Project Management 101
A Crash Course for New Project Managers and Teams
Project management helps to bring order to chaos, holds teams together, maximize resources, and delivers high-quality outputs.
Project management is a growth industry and is showing no signs of slowing down. Organizations are increasingly reliant on projects to get work done.
This means more people are managing or participating in projects, even if they are not formally trained as project managers.
Whether you are working on your first project or need to train inexperienced team members, this guide covers everything you need to know about project management.
Keep reading to learn how to plan and manage projects in five steps, overcome common problems with projects, and develop a career in project management.
Table of Contents
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What is Project Management?
Let’s start with a common understanding of project management.
According to the Project Management Institute:
A project is a temporary endeavor with a defined beginning and end, and defined scope and resources.
As such, projects are not ‘business as usual’ processes or tasks.
Examples of projects including upgrading an IT system, launching a new product, or deploying a new company intranet on SharePoint.
Meeting these objectives by a certain date requires a clear agreement on what is needed and what will not be delivered (scope). It’s vital to understand who is delivering the work – the team, including subject matter experts – and if other resources such as physical materials or locations, are also required.
Project management refers to:
The ‘application of knowledge, skills, tools, and techniques’ to the activities agreed in the project plan to deliver the agreed requirements.
In other words, organizations rely on the disciple of project management to deliver results on schedule and within budget.
After all, it’s not enough just to have an idea about a new product – you need a way to deliver the idea.
These elements are incorporated into the Project Management Book of Knowledge (PMBOK), which defines a project as:
- A job that has a beginning and an end (Time).
- At a stated level of Performance (Quality).
- At a budget (Cost) and a specific outcome (Scope).
Another popular definition of project management is PRINCE2 (PRojects IN Controlled Environments), an approach developed in the UK. PRINCE2 defines project management as: “a temporary organization that is created for the purpose of delivering one or more business products according to an agreed business case.”
Here is a handy six-point summary of the characteristics of a project.
- A project is often for a designated customer or customer base.
- A project is temporary in nature with a defined start and end date.
- A project has a specific set of objectives required within the boundaries of the project.
- A project is typically a once-off endeavor.
- A project is not ‘business as usual’, or day-to-day processes.
- A project can be cross-functional, or indeed, cross-organizational.
Project Portfolio Management
Organizations frequently run multiple projects at the same time, with a pipeline of more projects ready to start! These projects are planned, resourced, and managed through a central project portfolio.
A portfolio is a collection of projects grouped together. An organization may have one overall portfolio or several portfolios for different areas of the business, for example, IT, marketing, and HR.
To help manage these portfolios, organizations often create a ‘Project Management Office’ (PMO), a business group responsible for setting and implementing project standards. Again, PMOs can also run by department, for example, a Marketing PMO oversees all marketing projects.
The PMO is closely linked to project portfolio management (PPM) or the centralized management of portfolios. PPM focuses on delivering the right projects at the right time to meet strategic goals.
PPM takes an organizational view of new project requests, resources, and overall progress. This prevents organizations from setting priorities in a vacuum or silo.
Related projects are sometimes grouped together as programs. These projects are interdependent and address one overall business goal.
Typically, portfolios, programs, and projects are structured in a hierarchical manner. Projects roll-up into a program, which in turn, rolls up into the relevant portfolio.
The mechanics of project management depend on individual organizations, roles, and types of teams. Let’s take a closer look at these elements.
Project Management Organizations
Cooperate culture refers to the personality, behaviors, story, and conduct of a company, creating a framework for project management. Culture influences the value placed on project management, the level of risk aversion, and types of projects executed in a company.
Understanding organizational structure helps to clarify the role of projects and project managers. There are three main types of project management organizations.
A functional organization is based on functional areas such as finance and HR, with dedicated personnel in each area. These teams take up project work in addition to core work and this project work is independent to rest of the organization.
The functional manager is in charge, meaning project managers often exert little influence or authority.
These companies, such as consulting firms, are structured by project, not functional area.
In this structure, the project manager is fully empowered, with resources moving between projects on a regular basis.
In a matrix organization, individuals report to both a functional manager and project manager and need to perform both project and core work.
Depending on whether the functional manager or project manager exerts influence, this structure can vary between weak, balanced, or strong.
Project Team Roles
Projects are delivered by teams, ‘a group of people organized to work together interdependently and cooperatively to accomplish a purpose or a goal’.
Typically, a project team has four key roles: sponsor, manager, team members, and steering committee.
1. Project Sponsor
An individual who champions projects at the highest level. They should have authority, influence in the organization, and a stake in the project. The sponsor will have a good overview of how the project is progressing but does not need to know about day-to-day work.
Sponsors matter. Organizations with engaged sponsors report 40% more successful projects than those with a lower percentage of projects with sponsors (less than 50% of their projects).
2. Project Manager
The person who gets things done! The project manager oversees the team but doesn’t work on the project themselves.
Instead, the project manager keeps everyone focused on the end-goal and ensures everyone is working on the right tasks.
The project manager has multiple responsibilities including:
- Working with the sponsor to plan the project.
- Ensuring the project is aligned to strategic goals.
- Creating a project schedule.
- Assigning and tracking tasks.
- Removing blockers for the team.
- Resource Management.
- Stakeholder communication.
- Providing leadership to the team.
- Change management.
- Conflict management.
3. Team members
Team members are responsible for working on tasks and creating key outputs.
The team may or not work together on a regular basis, and can also include third-party contractors.
Roles and responsibilities will vary from project to project.
It’s worth noting that team members often have to balance their core, non-project work with multiple projects.
4. Steering committee
As part of project governance strategies, some organizations use a steering committee to plan and direct the project.
The committee also deals with change requests and the prioritization of requirements.
Other project roles include:
- Project coordinator, an entry-level position. Responsibilities include creating and sharing reports, and providing general assistance to the project manager.
- Project scheduler, often found on large scale projects. This role is primarily focused on data management rather than the project.
- Assistant project manager, who may or may not directly assist the project manager. Often, this role involves managing specific tasks for the project manager.
- Senior project manager, responsible for managing portfolios.
Project Team Types
A project team can take several forms, depending on required deliverables and organizational structure.
Generally, teams of five to seven people perform well. Bigger teams should be divided into smaller sub-teams.
1. Functional/Cross Department Teams
A functional team is a permanent team formed by individuals within the same work area or department.
The work carried out by functional teams supports other teams within the organization, for example, finance. They also work with other departments on projects as needed.
2. Cross-Functional Teams
A cross-functional team brings together individuals from different departments to work on a project.
Once the project is completed, the team is freed up to work on other projects.
3. Virtual Teams
Global Workplace Analytics estimates around 3.7 million employees (2.8% of the workforce) work from home at least half the time.
Reliant on online collaboration tools, virtual teams are characterized by:
- When people work, for example, different time zones
- Where people work, including at home or shared working spaces
- How people work, which depends on cultural, political, social, and economic factors.
Now that we’ve covered some project management fundamentals, let’s take a closer look at the benefits of project management.
Why do Organizations need Project Management?
As mentioned in the introduction, project management is a growth industry.
Between 2010 and 2020, the project management profession is expected to add 87.7 million roles and USD$6.61 trillion to the global economy.
This growth spans traditional project management sectors such as construction and less project-oriented industries such as healthcare.
Several factors are driving this growth:
- In a turbulent global economy, organizations must do more with less and are more risk-averse. Projects deliver competitive advantage using established processes and tools.
- Organizations now recognize project management reduces time to market and accelerates responses to new opportunities.
- Organizations are increasingly reliant on new technologies and need projects to implement and manage these systems.
A survey conducted by KMPG in 2017 shows organizations who take project management seriously are seeing impressive results:
- 61% of organizations feel success rates increased in the last 2 years
- 21% of projects are consistently delivering value
- 3% of projects are likely to meet original business goals
- 34% of projects are likely to gain stakeholder satisfaction.
Conversely, in their 2018 Pulse of the Profession Report, the Project Management Institute (PMI) found organizations who undervalue project management experienced failure in over 50% of the projects.
Project management is a framework for tackling big ideas in the right way at the right time.
If you (or a team member!) are wondering just how project management can deliver such results, here is a list of nine tangible benefits.
9 Reasons Why Project Management Matters
1. Effective project planning
A well-developed project plan:
- Creates a realistic timeline.
- Improves resource management.
- Provides a baseline for tracking as the project progresses.
- Leads to accurate budget estimates.
In addition, data from previous projects is a valuable input into future project planning.
2. Standardized ways of working
In the absence of a clear approach to projects, individuals will get creative and develop their own ways of working, leading to multiple styles in one organization!
A standardized project approach, supported by the right tool, will:
- Increase transparency in project selection.
- Simplify project planning with templates.
- Help team members to move quickly between projects.
- Improve collaboration within and between teams.
- Improve visibility and reporting.
3. Successful Change Management
Change management increases the end-user adoption of a solution created by a project, for example, using a company intranet or new document management software.
When included in project planning and throughout the project, change management makes it easier to deliver real business value from projects.
Change management also reduces the impact of scope creep or uncontrolled changes to the project. Involving key stakeholders and users from the outset reduces the likelihood of delivering an unusable product.
4. Better Risk Management
Using project management processes, teams can identify potential risks before the work begins.
If these risks affect the project during execution, the team is better placed to detect and address the problem.
5. Improved Quality
Project management helps to align outcomes with stakeholder expectations, gather feedback on a regular basis, and leverage new technologies to deliver better quality solutions
Documented processes also help to reduce errors and re-work.
6. Increased Collaboration
With clear roles, responsibilities, and standardized templates, project management helps teams to form quickly and work well together towards a goal.
Collaboration with other teams or business units becomes easier as everyone is speaking the same ‘language’ and using the same tool.
7. Improved Reputation
In time, successful project teams gain the recognition of their colleagues and managers. Organizations also benefit from an increased standing among their competitors and future clients.
Project managers unite the team behind a clear vision and keep everyone motivated. Project managers can coach and mentor the team as needed so they can do their best work.
9. New Organizational Capabilities
Improving project management processes is not just about financial gains. Organizations can also transform internal culture and ways of working.
Modern work is best described as a set of self-managed tasks.
Introducing project management helps organizations shift to a focus on goals, metrics, and processes to support the execution of these tasks.
In the next chapter, we’ll take a closer look at the practicalities of managing a project using a five-step process.
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A five-step process for managing projects
A project methodology is a set of blueprints for your project, providing the team with clear direction on how to proceed.
The PMI reports organizations who use a formal approach or a combination of several approaches are delivering more projects on time and within budget.
Remember – project management brings order to chaos. It may seem like extra work or as stifling creativity, but having a solid methodology in place saves time in the long run.
From Waterfall to Agile, Scrum, and Hybrid, there are many ways to manage a project.
At BrightWork, we have developed a collaborative approach to project management, which includes project tracking and a five-step process.
This is a flexible approach, easily modified to suit different projects and team experiences.
We often use the below spectrum with our customers. As you can see, some projects need little more than email whilst other projects require risks, phase gates, and tasks.
The five-step approach to collaborative project management is suitable for projects on any part of this spectrum.
The BrightWork Approach: Collaborative Project Management
Tracking high-level details about a project is an ideal way to introduce some process if:
- Your team is new to project management.
- The project is simple and short in duration.
- You have managed this type of project before.
Start simple by documenting some key information in Excel such as:
- Project name
- Project manager
- Type of project
- Start and end date
- Project customer
- Project health
- Additional comments about the project.
Using this data, teams can decide how to improve current projects, and how to develop their project management approach.
When you and your team are ready for more processes, move onto the below five-step approach.
1. Initiate the Project
During this stage, the project is approved, sponsored, and resourced. You’ll also decide how you will manage the project using the spectrum above.
Here are some suggested project management items to use for different types of projects based on the above spectrum.
Of course, you can add or remove elements as the project progress, for example, risks.
Finally, if you are using a project tool, set up a team site with relevant documentation and templates.
2. Plan and Setup the Project
Next, plan the project with input from your team. Cover areas such as major milestones, tasks and owners, and possible risks.
Planning the project together increases buy-in from the team and will surface any problems or concerns about tasks.
It’s critical the team understand the goals of the project and their role in meeting these objectives. Understanding ‘why’ is a powerful motivator.
Once the plan is finalized, assign tasks, and let the team know their responsibilities. Run a project kick-off meeting, use project management software to set tasks, or a combination of both to communicate the plan with the team.
3. Work the Project
During this phase, the real work of the project takes place.
As the project progresses, the team should be able to find, do, and update progress on their tasks quickly. This includes flagging a task as a risk as needed.
We recommend using a collaboration project management tool to keep everyone on the same page and increase visibility into progress.
Ideally, updates from individual tasks should roll up to project reports, creating a holistic picture of the project.
As you will likely share such reports with stakeholders, it’s important the team keep their work up-to-date!
Projects rely on collaboration and communication. Take some time to define team dynamics and ways of working.
In Collaborative Project Management: A Handbook, BrightWork CEO Éamonn McGuinness suggests the following guidelines for team members:
- Integrity is key.
- Assume personal responsibility for your deliverables.
- Team effort is the key to greater success. Be open and expect new tasks outside your own deliverables.
- Mistakes happen. Admit and get over them, but learn from them always.
- Expect issues from time to time. Deal with them quickly. When the issue is sorted, leave it behind.
- Respect deadlines and sign-off dates for deliverables.
- Invest in time management practices to be able to deliver on your commitments.
- Take the responsibility given to you and contribute to the team.
- Challenge the direction and then accept the team direction.
The reality of project management is your team members are likely involved in a few projects and will have other non-project tasks. At the project kick-off meeting, ask the team to follow a weekly rhythm so they stay on top of their tasks.
Here is an example you can adjust as needed:
- Monday: Review the latest plan and your personal commitments (via dashboards or automated emails)
- Daily: Do the work!
- Thursday afternoon: Make a progress update on your tasks and issues in the project site.
- Friday morning: Weekly team meeting for 30 minutes.
4. Track and Re-plan the Project
Projects rarely go according to plan so you need to include regular tracking and re-planning in the schedule.
Periodic re-planning can take place upon completing a milestone or after a feedback session with stakeholders.
There are many ways to assess the status of a project, including dashboards in your project site, meetings with team members, and incoming change requests.
When reviewing the project, take stock of issues and risks. Issues are risks identified during project planning which have now become a reality.
Find and resolve as many issues as possible, as these can be the biggest roadblocks in the project schedule.
Check work reports for late or unassigned tasks, and deal with these items as needed.
Before making major changes to the project, talk to the project sponsors and stakeholders for advice and authorization. Make sure changes are approved and signed off before you start re-planning the project.
Finally, if workloads or tasks change, let the relevant team members know.
Of course, if the project is veering off track at any stage, take time to assess and re-plan as needed.
5. Close the Project
Project teams often jump straight into a new project without closing the previous project!
Missing this invaluable opportunity to review and learn makes it more difficult to improve team and project performance in the long term.
Start with surveys and meetings to gather input from the team. Use these three questions to start the conversation:
- What went well?
- What didn’t go so well?
- What should we do to improve our next project?
Document your findings in a central location anyone can use when planning future projects.
Another element of project closure is handing ownership of the new deliverable to the relevant stakeholders. If, for example, the IT team has launched a new company website, the Marketing team is now responsible for the website.
Finish the project by reassigning resources and updating project documentation.
Hopefully, you and your team are now ready to start managing projects in a structured way.
Unfortunately, project managers must overcome numerous hurdles to success, both within their organization and within the wider economy. Let’s take a look at potential challenges to look out for.
Challenges to Successful Project Management
Despite a long history and an increasingly important role in modern organizations, projects still fail every day.
Recent research by the Project Management Institute found 9.9% of every dollar is wasted due to poor project performance, equating to $99 million for every $1 billion invested.
Some famous examples of failed projects include:
- Target’s entry into Canada: In 2011, Target made its first foray into Canada, a move that would cost the company $7 billion dollars. Reasons for failure include poor supply chain management, overpricing, and trying to do too much at once with 189 new stores.
- Volkswagen’s Vehicle Emissions System: Prioritizing cost over quality, competitive pressure, and poor project visibility led Volkswagen to a costly scandal in 2015. In short, the company was forced to admit to cheating emissions tests in the US. A settlement plan for over 80,000 drivers of 3-liter vehicles is likely to cost around $1.22 billion and follows a $14.7 billion buy-back scheme of 475,000 2-liter vehicles
- NHS’ Civilian IT Project: The NHS’s NPFIT project, intended to serve 40,000 GPs and 300 plus hospitals, was claimed to be the world’s largest civil IT project. Unfortunately, poor planning, lack of change management, and chaos in some hospitals forced the NHS to abandon the project in 2010. The original budget of $4.6 billion escalated to $24 billion.
Whilst not all failures are so spectacular, any delays or deviations from the plan can have major implications. In 2015, the Standish Group CHAOS Report that out of all 50K projects in the study:
- 71% failed to meet these three criteria: on time, on budget, and satisfactory results.
- Medium-sized projects failed at 91% and large projects at 94%.
Project management is often tough and grueling. Challenges are multiple, with some relating to the discipline of project management whilst others emerging as technology and business environments evolve.
To understand some of the obstacles facing project teams, let’s start with five common constraints.
5 Common Project Constraints
Scope refers to the customer’s needs and requirements. Changes to the scope, also known as scope creep, can severely affect the project timeline and budget.
However, many project managers struggle to say no to requests from senior management or don’t track these ‘small’ changes.
Typically, a project is required by a customer in a fixed amount of time and by a deadline.
In some cases, the deadline is simply unrealistic. In other instances, timelines may change unexpectedly whilst the project is underway.
The third constraint is the quality of the work required on the project. Depending on project objectives, teams may need to sacrifice quality to meet a deadline.
The available budget and resources available to a team will either help or hinder the outcome.
Another constraint is the amount of value provided by the project or this iteration of the project.
It’s not possible to fix and agree on these five constraints as the project starts, which is why they’re called conflicting constraints.
As you start a new project, it is unlikely you can agree to deliver forty new requirements on your project, in one year, to a perfect quality standard, with one person on the team and deliver all the business value expected.
You will not know enough about the specifics of the requirements. You do not yet know what else might happen in the year, for example, team members moving to another company or an economic downturn. It is likely there is no common understanding of what the quality standard is to be able to make this commitment.
One way to move forward is the time–scope–cost triangle. You need to figure out which element is most important, for example, scope, and adjust the other elements as needed. In this instance, you may choose to increase the budget or extend deadlines to deliver the required scope.
If only project managers had to address just these constraints! Unfortunately, there are numerous barriers to be aware of before, during, and after project delivery.
No Tool or Best Practice Templates
The lack of standard templates, a collaborative tool, or a knowledge base often means projects are managed in email and Excel with project documents stored in obscure locations.
This haphazard approach reduces project visibility for stakeholders and collaboration within teams.
Poor strategic alignment
Strategy is “a process of analysis which is designed to achieve the competitive advantage of an organization over another in the long term”. Projects help deliver agreed strategy, but only if the project outcome is matched with business strategy.
Failure to do so wastes resources, leads to conflict with stakeholders, and demotivates team members. Long-term success and competitive advantage are also jeopardized as organizations spend time on the wrong projects.
The absence of a framework or tool is strongly felt when project managers try to assess the status of current work. The lack of visibility into projects is one of the most common complaints we hear from our customers.
If no-one knows how projects are progressing, what work is due next, and the impact of risks, very little can be done to save a failing project.
As noted by Michael B. Bender in ‘A Manager’s Guide to Project Management’, senior executives exert substantial influence on project success.
Unfortunately, many project problems start at the top.
Some notable issues include:
- Viewing project management as an overhead.
- Poor strategic alignment.
- The ‘project du jour’ (constant changes in priorities).
- ‘Warm body syndrome’ (picking someone to manage a project simply because they are free).
One in four organizations (26%) reports inadequate sponsor support is the primary cause of failed projects.
Typically, sponsors are busy people with little project management experience. They may also lack the necessary influence to overcome boundaries.
Sometimes, sponsors are not engaged as they were assigned to the project and have little interest in the outcome.
Culture is amongst the toughest challenges for project managers. Culture provides a context for project managers, as they must learn to work within the vision, mission, values, beliefs, and expectations of their organization.
Culture drives the motivations and risk appetite of the organization, which in turn, influences approved projects.
For some organizations, project management is considered an overhead, which does not provide real business value. In turn, projects are viewed with a ‘finish whenever’ attitude.
Management and teams may even resist the introduction of project management, fearing a loss of control over their own working styles and process.
Research shows 55% of project managers believe communication is the most critical success factor for projects. However, only one in four organizations can be described as effective communicators.
With project managers spending up to 90% of their time on communication, poor communication affects every aspect of the project.
At first glance, remote working is a win-win for employers and employees alike.
Employers can reduce overheads such as property rental; decrease absenteeism, and take advantage of time zones to meet production requirements.
Remote employees report high levels of satisfaction, increased productivity, self-sufficiency, and a better work-life balance.
However, distributed teams must deal with a lack of cohesion, difficulty tracking completed work, time zones, and motivation. Little personal contact also makes it difficult to build trust, which in turn, can hamper communication and collaboration.
If this list makes you feel overwhelmed, don’t worry! Instead, consider practical solutions. As Abraham Lincoln reminds us:
“Always bear in mind that your own resolution to success is more important than any other one thing.’’
Simply being aware of the various challenges to project management will help you to navigate these issues. In Chapter 7, you’ll learn about REP, a practical way to introduce change and develop new skills.
Project management is a tough yet rewarding career. In the next chapter, we’ll take a look at professional and career development options.
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Building a Career in Project Management
There are two ways to develop a career in project management:
- Actively pursue this career path with formal certifications and employment opportunities.
- Take on project work as part of your day-to-day role, becoming an accidental project manager.
Although there are numerous project management courses available, the most popular is the Project Management Professional (PMP) certification from the Project Management Institute.
The PMP certification is recognized internationally in all industries and is based on the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK).
The process for gaining PMP certification is quite rigorous. Applicants are required to fulfill the following requirements:
- Secondary degree (high school diploma, associate’s degree, or the global equivalent)
- 7,500 hours leading and directing projects
- 35 hours of project management education OR CAPM certification.
- Four-year degree
- 4,500 hours leading and directing projects
- 35 hours of project management education OR CAPM certification.
According to the PMI, PMP holders can earn up to 20% more than non-certified project managers.
Continuous development is key to retaining the PMP Certification. MP holders need to earn 60 professional development units (PDUs) over three years to maintain the credential. This cycle begins when you pass the PMP certification.
There are two ways to earn your PDUs:
- Ongoing education, such as attending courses, webinars, and PMI conferences.
- Adding value to the industry through blogging and working as a project manager.
It’s important to document all PDU activities for submission to the PMI.
If you are not ready to tackle the PMP certification, why not start with the Certified Associate in Project Management? The prerequisites are:
- Secondary degree (high school diploma, associate’s degree, or the global equivalent) and 1,500 hours of project experience.
- 23 hours of project management education completed by the time you sit for the exam.
It is also possible to become a certified PRINCE2 Practitioner, which does not require any previous project management experience. This certification must be renewed every five years.
2. Accidental Project Manager
Project management is becoming more popular in a variety of roles. In these cases, people have to become ‘accidental project managers’ with no formal training in the area.
If this is you, there are numerous ways to develop your project management skillset. Even if you are not interested in moving into a project management role, these skills are an invaluable addition to your overall career development.
Firstly, ask to work on more projects or suggest an idea for your own project! Experience is key to project management. Start small with a project you are really drawn to.
If this doesn’t appeal to you, try working alongside another project manager on a current project to understand what is involved.
Next, you’ll need to develop technical skills and knowledge. Start with the following essentials:
- Developing a project plan and charter.
- Using a work breakdown structure (WBS) to plan tasks.
- Creating a project schedule.
- Risk management and reporting.
- Planning and managing resources.
- Preparing and updating project budgets.
We’ll cover important soft skills in Chapter 6.
Next, spend some time reading about different project methodologies such as Waterfall, Agile, PMBOK, and Prince2.
Thirdly, find a mentor either within your organization or externally. Mentoring focuses on long-term personal and professional development.
How to Achieve Your Project Management Career Goals
Once you have identified areas to work on, the next step is to develop a realistic plan to reach these career objectives. Some tips to help develop your plan include:
- Setting goals that are SMART: Specific, Measurable, Assignable, Realistic, and Time-Related.
- Focusing on long-term, valuable projects to develop a wide range of skills.
- Building your network by attending conferences, changing departments or switching organizations, and volunteering.
- Use LinkedIn and online forums to connect with peers in your industry or target industry, publish content, and interact with groups.
- Scheduling time to review and plan goals. Priorities and external factors will change so you need to re-align your plans periodically.
Preparing for a Project Management Interview
Project management interview questions are typically behavioral and situational-based, aimed at revealing your leadership, communication, and organizational skills.
Whether you are interviewing for an internal or external position within project management, there are core questions to prepare in advance.
- How did you move into project management? (Or why do you want to move into project management?)
- What was the outcome of your last project?
- How you do prioritize project tasks?
- What approach do you take to stakeholder engagement?
- How would you save a failing project?
- Explain how you deal with team conflict.
In the next chapter, we’ll cover soft skills that are essential to all project managers, whether formally or informally trained.
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Checklist: Essential Project Management Skills
Project management is all about people and relationships, not just processes and tools.
As a project manager, you should think about the leadership skills you will need to motivate the team, engage stakeholders, and deliver great results.
The first step towards leadership is identifying your own style and how this influences your performance.
Based on research conducted by Daniel Goleman, leadership styles are often categorized into the following six types:
6 Leadership Styles
The pacesetting leader looks for excellence, self-direction, and quick results.
An authoritative leader unites the team behind a common vision, allowing individual team members to decide how to achieve these goals.
The affiliative leader creates emotional bonds and a sense of trust amongst the team.
The coaching leader develops individual for the future by encouraging them to focus on their personal strengths.
The coercive leader looks for instant compliance, especially during a crisis.
The democratic leader uses consensus and participation to help the team develop a sense of ownership during the project.
Next, you need to hone key leadership skills. Here are five areas to work on.
5 Key Skills for Project Managers
Project managers spend up to 90% of their time on communication-related activities, ranging from in-person meetings and emails to instant messaging and conference calls.
Key communication skills include:
- Active listening, for example, listening without interruption and asking questions to clarify meaning.
- Delivering engaging presentations.
- Negotiating with stakeholders and vendors.
Another area to explore is your communication style. Everyone has a different style, and no style is better than another.
Whether you’re speaking with your boss or stakeholder or leading a meeting, understanding and matching communication styles makes it easier to get your message across
As a high-level summary, there are four main styles of communication:
- Passive: Avoids expressing opinions.
- Aggressive: Expresses ideas and opinions in a manner that can upset or insult others.
- Passive-Aggressive: Appears as passive, but acts in subtly aggressive ways.
- Assertive: Expresses ideas and opinions clearly and advocates for others.
Communication styles can also be described as follows:
- Analytical with a preference for data and numbers.
- Intuitive, focusing on the big picture.
- Functional, using processes, details, and careful plans.
- Personal, with value placed on language and connection to uncover what other people are thinking.
Failure is part of life and projects are no exception. Often, the fear of failure limits our appetite for risk and experimentation. However, failure is necessary to success.
Learning to ‘fall upwards’ – becoming resilient – will enable you to deal with failure positively and become more tolerant towards the failures of others.
Stress is part of project management! A resilient mindset can reduce the negative impacts of stress and strong emotions.
There are three main qualities of resilience.
- Challenge: Resilient individuals see adversity as a challenge and opportunity to learn.
- Commitment: Those of a resilient mindset have personal and professional goals, and stick with them. They maintain contact with people and participate in events during difficult times.
- Personal Control: People who are resilient focus on events and situations they can control.
To develop a resilient mindset, try the following behaviors:
- Treat every problem as a learning tool and grow from the experience.
- Focus on positive self-talk. The next time you think ‘I can’t, ask yourself ‘Why can’t I?’
- Take regular breaks at work and switch off at the weekend.
According to futurist Bob Johansen, leaders require a new set of skills to deal with an increasingly complex, fast-paced world. Amongst these skills are:
- ‘Maker instinct’, the ability to build and grow new things.
- ‘Dilemma flipping’, a talent for turning problems into advantages and opportunities.
Projects are driven by effective decision-making. A decision is ‘as a course of action purposely chosen from a set of alternatives to achieve organizational or managerial objectives or goal’.
Decision-making is the method of selecting this course from two or more possibilities.
Your approach to decisions influences the project in two areas:
- Project Decisions: Every decision helps or hinders the project, making it shorter or longer, less or more expensive, simpler or more complex.
- Personal Decisions: Every non-project decision you make affects your mood, your disposition, and ultimately, your leadership.
Quite often, decisions are hampered by too many conflicting opinions. Consensus decision-making – the idea that everyone will support the implementation of a decision, even if they don’t agree with the direction – can help overcome such roadblocks.
This approach means as a project manager, you are no longer solely responsible for the decision and its consequences.
Consensus decision-making involves six steps:
- Discuss the issue.
- Explore the issue, gathering all inputs.
- Find points of agreement.
- Discuss and refine the issue further.
- Look for agreement on a solution. This can range from complete support to disagreement.
- Implement the decision.
Decisions are also hampered by cognitive biases or mental shortcuts we use to save time. Look out for:
- Planning Fallacy: Underestimating how long it will take to complete a task.
- Optimism bias: Becoming overly focused on optimistic outcomes, which impacts risk management, project selection, and change management processes.
- Groupthink: Focusing on team harmony and consensus over critical, rational evaluation of data and facts.
5. Leading Project Meetings
Meetings tend to elicit a love/hate response! However, regular face-to-face communication with your team and stakeholders is a practical way to move work forward.
A good meeting should engage and inform the team, boosting energy and morale.
Agendas are a simple way to improve the outcome of your meetings. Below are two suggested templates to use with stakeholders and teams.
Stakeholder meeting agenda template
- Review and agree on the agenda (i.e. agree on the desired meeting outcome).
- Update on Progress to Agreed Goals, ideally using pre-agreed dashboards, milestones, budgets, metrics, etc.
- Review, discuss and resolve any open risks, issues, or change requests.
- Review Pending Decisions.
- Any other business.
- Other Feedback for the Project Manager?
- Summarize the meeting outcomes.
Team Meeting Agenda
- Review and agree on the agenda (i.e. the desired meeting outcome) with the team.
- Review, discuss and resolve (in so far as possible) any open issues (be careful that the issues are “real issues”).
- Look at upcoming tasks for next week.
- Project process and approach – any adjustments needed?
- Any other business.
- (Time Permitting) Look at tasks achieved last week or at least the highlight tasks from last week.
- Summarize the meeting outcomes.
If it’s anybody’s job, then nobody will do it. People are happy to work on the project, but without a project manager to plan the project, delegate tasks, and keep the team on point, nothing will get done because everyone will think their task is someone else’s job.
This quote from BrightWork CEO, Éamonn McGuinness, neatly summarizes why organizations need project managers! Projects deliver business solutions; project managers ensure the work is completed.
Project managers lead by example, using processes and templates to support the team. This guide is a starting point for your journey.