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Project Management

Help! I'm a new project manager, and have no clue where to start.

Daniel Threlfall
April 22, 2014

Project managers are neither made nor born. They are hurled, without warning and without training, into the maelstrom of management. It’s a sink-or-swim world.

Getting Started with Project Management

Sometimes, it happens when the company experiences huge growth. Sometimes, it happens when a boss decides the “time is right.” Sometimes, it happens when you’re doing too good of a job for your own good.

Whatever the case, project management comes careening into your life, throwing your perfectly-arranged little existence into a state of catastrophe and confusion. You didn’t go to college to learn management. You don’t know what “leadership style” you have. The only management training you’ve had is from Dilbert comic books. The only project management experience you have is coaching your son’s little league baseball team.

This blog post is dedicated to the never-knew-I-was-gonna-be-a-project manager, and to the I’m-a-new-project-manager-and-I-have-no-clue-where-to-start.

Here you are, sitting on a management title,  responding to the beck and call of your employees. You need a way to prove that you can do this thing.

Take a deep breath, and follow these steps.

1.  Clean your desk. Clean your mind.

Cleaning and organizing is one of the best ways to prepare your mind for a new role. It sounds bizarre, but when you organize physical (or digital) spaces, it actually helps you to organize your thoughts mentally at the same time.

You begin to think clearer and more forcefully when you get things tidied up.

In a counterintuitive twist of cognitive reality, you’ll become a competent manager right out of the gates if you just clean up your office.

Don’t laugh. It really works. Just try it.

Your time is limited. You’re not Merry Maids; you’re a project manager. Do as many of these as you can, in order. Don’t panic if you can’t finish all of them.

You might be thinking — “Okay, what about the management thing? Need a little help...”

I just gave you your first powerful tip for survival. You’ll experience an immediate uptick in mental performance once you complete the clean up technique.

2.  Wrap your mind around your responsibilities.

Next, you need to gain a crystal clear perspective of what in the world you’re supposed to be doing now that you’re a PM.

If you forget every single other point in this article, that’s okay. I won’t be offended. Just do this one thing — wrap your mind around your responsibilities.

You will save yourself from a mountain of heartache, trauma, stress, and despair if you simply understand your new responsibilities. This is easier said than done.

I can’t tell you what your new responsibilities are, but I can tell you how you can discover them.

1. Get your job description straight.

Your job description is important. Go to your boss and get your job description. Write it down. Ask questions. Get clarification.

You might report to an individual who is not a gifted communicator or delegator. He might tell you, “Oh, yeah. I want you to….let’s see...oh, just manage the darn projects.”

Sheesh, that’s helpful. Thanks, man.

If you don’t get a clear picture, then it’s up to you to do the rest of mind-wrapping-around-responsibilities thing.

2. Draw the big picture.

Ask your job description a series of questions. Each question that you ask will have an answer. That answer will require another question. Trace each question and answer down to its smaller component parts. This is the process of taking a huge monolith, and breaking it down into gravel.

What are you doing?


What exactly are you managing?

Projects. And the people that do them.

What projects are you managing?

The Awesome Rocket Project. And the Awesome Beaverdam Project.

What people are you managing?

Joe, Bob, and Sue.

What responsibilities are involved in completing the Awesome Rocket Project?

I need to figure out how much it costs, how long it will take, and what needs to be done.

What needs to be done?

Well, there’s a strategy phase, a design phase, a manufacturing phase, and a marketing phase.

What do you need to do to start the strategy phase?

I need to have a strategy session with Joe, Bob, and Sue.

What do you need to do to in order to have that strategy session?

I need to schedule it, and email them.

What do you need to do to remind you to email them?

I need to write it in my to-do list for tomorrow.

Bam! This is about nailing your job description by making it happen in your daily work life.

3.  Draw the daily picture.

The purpose of the big-level planning is to get big things implemented into little daily activities.

These are the daily tasks that you need to do, and a lot of timelines that you need to follow. This is where the cool management tools like planners, to-do lists, and gantt charts come into play.

Start drawing the daily picture — listing your daily tasks, planning out a project cycle, and sending out those emails.

As you perform this three-step process, you will come to know exactly what you should be doing in your new role. It may take a couple hours or so to follow this process and have the epiphany, but you’ve got to do it!

If you fail to complete this step, you have committed yourself to floundering for the rest of your professional life.

3.  Make time for your daily work.

If you lose control of your daily work responsibilities you will sink.

For many new PMs — I know this was my experience — the addition of “management” did not mean that you suddenly have no other work to do. Instead, you now have to juggle management and other work stuff.

For me, it was insane. I had to get stuff done, but there was this constant companion of management that was threatening to gobble every spare minute.

There had to be a way to do both.

I discovered this way when I decided to make “me time” for my non-management work responsibilities. I realized that in order to successfully do my new two jobs, I had to devote time to both.

If you want to be a good new PM, you’ve got to also keep up with your existing role. So, pull out your calendar, and carve out that time each day. Here are a couple ideas.

Juggling is every manager’s middle name. This is the way to do it — making time for your daily work and your management work.

4.  Make time for your employees.

One does not manage unless one makes time for his or her employees.

The point above explained how to make time for your daily work. This point tells you how to make time for management. It’s all about meeting with, learning from, and talking with your employees.

Making time for your employees is part of your new modus operandi. If you neglect them, you’ll have a hard time getting off to the right foot as a manager.

5.  Don’t let it overwhelm you.

Management can grow into a bogeyman that swallows your life in its terror.

If you let it.

It helps to step back and think to yourself — “Okay, this is just a job. There is life outside of my occupation.” Management doesn’t have to become an engulfing terror. You must consciously say “no” to its menacing advances.

Like any new skill, management takes a bit of getting used to. But give it some time, and you’ll do fine. Keep in mind that you need room to breathe and exist without letting it dominate you.

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