated with an incorrect query. Many projects are launched and incorrectly specified without first inquiring as to why the task is being undertaken. This can lead to the trap of working towards a resolution that never manages to resolve the true business requirement.

    In addition to inquiring about the purpose of a proposed solution, senior executives must also consider who will benefit from it. It is essential to identify the stakeholders who will be impacted by the solution, and to understand their motivation for wanting the solution. This will enable the executives to provide a solution that effectively addresses the “why” of these stakeholders.

    As a senior Project Manager, it is important to recognise the distinction between an output or deliverable, and a business requirement. For example, if stakeholders are under the impression that their business requirement is to implement an Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system, the Project Manager must help them identify the actual need for utilising such a solution. It is essential to note that ERP is a solution, not a business requirement.

    A comprehensive understanding of the context and all relevant stakeholders is essential in accurately identifying the legitimate business needs. This includes taking into account their perspectives, power or influence, level of engagement, influence on the project, any possible repercussions, uncertainties, and ultimately, what constitutes a successful project in their eyes.

    Consequently, for projects to be successful in achieving their purpose – creating solutions that positively affect business goals – project managers need to be responsible for more than just the solution creation itself. They must also ensure that the solutions they create are deployed appropriately and that their performance is measured in a way that can clearly demonstrate whether the expected outcomes and objectives have been met.

    Project Managers must always remain aware that the true benefits of carrying out the project are directly related to genuine business needs, goals, and objectives throughout the entire lifecycle. It is essential that these needs, goals, and objectives are taken into consideration during every step for the project to be successful.

    As development and requirement revisions progress, it is not uncommon for business objectives to be pushed to the side. As a result, initiatives may tend to be implemented which provide solutions that only partially address the initial demands of the product. This may be avoided if stakeholders are managed in an effective manner and product iterations are delivered on a regular basis in order to ensure that the business objectives remain a priority.

    As a top project manager, it is essential to recognise that one’s role is not only to lead the project, but also to properly facilitate the requirements elicitation process. It is important to understand that not all stakeholders may be able to clearly articulate their needs and expectations in the beginning stages of the project, and it is the responsibility of the project manager to assist them in doing so. Furthermore, it is imperative to keep in mind that it is not enough to simply elicit needs from stakeholders, but also their concerns. By doing this, the project manager is ensuring that the project is being developed and implemented with the stakeholders’ interests in mind.

    In less-established companies, a potentially problematic contradiction is often encountered when new initiatives are launched. The development team typically expects the stakeholders to provide a comprehensive overview of all the necessary requirements and specifications for the solution that they will be designing in the project’s initial stages. Conversely, the stakeholders then expect the delivery team to provide realistic estimates in terms of both time and cost.

    Despite the best efforts to accurately assess the scope of a project, there is often ambiguity that can lead to an overestimation of estimates. Stakeholders may attempt to cover the uncertainty of a less concrete solution by listing as many needs as possible. Conversely, the delivery crew must make an educated guess regarding the unknown elements.

    Due to this, it is anticipated that only 20% of the stakeholders’ requirements will be met through the implementation of the solution. The remaining needs will be addressed without a specific purpose, potentially resulting in the project exceeding its allocated budget and timeline.

    Fortunately, it is the responsibility of great project managers to understand the intricacies of engaging stakeholders and guiding them through the various stages of a project in a VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity) environment. To make the task more manageable, project managers may opt to break down the project into smaller components and involve stakeholders in the process. Additionally, they should actively document and assess the acquired knowledge during each stage of the project.

    It is essential for project managers to remember that the purpose of a project is to produce solutions that meet business needs. Ensuring that this objective is not overlooked is of paramount importance. To ensure that the correct solutions are developed, project managers must engage with their stakeholders and address their wants and concerns. Doing so will ensure that they are invested in the project and that their needs are met.
  3. Project risk management should be made part of the process rather than an afterthought

    The beginning of a project is usually when general risks are identified.

    Almost every project faces a set of general hazards that may impede successful completion. These potential risks can include, but are not limited to, user resistance to change, limited resources, and immature technology. Highly experienced project managers collaborate closely with their teams to not just identify the common risks associated with the project, but also the most urgent and specific risks that may be encountered. By taking the time to assess and address potential risks early on, project teams can create a culture of risk awareness that extends throughout the entire project lifecycle, rather than being a cumbersome task that is completed at the beginning of the project.

    As an outstanding project manager, it is essential to consider the engagement with key stakeholders when assessing potential risks. These stakeholders often express their concerns and needs, which may explicitly or implicitly indicate the presence of risk. Taking this into account, it is beneficial to incorporate this process from the requirements gathering stage to the conclusion of the project life cycle. By doing so, it is possible to obtain a comprehensive overview of risks, allowing for more accurate risk identification.

    As a specialist project manager, it is essential to have faith in the team and to recognise the expert knowledge they possess as a means of reducing risk. It is the project manager’s responsibility to motivate and inspire the team to take ownership of the project and to be involved in the risk identification and management process. This will enable the team members to be proactive in identifying and mitigating risk.

    In a professional setting, teams that are empowered to contribute to the success of a project are more likely to provide judicious responses to the third question at a daily standup: “What is getting in your way?” While some of the blockages may be transient or easily resolved, it is important to recognise that some may turn into more significant problems. It is therefore essential to encourage team members to identify potential risks and to applaud their involvement, even after the project has been completed.

    Identifying potential risks is more complex than simply recognising the risk and proceeding. Risk assessment should be performed regularly, taking into account the likelihood, severity, and proximity of the risk. Proximity is an often-overlooked factor that helps the team determine what action should be taken, such as waiting until the next risk assessment or taking more immediate action if needed. It is important to note that successful project managers know how to make risks manageable, as any risk that is not addressed is ineffective. Additionally, the list of action items should include both proactive and reactive measures, ultimately forming a Risk-Adjusted Product Backlog.

    In conclusion, it is imperative for a great project manager to recognise that they should not be the sole source of risk identification and management, regardless of their expertise or authority. It is important to engage stakeholders, members of their team, and other key project contributors in the process of risk identification and management, not just at the start of the project but also on a regular basis throughout its life cycle. This is of great importance since, if left unchecked, risks that were identified in the early stages of the project are likely to remain unmanaged and consequently could lead to hazardous outcomes.

    The key point to be made here is that effective project management requires the collective efforts of the entire project team in continuously identifying potential risks. It is essential that risk identification is an ongoing activity that is carried out throughout the entire duration of the project.
  4. Environmental Awareness

    A successful project manager should take a methodical approach when beginning a project, rather than charging in without considering the environment and resources available. It is important to firstly assess the formal and informal structures, culture, practices, technology, and capabilities of the organisation in order to create a plan for effective transformation. Only then can the project manager begin the process of transforming the organisation.

    While each project manager is aware that the projects they are managing will have an effect on the organisation, outstanding project managers recognise that the organisation has an impact on their projects too. They acknowledge that their projects are affected by the resources, culture, and environment of the organisation they are working with.

    Top project managers are able to tailor their approach to a given context, rather than relying on a generic, one-size-fits-all approach. This allows them to better comprehend the most pressing business requirements and understand how an organisation will respond to the proposed solution, including any adjustments that may need to be made in order to ensure that the goals are achieved.

    As a top project manager, it is essential to possess an in-depth comprehension of a range of methodologies, which include not only project management strategies but also business analysis methodologies, change management frameworks, enterprise architecture frameworks, and other analysis methods. This allows the project manager to tailor an appropriate project management approach for the particular organisation and project, thereby ensuring the successful completion of the task.

    If you are starting a project in a highly structured organisation with multiple levels of approval, a blended or hybrid project management approach may be the most optimal choice. A systematic requirements elicitation phase should be conducted, with all necessary approvals secured beforehand. Then, the project can be broken down into phases with established checkpoints. Additionally, while carrying out a more traditional project, the project manager can apply Agile-like iterative strategies within the development teams to take advantage of the advantages of iterative development.

    In conclusion, successful project managers appreciate the existing business culture and strive to provide guidance on how to effectively execute project management processes. They understand that companies come with varying levels of experience and preparedness for transition and take it as an opportunity to positively influence the implementation of project management techniques.

    It is essential for Project Managers to recognise that they should not attempt to impose their own ideas and strategies without first considering the practices and procedures of the organisation. Rather, they should strive to bring about any necessary changes in a gradual and respectful manner. By doing so, Project Managers can ensure that their efforts are aligned with the company’s ethos, allowing for a smoother transition and a more successful outcome.
  5. Using the LEAN Principles

    As a top project manager, it is essential to recognise that the process of completing a project is just as important as the end result. While procedures and protocols may make the journey more difficult, it is your responsibility to ensure that any obstructions, such as overly lengthy templates, excessive meetings, or irrelevant details, do not significantly hinder the progress of your team.

    As the most effective project managers strive to find more efficient and productive team procedures, they should consider implementing an agile project management framework based on Lean methodology. Lean methodology is a set of principles which focuses on improving quality, eliminating waste, and increasing efficiency. By utilising these principles, project managers can ensure that their teams are working to their fullest potential. For further information on Lean methodology, please refer to Planview’s resources on the subject.

    It is widely believed that Lean is only applicable in the manufacturing industry; however, this is a misconception. Lean project management strategies can be employed to improve any project or process, regardless of the industry. It is an approach that goes beyond reducing costs; it is an approach to thinking and acting for your team.

    Toyota CEO Katsuaki Watanabe aptly captures the benefits of LEAN concepts when he remarks, “Brilliant process management is our approach.” At Toyota, we understand that even the most talented individuals cannot produce great outcomes without the aid of effective processes. In comparison, our competitors often fail to achieve satisfactory results due to the lack of smart processes in place.

    An exceptional project manager with a preference for minimising unnecessary project activity and effort can guide the process to leverage LEAN principles. This superior PM should work closely with a Product Owner, their team, and essential stakeholders to streamline and formulate their demands, as well as the expected value that will be achieved by those demands.

    It is essential to look beyond LEAN when seeking the most effective project management (PM) methods for a project. Take, for instance, the PRINCE2 approach, which requires the collection of lessons learned from the first phase of the project. Instead of producing a document at the end of the project that is unlikely to be used for future projects, this method of collecting lessons from past projects is invaluable. It is also important to be flexible and modify the process as necessary to eliminate unnecessary steps and focus on those that truly offer value.

    This is a wonderful opportunity to contribute to the redesign and implementation of existing procedures, as well as to assist the team in selecting the most advantageous ones from the outset. In order to ensure that the project meets its objectives, clear and measurable performance indicators should be communicated to all stakeholders.

    The importance of obtaining accurate answers cannot be understated; it is just as essential as having an efficient system in place to deliver those solutions. Finding the right answers to a problem is paramount if one wishes to achieve successful outcomes.

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