One of the most influential books in my life has to be Stephen Covey's The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Almost any aspiring business person worth their salt—and with an obsession with self-improvement—is familiar with these habits. I would highly encourage you to get the book and read it if you haven't already.
Yet, how do these tested practices translate specifically to project management? Hopefully, Covey won't mind us taking his amazing life wisdom and applying it specifically to the project management niche.
Here are the 7 habits of highly effective project managers.
1. Be a proactive project manager
If you've been granted a front-row ticket to observe the project management field for very long, you've probably identified 3 main types of project managers.
3 types of project managers
- Accidental project manager: The “accidental” project manager is someone who has come up through the ranks and may have been picked to lead a project due to their vast technical experience, but not their people management expertise. For example, a strong network technician may be asked to head up the network upgrade because he understands the system better than anyone else. These people may fall into the role with a lot of specific project knowledge, but they may struggle with branching into the team-building, management category of the work.
- Good project manager: The “good” project manager is someone who handles both the knowledge and management portions of the business well, but they tend to be more reactive than proactive in their approach. They do what is expected, but no more. They follow the rules, but don't create new innovative venues to do things better.
- Proactive project manager: A “proactive” project manager has plans in place to deal with issues before they occur and stays one step ahead of the client's needs. They’ve set up ways to communicate with everyone involved and hold each member accountable for their part of the total picture. A great way to do this is by incorporating team collaboration tools that respond in real time. Proactive project managers do all they can to ensure no time is lost due to miscommunication, misunderstanding expectations, or putting productive energies into the wrong venues. (Basically this type of professional knows that being a project manager is their one true calling.)
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2. Begin with the end in mind
In project management, as with anything, it’s easy to go into analysis paralysis. When multiple people take a project, and break it down into pieces of their own real estate, sometimes it can get difficult to stay focused on the final picture.
Everyone's work must come together in the end. Egos must be set aside for the greater congruency of the overall picture. It’s much easier to work together when everyone is focused on the final team outcome, not on stealing the spotlight and looking like a rock star.
3. Put first things first
Covey says to always do your big rocks—your most impactful, important things—first. This means you don't allow little distractions and rabbit trails to take your focus away from the main areas in your project.
For example, if you have very important items to complete during the day, you should reduce distractions until you've completed your most important tasks. This may mean turning off your email notifications and text pings for the morning so you can knock out your most pressing project assignments. You can still get to other less urgent items later after you've finished your biggest daily goals. Save time for more important items by learning to automate tedious, draining tasks with gantt chart software.
4. Think win/win
Working together with people on a project is a great way to improve your team-building skills. It may mean compromising certain strategies for the greater good of all. If you win, and everyone else doesn't, you don't have a team but a dictatorship. In order to create the best possible outcome for your coworkers, clients, and superiors, you have to think about how your actions will impact the “wins” of others as well as yourself.
It’s often more challenging to find a win/win scenario. It takes more creativity, more consideration, and more communication than some people want to invest. However, when you put forth the effort to come away with a solution that benefits everyone, you open further doorways into increased productivity, team trust, and overall project synergy.
5. Seek first to understand, then to be understood
Have you ever been in a meeting where everyone is talking, but no one is listening? Nothing gets accomplished this way.
In some of the more frustrating meetings I sat through, it got so bad we had to employ the talking stick. This was basically a rule that you could only talk when you had the stick for a timed period. If you didn't have the talking stick, you couldn't talk. This sounds silly, but if we didn't employ this method, no one could even get a word in. There was so much passion and a driving need to be understood that people would just talk over everyone— which ultimately just wasted time.
This concept follows the old adage that you have 2 ears and only 1 mouth so you should listen twice as much as you speak. Listening is a lost art. Even when people are silent, that doesn't mean they’re really listening.
To actively seek to understand something from another viewpoint means not only hearing, but processing, this information. You can do this by asking clarifying questions and then repeating the idea back to the person. Speak in your own words to make sure you have it correct and to let them know they’ve been heard.
Once someone realizes you’re honestly engaged in trying to understand them, they’ll usually give you the same courtesy. There may also be someone with great ideas but who’s too shy to bulldoze their way into a conversational battle. Introverts often have amazing perceptions because they think and process information inwardly instead of talking outwardly. They often won't voice their opinions unless they’re asked. Giving everyone equal understanding is in the best interest of the team.
If you take time to acknowledge everyone in the group—no matter what their personality type or communication style—you’ll glean much more useful information than you would just listening to those who like to hear themselves talk.
Synergy simply means that you can do more as a team than you can as an individual. It means that 1 + 1 = 3 or more. It’s achieved in an environment of open-mindedness, acceptance, and the idea that 2 heads are better than 1.
Some people may fear synergy at first. However, no project manager can shy away from the valuable fact that a team will produce a better outcome over the individual, no matter how impressive or knowledgeable. Sure, egos must be relinquished for the greater good. But a truly synergistic team working in total harmony will bring more success to each of its members than any one person could ever achieve.
Synergy is the hallmark of maturation. Think about a child as it grows. In infancy, it’s very dependent on others. Then, in the teenage years, the child pushes away from the parents to do things alone. And finally, as an adult, the relationship takes a new turn when the child is mature enough to recognize their limitations and ask the parents for advice.
It's the same concept in business. When you’re first hired, you’re dependent on your trainer. Then, you become more independent as you learn your work. And finally, you relinquish your pride to recognize the need to achieve even more than you’re capable of independently and embrace the importance of working syntactically with others.
7. Sharpen the saw
Covey tells an insightful story about 2 men who went out to cut trees in a forest. They both needed to get as many trees as possible during the daylight hours available to them. Both men started at the same time, but they each took a different approach.
- The first man stopped often to sharpen his saw as it became dull against the wood.
- The second man didn't feel he had enough time for that nonsense and went on cutting trees.
An interesting thing happened. The man who stopped when his saw got dull and resharpened it began cutting his trees at a faster rate with less energy expended. The man who didn't think he could afford the time to sharpen his saw began to fall behind, despite investing more effort as his dull instrument cut more and more slowly.
Of course, this can apply to everyday life in addition to project management. When we neglect things like sleep, stress management, social and relationship strength, or health because we think we don't have time, we pay for it later with decreased productivity. Practicing self renewal prevents individual and team burnout.
Some great saw-sharpening concepts more specifically geared toward project management are:
- Taking time to ensure everyone on the team understands their specific piece of the work and how it integrates with others and that all parties are clear on expectations
- Creating a project plan and framework so everyone stays updated on the work and communicates effortlessly
- Sending people to additional training to ensure they’re more familiar with their project or ways to do their work more efficiently
- Making sure everyone is familiar with the guidelines, budgets, and rules of a project to avoid costly mistakes
This all takes time—but it’s that ounce of prevention that saves a pound of untold hours in reversing errors or fixing poor decisions down the road. While you may not build up your tree logs as fast initially by taking time to set up a stronger foundation and keep your team sharp, by the end of the day, you’ll be the clear winner.
Apply these habits to be a more effective project manager
If you incorporate these 7 habits in your life, you’ll certainly improve your overall journey. And if you translate them specifically to your project management process, you’ll see great benefits in the final end product, gain more respect from your peers, and enjoy the adventure of reaching your greatest success surrounded by a cohesive team.
It may take 21 days to fully embrace a new habit, but that shouldn't stop you from implementing these 7 gems immediately into your next project. Once these concepts are integrated into your daily habits, they will serve you throughout your entire career.
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