What does it take to be a great project manager? That may depend on where you work, the team you’re working with, and the projects you’re on. But no matter where you work or how experienced you are, you can always be better. Brett Harned has come up with ten quick tips to be a better project manager, and he delivers them in this tutorial. Here’s a hint: it’s not all about what tool or process you use. It’s about the skills you develop on the job to support your team and be the best PM you can be. Watch the video and view the slides then let us know what you think—would you add anything to this list?

View and download Brett’s slides on Slideshare here.

Read the Full Transcript:

Hi. This is Brett Harned. I’m at Team Gantt today, and we’re going to talk about 10 quick tips to make you a better project manager. PMs seem to get a bad reputation and it’s not always our fault, so these tips should help you get around these issues, and make you a great PM. So let’s get started.

Ask questions. The first questions I ask are what’s the deadline, what’s the budget, and what’s the scope. There are so many variations on those answers you can get from different people. To make sure that you get them from the right people is really important.

My questions don’t end there about what a client can tell me. So I want to ask a client a lot of questions about how this project could go down in their organization, or how they’ve gone down in the past, and how we might be able to do better this time around. The more I dig in the more I can find out about how the project’s going to work, and I can help my team to craft a process that will work for the clients and for our team.

Along those lines, you have to remember that you can ask a lot of questions but maybe you shouldn’t answer them. So you’re not Superman. You’re not the person who’s always going to have the answer to every question that a client asks you. So if you’re on a call by yourself with a client, and they ask you a question about design or code, or something that’s really not within your area of expertise, feel free to tell them I’ll have to get back to you on that. They should never expect the project manager to be the person who has the answers for everything. They should expect you to be the person who can reach out and get them answers quickly

Learn from your mistakes. So we can do a lot of projects in many different ways. We can hit bumps in the road. Every project has bumps in the road. It’s to accept the issues while you’re in the moment, but it’s important to go back and figure out how you can maybe not make those things issues in the future.

One of the best ways to do that is to conduct a post mortem meeting. It’s a practice that will definitely help you get better not only being a project manager, but get better as a team working together. So this how I would conduct a post-mortem meeting.

Set up a quick session where your team gets together for about fifteen minutes.

Get into a conference room and write on a white board what worked, and what didn’t work.

Take about fifteen minutes to go around the room and have everyone give their own responses. All you’re going to do is answer those questions. You’re not going to get into any kind of discussion. The idea is to put the issues on the table. Also the wins, you want to celebrate the wins.

After that, you’ll take those notes and create a discussion guide about the project.

When you get into the larger meeting, you can talk about the things that were good, and talk about why they were good. Then you can summarize all of the issues and talk about those as well. In this longer meeting, you’re probably going to take about 90 minutes so the full team should be there.

You want to make sure there’s somebody there capturing notes. If you’re the PM who was actually on the project, you want to make sure you are a part of the discussion. You don’t need to be the person taking the notes in that meeting. Then you’ll go around and talk about the issues and the good things.

Before you start anything, you’ll want to start with some ground rules. Make sure there’s no finger pointing. People need to understand the point of a post-mortem meeting is to be positive so that you can have some good outcomes that will help you get better in the future. It’s not about calling people out on who did what and when, and who created any issues. That’s never going to be productive for anyone.

The most important thing you want to do is call out action items so as you’re discussing items, make sure you’re mentioning things you can do in the future to make things better; ways that you can tweak your process internally; ways that you can communicate better with clients, and things like that.

Conducting a great post-mortem meeting will make you a better team and a better PM.

Set expectations. This one seems obvious and it seems kind of scary because it’s a really big deal. But typically you have the documentation to back you up, and saying it out loud makes it feel a little more official. So what are the obvious things? I’m going to talk to the things that are obvious but can be easily made clear to teams, clients, or partners.

Understand your scope. And every project needs a scope. You shouldn’t start your project without one. It can feel a little squishy at times when you’re dealing with a scope that isn’t in writing. So make sure that you have something in writing. Typically it would be a contract. You need to understand the limitations of your scope, whether it’s in hours, in dates, a timeline, or requirements. You can sort that out.

The best way to make sure everyone is understanding the scope is to sit down with them. First you’ll want to sit down with your team, prior to starting the project, and talk about what’s in the scope. And you can start to talk about how you’ll execute on that scope, but make sure everyone understands what the parameters are of it. The other people you want to sit down with is your client team, whether that’s an internal or external client. You want to sit down and make sure they understand what’s in the scope. I wouldn’t read that scope document with them line by line, but I’d make sure they understand what’s included.

I had a really quick meeting with a client where they asked for something that was out of scope, and I had to tell them that it was. They came back to me and said I want to see the document. I said you have the document, but here it is. They looked at it, and it wasn’t the final document they expected to see. It was a document somebody else in their organization signed off on. I’ve seen that happen a couple of times, where the client I’m working with isn’t the person who signed off on the scope. So sitting down with them and making sure they understand what’s in the scope prior to starting is really important. Then you clear out any issues in advance.

Make sure you lock down your timeline. As soon as it’s complete and approved, lock it in and make sure everyone understands it. It’s going to change. Timelines always do, but you’re only going to want to budge on that timeline when you have to. You want to make sure everybody understands the ramifications in advance.

Establish roles. As a team, it’s important to understand who’s going to do what and when. You could work on a team with ten people that are creating a website. I could work on a team with four people that’s creating the same website. All of those people could be doing different things at different times. It’s important for you to understand who is taking on the role that is creating a deliverable, who is approving the deliverable, all of those things. It’s really important to sit down and make sure you understand that.

So at the beginning of a project sit down with your team and make sure that everybody understands what they’re going to do. I find it really helpful to use a RACI matrix to understand who’s responsible, accountable, consulted, or informed on a project. That can get all of those questions out of the way very early on. That somewhat sums that one up.

Be a cheerleader. Meeting deadlines can be tough and we don’t feel the real pressure of meeting those deadlines as PMs, so it’s really important for you as a PM to have the empathy to know that your team is under pressure a lot. Sure, you might be under pressure for meeting those deadlines as well, but you’re not the one who’s actually creating things. Maybe you’re creating a project plan in the beginning of the project, maybe you’re helping with requirements, but you don’t necessarily open yourself up the way a designer or developer would. Be that person who says you’re doing a great job, help them along. Don’t just check in, but make them feel good about the work that they’re doing.

Other ways that you can be a good cheerleader, things like giving shout-outs in meetings in front of the team; telling your clients how proud you are of your team; sending messages to supervisors; tweeting about people; writing about them; or maybe formalizing a process that actually makes people feel good about the work they’re doing.

Know your craft. I came into PM sort of on a sideways route. I was an English and fine arts major in college. I was a copywriter right out of college. I kind of managed projects throughout my career and kind of fell into it. It was a good place for me.

Along the way I had to learn what project management meant. That meant I spent a lot of time on my own outside of the job, understanding what it meant to be a project manager. Here are some tips for you to understand your craft.

Know and understand methodologies, whether it’s Agile, Waterfall, whatever it be. It’s important that you actually take the time to understand what the methodology is and what the rules of it are. You can take those practices and some of the things that happen within those methodologies and apply them to the projects you’re in, or you can adopt them full bore and run Agile projects. No matter what you do it’s important to know the process that you run is a process that has to work for everyone.

Learn company procedures. On boarding to a new job as a PM can take a good six to nine months. We all do things differently, so make sure when you’re in that on-boarding stage you’re asking all the questions that you kind of need to know answers to as you’re getting involved with clients and with your team. That can be everything from how projects are estimated to how work is presented, or how you interact with clients, how people like to communicate. All of those things are really important aspects of being a project manager, and being a really good project manager.

Practice the right tools. There are about 5,000 tools for one job. I know that as a project manager. We all know there’s no one, single tool that everyone uses. It’s important that when you get into a new tool you actually take the time to understand how it can complement your practice as a PM. Take tutorials, classes, and test projects or tools with your projects as you’re progressing through them. Make time to learn the tool and figure out the hacks you need to use within those tools that will help you and your team.

Hone your people skills. I fully believe you can’t be a good PM without people skills. If you get your team and clients to actually like and respect you, you’ve won half the battle. You have to have empathy for your team and your clients, and understand the way they work doesn’t necessarily have to be the way you want them to work. You have to complement them, and you have to help them.

Remember, you have limited visibility into sort of what’s happening within peoples’ lives, what the pressure is they feel about their work, but you can help them. You can be the person that comes up and says hey, how can I help you out today, or is there anything you’re having trouble with that I can help with? Those kind of things are going to help your projects move along faster and more smoothly, and be a lot more comfortable.

Don’t ignore difficult conversations. Everyone knows that nobody really wants to have a difficult conversation. Nobody wants to be put in an awkward position where you have to tell someone that they’re doing something wrong. So the PM unfortunately is the person who does have to do that.

I was in a job where I was working with a coworker who was negative often and was really affecting the morale of the team, so I had to pull her aside one day and say your attitude is actually affecting the team and I think it’s affecting the work product. Is anything going on? What can I do to help make that better?

The response I got from that was actually really good because I had honed my people skills and I had approached her with a bit of empathy. She came back and said I do recognize this is kind of not going the best way, and we worked out ways we could sort out some of the issues. She approached that I kind of had the guts to go to her and have that conversation, and it built trust, because I think she understood that I had her back with clients.

It wasn’t an easy conversation to have and I was definitely not excited to go into that conversation, but what I did in advance was prepare myself for all of the scenarios that could happen. I think that’s the best way to approach a difficult conversation. Know that nobody wants to talk about negative or scary things like money or missing deadlines or bad attitudes. But you’re the person who can help them fix it. If you approach the situation with a bit of empathy and understanding about how other people might feel about the conversation, you’ll go in and get much better results.

Take good notes. This is an obvious one but there are a lot of meetings where people don’t take notes at all. Notes should serve as a record for what has happened in the meeting or in any kind of conversation. It’s important to document those things. The best thing you can do is create a notes document and put it in a place where it can be editable. Once you share it with everyone who’s involved, tell them that these are your notes, and feel free to leave comments or make updates because you’re only human, and you may have missed some issues, or some items that have been discussed.

I was on a project. Early in the project we had a meeting where the clients told us that IE 6 was not a requirement. Fast forward to the end of the project, where we’re in QA. The client comes back and says there are a ton of problems in IE 6, a lot of bugs. So I sent them the notes document where we had documented when they said that IE 6 was not going to be a part of the project, and they said oh, okay. At that point, IE 6 was dead to everyone, and we didn’t have to worry about it. That was a point where notes came in very helpful to us.

Let’s move on to some quick note taking tips. These are things I think are really helpful when I’m taking notes, and I thought I’d share them with you.

Stick to keywords and phrases.

Write notes in your own words. Things don’t have to be recorded verbatim. You’ll be wasting too much time trying to understand what people are saying if you’re trying to key in every word they say.

Record key points, decisions, and action items. Sometimes I’ll go back through my notes and make sure I’m calling out things that are actually action items, or key points, or decisions.

Use the tools that are right for you, whether it be just a Word document or your favorite tool. You have to use what’s comfortable because if you’re trying to force your process into something that’s not working for you, you’re not going to take great notes.

Make your notes editable and share them with your team.

Stay informed. As PMs, we don’t a lot to go to. There aren’t too many resources but those are growing, and Team Gantt is one of the companies helping with that. So make sure you’re well read. Keep up with what’s happening. Not only within project management but within your industry, and that’s going to help you to be a better project manager.

Keep calm. PM is a very stressful job at points. You have the weight of the details, the people, the deadlines, the money, all of that stuff on your shoulders. But you can’t let it freak you out. So I have some tips here to help you stay calm.

Take the time you need. Project-related issues typically feel urgent, but you need the time to sort of think them through and make sure you’re responding in an appropriate way. If a client comes to you with a request, and that request isn’t something you feel comfortable responding to right away, make sure you’re asking other people how they think you should respond. Don’t feel like you have to respond within ten minutes. Take the time you need to actually formulate a response that is going to be good, not only now in the moment, but weeks from now as well.

Don’t take things so personally. Business is business. You’re a project manager dealing with all the details of the business. This isn’t about your personal emotions. It’s so easy as the PM to take criticism or take something to heart on the project that you feel responsible for. That’s not how it is, and that’s not how people view you. I’ve learned my lesson quite a few times, sort of putting too much of my personal emotions in a project, so sort of know when to separate those things.

It’s okay to, oops, messed up that side — it’s okay to make mistakes. See what we did there? If you think about it this way, if you handle yourself well with mistakes, people will likely remember the outcome and how you recovered from that mistake, rather than the mistake itself. Remember, no one is perfect. You’re not perfect. And you’re going to make mistakes. If you’re just honest about how you handle them, and you actually handle them with a bit of pride, things will definitely turn out a lot better for you.

Keep perspective. Chances are you’ll work with someone who thinks that every issue is the most giant issue in the world, and it’s going to be ending the project. If you keep those issues in perspective and kind of bring things down, and you’re the calm person who tells people you’re going to solve the issue, things will be so much easier to handle.

Be proud of your role. This is the last point but it’s definitely the most important. What you do is important. You’re the glue. You steer the ship, and you should be proud and own that.

So our profession needs people like you out there to be writing, and speaking about project management, and sharing your ideas. If you’re the person who has ideas, definitely start your own blog, read more, tweet more. Do as much as you can to boost the project management community up. So that’s all I have today. I want you to carry on and be great. Thank you so much for listening. I’ll see you next time.

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