As we work our way through the professional ranks, some may aspire to become a project manager. The thought of managing million-dollar projects, meeting with customers, developing schedules, and hiring the right people for the internal team seems exciting. Often, project management seems like a “well-oiled” machine to the outside observer because the process may seem systematic and one step leads to the next, which culminates in a final product that is delivered under budget and ahead of schedule.
When in the role of project manager, it quickly becomes clear that the machine is frequently in need of oil in so many places and there is no time to stop and fix it. Yes, projects are completed at or under budget and we definitely deliver each one on time. However, to meet these goals, we spend a lot of time doing everything we can to keep the machine moving forward.
Often, project management feels like being an expediter.
We simultaneously focus our attention on the needs of team members, customers, scheduling, deliverables, “pop-up” tasks, and those tasks that only the project manager can perform. On slow days, we may only touch two or three areas listed above but we may touch these areas on several different projects. During the weeks when every day is a Monday, we touch all areas on all projects that we manage and some areas that we do not even anticipate. We have to keep products moving, the team members tasked, and emails answered while attend kickoff meetings, update meetings, project meetings, and staffing meetings.
Then, there are the unanticipated tasks and meetings that start 15 minutes after the invite arrives.
The unanticipated requires a project management style that is flexible, responsive, thoughtful, proactive, and versed in all areas of the project. It is not necessary to know every detail of each project, but it is important to know enough about the work that is being done and the status to be able to respond to any request that the customer presents.
When not responding to customer requests, the expert project manager is anticipating “what’s next,” to determine risks and potential schedule overruns and adjusting resources to minimize the event.
The initiative-taking project manager is checking with team members to determine their needs and providing solutions to their questions. In addition, this project manager is alerting the customer to upcoming project phases and scheduling planning meetings to discuss processes, approvals, and other actions that may be required in the future, which ensure the project continues moving forward because the way forward has already been discussed and approved.
Project management is not always as organized or structured as it might look to the observer. Project management, even in the best organizations, often resembles a chess match but at a much faster pace. A good project manager must be proactive and strategic when deciding what must be addressed immediately and what can wait. The ability to communicate effectively with a variety of personalities, use critical thinking skills to solve complex, multilayer problems, have the foresight to identify potential risks and manage them before they jeopardize the project, and to let the experts on the team take control of their work without micromanaging are just some of the traits of a successful project manager.