5 Lessons I’ve Learned as a Project Manager

Allan Dodson
Posted: May 14, 2020

What is project management? It’s making the project really happen. Turning vapor into something real. The fact is, we don’t manage projects – we manage people, time and events. Sure, you have to be able to scope it, manage a budget, build a team, develop a plan, and all the rest of it. But if you’re not willing to push it forward, your project is just words on paper or a series of 0s and 1s floating around in the cloud. So, let’s forget about the textbooks for a moment and focus in on a few project management tips that will make you a hero and keep you sane.

Lesson 1: Be Persistent

Moving a project forward means chasing people, and let’s face it, getting return calls and emails is a lot tougher than it used to be. People are busy with their own projects, and they may not want to stop to help with yours, but you have to stay at them.

And guess what? Eventually, you won’t have to chase them as hard. When you get a reputation as someone who is persistent, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. People know you’ll chase them down, so they’ll go ahead and return your calls. When a SME said to me one day, “I’ll go ahead and do this, because I know you’ll keep on me until I do” – with a smile – I knew I had arrived.

Lesson 2: Kill Them with Kindness

Chasing people down does NOT mean you have to be unpleasant about it. Continued politeness and empathy go a long way toward moving people along without damaging relationships. I start a lot of emails and phone messages by saying, “I know you’re busy with XYZ, but . . .” Just letting them know you’re understanding of why they’re a little slow to respond usually helps. And always thank people – preferably in writing – when they do respond.

Again, you’ll generate a cycle. When you seem like you’re a nice person who appreciates what they do, people tend to respond faster. And even faster the next time, because they already like you.

Lesson 3: Keep the Ball in Your Court

Much like in sales, a key to project management is keeping as many items as possible in YOUR queue (or your team’s queue). You can grow very old waiting for other people to initiate an action or response. Try to avoid ending interactions with “I’ll wait for your call.” While waiting is sometimes inevitable, always try to think of ways to be sure you’re the one making the next move.

End emails with “If I don’t hear from you in a couple of days, I’ll give you a call.” End phone messages by saying, “If I don’t hear from you tomorrow, maybe I’ll just drop by.” Be sure there’s an action item for YOU in every element of the project.

Lesson 4: Limit Meetings

Ever have a day full of meetings and at the end you realize you haven’t actually done anything? One of the fatal flaws for many project managers is that they make everything a meeting. While meetings are important at times, there are many alternatives that allow you – and your SMEs – to spend less time discussing and more time working.

Say you have a model for a learning flow, and you need an internal review. Can the reviewers look it over and send you their comments? Can they call you only if they have specific questions? Meetings often turn into “everyone having their say,” wasting countless hours when you could have been making the revisions and sending the model off to the client. Don’t be afraid to say, “Can we do it without a meeting?”

And if you must meet, set a time frame and stick to it. No more 30-minute meetings that stretch into three hours. I’ve been working with one organization for years that always limits meetings to the time allotted – and boy, does it work. They know that they’ll have to say what they want to say quickly and succinctly – or they won’t get to say it at all.

I like to use the term “hard stop.” As in, “I have a hard stop at 3:00, so let’s get right down to it.” Give it a try.

Lesson 5: Keep It in Perspective

This lesson is just for you and your personal sanity. Always remember, the world won’t end if a project goes sideways for just a few minutes. Projects usually recover, and so will you. When you find yourself overwhelmed . . . take a step back. Is it really as bad as all that?

I also find that having a sense of humor is invaluable. While my “wit” has occasionally fallen on unfunny ears, most people appreciate a little appropriate levity in times of crisis. Being able to laugh will keep you sane – and endear you to your team members.

The Fallacy of Project Management Software

In the last few years, quite a few software programs have emerged for project management. These programs allow you to list tasks, and even communicate with team members and SMEs around the world. And they’re great – to a point.

When these programs fail, it’s because project managers start to see the program as an end unto itself. Project management becomes about filling in blanks and keeping upper management informed. While one could define these activities loosely as “management,” they aren’t doing what really needs doing – making the project happen.

Programs don’t move projects. People move projects. Staying connected with the project means staying connected with the people – not managing a task list.

I sometimes think we should jettison the term “project management” altogether, along with its connotations of simply keeping things in a steady state. I prefer to think of it as “project execution.” In the end, moving projects is about action. So, let’s get moving! Because you know I’ll just keep calling until you do.


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