Project management is about managing and leading a project or major task from start to finish. A project is a special effort that is outside of normal workflow and competencies of an operation. It therefore imposes a burden on regular resources. To address this, project managers (PMs) are sometimes hired. They may be hired internally (in a salaried position or as a contracted employee) or externally (as a private PM or a company of project management consultants.)
An effective PM is someone who can lead and manage a project from start to finish while achieving targets in cost, quality, and schedule. Fundamental to success is the management of risks, resources, procurement, integration and relationships.
At Nycum + Associates we manage projects as well as work with PMs in the design and construction industry. This is our list of special qualities that identify a highly effective PM.
1. A strong PM has an intimate understanding of the tasks. Certification (i.e. PMP) is one part of the puzzle. Great PMs also have years of hands-on experience doing all, or most, of the tasks involved in a project. A PM understands how things can go wrong and can influence them going right. Your PM should come from within the industry of the project.
2. Effective PMs know what drives the people working on the project. The best PMs have been in the shoes of the people they are managing. They know what is delightful about a task and what is a bore. They can tell the difference between a legitimate technical difficulty and a lame excuse. A PM needs to be able to motivate people and needs an arsenal of experience paired with respect and understanding.
3. Great PMs respect standard industry contracts. PMs know that standard contracts have been developed over time by industry representatives from all facets of the interests to the contract. They know standard contracts have been shaped by legal precedent. A PM who offers clever amendments that favor one side should be avoided. A valid contract amendment is one that is an unavoidable customization to suit specific project conditions. Superfluous amendments frustrate the contractor, who typically does not foresee how they will be enforced at the time of signing the contract. They also present grey areas which may become legal quagmires. Seek a PM that understands why standard contracts are written in a particular way and balances that with educated and experienced insight into how to suit the project’s particular needs.
4. Truly talented PMs represent the success of the project – not just the client. Representing the client is a big part of the PM role. However, a weak PM uses this as leverage. A competent PM capable of seeing the project through to its successful end knows he/she must earn the respect of everyone involved on the project, not by imposing position. Look for a PM who is focused on successful project results on your behalf, not on being your mouthpiece.
5. A PM confronts problems openly. A strong PM brings all players to the table immediately to confront problems and create solutions. If a PM requests advance private meetings to “strategize,” be wary. This can be a sign that the PM has prioritized controlling the message over achieving a great solution.
6. A PM never undertakes or changes the task work themselves. Say a contractor has been hired to write a specification. Subsequently, the PM makes some changes to that specification, for what may seem to like good reasons – perhaps their change is intended to achieve better pricing. The PM has now taken liability for that specification. This liability is probably now no longer insurable. A good PM understands where responsibilities are assigned, and works respectfully to allow the contractor to consider changes to their own work.
7. A strong PM embraces existing work processes and nurtures innovation. Workers and contractors have well established work processes to maximize efficiency and avoid error. Some processes are more sensitive to change than others. On a rural construction project, a PM introduced and subsequently enforced a “.pdf digital documents only” policy where faxes would not be tolerated. This was met with confusion and resistance from the general contractor who communicated primarily by fax due to their construction trades who were not tech savvy (but nonetheless great carpenters), but the PM held to his policy. No one disagreed with the environmental principle, but forcing a change to an established process left the trades feeling disrespected and misunderstood. Not an ideal project start.
8. A worthy PM avoids promising the impossible. If a PM argues they should be hired because they possess the tools to control the workers to meet targets, be cautious. The reality is no PM can control quality, schedule and budget. They can only influence aspects of these. On the flip side of overpromising, be wary of a PM who is over managing your expectations. While managing expectations is important, an obsession with this is a sign that the PM is setting the project up to align with his/her abilities and not the optimum project potential.
9. A strong PM takes responsibility. Even a verbal acknowledgment of responsibility for outcomes is a good sign. If a PM has reduced their role to ‘just the messenger’ it’s a sign they have lost control. A weak PM reports on failure and takes credit for success. A strong PM takes responsibility to overcome failure and openly gives credit for success.
10. A PM should make outward demonstrations of respect and desire for everyone’s success. The best way to achieve project success is for everyone to feel like they are contributing to this success and they themselves are successful. A Project Manager we worked with on a construction project that achieved all of its targets was known to drive hundreds of miles through the snow to deliver progress payments to the trades working on the project. It was a little thing, but the intended message was received by the trades. They knew the project manager was invested in their own success as part of the larger project success picture.