All leaders are Project Managers. From the CEO of a company, down to the manager. The job of a leader is to cast a vision for where a group is going, recruit the right people, and manage initiatives that get you closer to that vision. Individuals with the title ‘Project Manager’ may have a more granular role in defining and fulfilling projects, but all leaders in an organization are responsible for the management and outcome of initiatives under their purview. In this article, I want to share nine indispensable project management skills that will help you achieve success with your projects and initiatives in 2020.

1. Build the Team

First, let me clarify what I mean by team. Teams should be long-lived, cross-functional groups, that are empowered to accept an objective, define a solution, and deliver a finished product. Agile teaches that we should manage the team, not the individual. (For more details about this check out my article on the Agile PMO.) 

Winning teams stand out through recruitment. Recruitment seems straightforward and is often delegated to an HR or staffing department. This is a huge mistake! The Book ‘The Everything Store’ by Brad Stone, describes Jeff Bezoes’ approach to hiring Amazon employees in the early days. Bezoes setup hiring panels comprised of both peers and leaders in the organization. Then told them that each hire must raise the bar of expectations from the last. In other words, you had to be better than all existing employees, in some way, to get hired.

If you are thinking that this seems like an elitist mindset, you would be right, but the top teams and companies make no apologies about recruiting the best. A contrarian perspective is found in a two year study performed by Google on the characteristics of great teams and they found little to no correlation between top talent and team performance. Many of the teams with moderate talent, consistently outperform teams with the rockstar talent. This can be credited to dynamics of the team. In other words, teams where members can depend on each other, work easily with each other, and feel psychologically safe with each other, are more likely to deliver quality projects on time and on budget than teams that are missing a positive team culture. 

Regardless of your recruiting strategy, you as the manager should be heavily involved to help identify great talent and insure the individual is a cultural match for the team and company. 

This brings us to the second, and most important, key to building great teams. You must invest in team culture. This can be done in a number of ways; from team building exercises, to team based incentive plans. When you invest time, resources, and effort into building the relationships between the members of a team, you are investing directly into future project’s quality and predictability.

This year, sharpen your project management skills by focusing on your teams. Help them become the best in the business and your projects (along with your reputation) will reap the benefits. 

2. Master the Meeting

The meeting, or should I say all the meetings, seem to be getting out of hand. A company called Doodle published ‘The State of Meeting Report’ for 2019 and estimated that US companies waist nearly 400 billion dollars on unproductive meetings every year. It’s gotten so bad that many companies have started outlawing meetings on certain days to create focused blocks of time where work can actually get done.

If you want to master the meeting in 2020 you need to do three things. First, eliminate as many meetings as possible and opt for informal conversations whenever reasonable. This gets rid of the need to spend a minimum of 30 minutes hashing out stuff that could have been discussed in 5 minutes. If you need to update someone, opt for sharing a document or slideshow over presenting it in person.  Then ask for 5 minutes to review after everyone has a chance to look over it.

Second, start adding a goal statement to every meeting invite. This let’s all attendees know what success looks like and can assist in cutting back on the need for follow up meetings. Review this goal when the meeting starts to get everyone on the same page with the expected outcome. At the end, recap the decisions and action items in light of the goal so everyone walks away feeling like the meeting was a good use of their time. 

Third, take notes for every meeting. If you are like me, it is tough to be engaged in a meeting while also taking notes. Especially if you are the one leading the conversation. There are plenty of tactics to help make this easier, but my favorite is the agenda. If you can put together a short bullet pointed agenda for each meeting then your notes can be as simple as nested bullets under the predefined agenda items. You don’t need to note who said what, you just need nested bullets for decisions that were made and action items that were assigned.

The project management skills of mastering the meeting can free up a lot of time, which will keep your projects on track and help your team stay focused.

3. Visualize the Effort

As you step into this new year, focus on finding new ways to put clear visual representations of work and effort in front of your team and stakeholders. A chart says a thousand words in an instant and can help inform, and more importantly, motivate the team. This is a key practice of Scrum.  It teaches teams to commit to the amount of work they can complete each sprint.  Then the Scrum master is tasked to create a burndown chart with the number of story points on the vertical axis and the number of days on the horizontal axis. Drawing a straight line from the top of the chart on day one to the bottom of the chart on the last day of the sprint gives you a visual expectation of where the team should be after each day with their work.

A good burndown chart shows the expected trend line as well as the actual number of story points completed at the end of each day. The actual trend line is made up of dots above each day representing the number of story points left. These dots are connected from day-to-day with a line to help you visualize where you are, compared to where you need to be to meet your commitment.

This is just one example of work visualization. A Kanban boards, is another great example. In this type of visualization you can see the WIP, or Work In Progress, at any given time. This gives you a more granular view into where every piece of the project currently is. 

Though it’s great to get granular and comparative in your visualizations for the team, don’t forget that stakeholders are also looking for visualizations to explain how their investment is coming along. A stakeholder’s visualization should be at a much higher level and will often include a brief overview of all active projects across a department. 

Dr. Albert Mehrabian performed a study in the mid-late 1900’s which showed that 93% of communication comes from nonverbal cues. Additional studies have theorized that this is due to language being processed asynchronously where images, actions, tone of voice, and facial expressions can be processed synchronously. This means that telling someone a project is on time for delivery next month does not carry the same amount of information that a visual chart can. In the same amount of time you can give someone an update, a chart can show them an update of that project along with all other subsequent and parallel projects, any dependencies, and a dozen other unknown variables that might impact delivery. A well designed dashboard or chart is worth a hundred conversations.

Since visualization is so powerful it should be one of the project manager’s foremost responsibilities. Create visual charts and tools to motivate your team and keep them focused. Also, be sure to create dashboards and charts for your stakeholders to keep them informed and to help them consume more contextual information then can be given in a single project update meeting.

4. Understand the Why

There is a great book, written by Simon Sinek, which I encourage all Project Managers to read this year, called, ‘Start with Why’. As individuals responsible for the delivery of projects we can often fall victim to the temptation of focusing on the questions of WHAT? and HOW?. In all reality, these are the things we were hired for. Someone gives us an idea or project and we are supposed to figure out the details of WHAT they want and then create a plan for HOW it is going to become a reality. 

The best leaders and managers go a step further and attempt to gain a deep understanding of the WHY behind each project or initiative. If you want to stand out from the crowd, stop trying to plan out HOW to deliver the project and start trying to figure out WHY the project needs delivered in the first place. I don’t mean you should argue about it’s relevance. I’m sure that would just get you in hot water with your boss. No, what I mean is that if you can understand WHY a project is being taken on, then you can make daily micro adjustments and judgment calls that will lead the project to success not just completion.

Here is a quick example of this issue. I once worked in a SaaS company that built backend systems for businesses. We built a really unique feature that set us apart from the competition. Unfortunately, we had less than 5% adoption across our entire customer base for the feature. One of our teams was tasked with building additional enhancements to this feature but they were never given a clear goal or understanding of the WHY. The team had heard through the grapevine that the feature was rarely used and they became demotivated knowing that they were working on something that would have little impact on the business and would quite possibly be retired in the near future. They built the feature as instructed and invested significant amounts of time on backend system stability to make sure the new enhancement would not affect performance.

The result was a well built enhancement that did very little to increase adoption. Our stakeholders were disappointed with the project because it failed to increase the user volume. When this was relayed to the team leads in a meeting they were rightfully upset. They explained that they had been tasked with building an enhancement, and as such, they made daily decisions to invest time in things that stabilized and supported the existing feature. They said that if they had been told the goal was to increase adoption they would have made significantly different design and development decisions, focusing on usability, user testing, and other nuances that would affect adoption rather than focusing so much time on the backend systems that have zero impact on the adoption of an already stable feature.

The business unit just saw a feature that might help adoption. The design and development group saw options. If the business unit had led with a clear WHY and had been given goals based on achieving higher adoption rather than goals based on the delivery of a working enhancement, they would have seen a drastically different result.

As the Project Manager, it is your responsibility to tease out the WHY of every project that is handed to you. Then you must translate the WHY into goals that your team can work towards while completing the project.

5. Protect the Goal

Once you understand the WHY of what your team should build, you must protect that goal. Any experienced Project Manager will tell you that there are hundreds of distractions vying for your team’s attention every day and if your team is not protected, the goal will not be achieved in the expected time frame. 

It is the role of the Project Manager to both manage the project and protect the team so they can stay focused and on track. In Scrum, this role is split between the Product Owner and Scrum Master but the goal remains the same. Plan the project and protect the team from getting distracted. 

An example of one way to do this: AWS (Amazon Web Services) was initially built over the course of 2 years by a couple people who moved from the west coast of America to Africa in order to get away from the distractions of the rapidly growing Amazon organization and focus on the goal of building elastically scaling cloud architecture. After two years, they returned with a working product that would be launched as AWS. 

This is the type of focus required to build great systems and products. This year focus on protecting the goal by acting like a wall around your team. You may not be able to move your team to Africa but you can stand as the bulwark between your team and the organization. If you can pull this off, sit back and watch how productive your team can become.

6. Manage the Risks

At one of the companies I worked for, I instituted a risk policy for all Project Managers that required them to update the risks on their projects every 2 weeks. I had one PM who complained that this was busy work and that her project didn’t have any real risks. Another said that they had risks but that the risks never changed so there was no need to update the initially identified project risks. I had to explain to both of these Project Managers that if they thought there were zero risks on any project, or if they thought that risks never changed, they needed the focused discipline of updating risks every two weeks even more than everyone else.

You see, the point of logging risks and keeping them updated has nothing to do with the actual work of logging risks. Rather the value comes in the rating system and mitigation planning exercises that go along with risk assessment. 

A successful risk assessment has a mechanism to track if the risk is increasing or decreasing over time. I did this through asking for a 1-5 rating on impact and a 0%-100% rating on probability. Multiplying these numbers together gave the risk rating. It also gave them two separate vectors to tackle as they tried to mitigate risks. Every two weeks each team would update the impact and probability rating with the hopes that they were decreasing over time.

Our mitigation strategy was the tool we used to help insure risks were assessed and mitigated as best as possible. For every listed risk, the PM had to choose a strategy of avoidance, transference, mitigation, or acceptance. Then they assigned each risk to someone who was responsible for monitoring, and if possible, decreasing the impact or probability through the chosen strategy.

This year don’t avoid risks. Instead, identify and assign them as quickly as possible so that appropriate measures can be put in place to decrease the risk’s impact or probability.

7. Track the Past

Project Management is seen as a way to plan projects and align the day-to-day operations of a team with that plan. In some companies tracking what did and did not happen on a project is haphazard at best. In others, it is done with meticulous detail because of a CYA (Cover your A_ _) culture. The second scenario is a sign of toxic culture, but the first is not much better. If all you ever do is plan for the future you are losing out on the chance to learn from your past.

In Project Management, it is critical that we become students of our recent history, taking a scientific approach to measuring what went well and did not go well. In this way we are able to adjust our future plans for a better chance of success.

Harvard Business Review conducted a survey showing that 1 out of every 6 IT projects have a budget overrun by 200% and a schedule overrun by 70% on average. In what business can we afford to spend three times the planned budget and stay afloat? The truth is we can’t. When a project goes this far off the rails it impacts the organization significantly and limits their ability to invest in other initiatives.

The only way to curb this incredibly poor track record is to keep track of what happened in an organized way so as to allow a productive postmortem that can be leveraged to make the next project a success.

Step up your project tracking game. Find tools and tactics that go beyond meeting notes that give you an organized method for tracking changes to the plan. Then get into the habit of reviewing the changes after each project to decide how to avoid similar issues on the next one.

8. Predict the Future

Have you ever felt that project planning was futile because of all the unknown factors? The reality is that the future is unpredictable, yet the job of the Project Manager is to work to this reality and nail down the most probable future based on the known factors involved in a project. How is that even a reasonable expectation?

Yet, if we look at research done by the Project Management Institute we see that projects run by experienced PM’s save companies 28 times more money than a project run without a PM’s experienced planning. It may be true that we can’t see the future, but nonetheless it is clear that an experienced Project Manager can predict it based on the events of the past. 

Predicting the future is done through detailed project planning in conjunction with ongoing progress tracking. In traditional Waterfall projects, this seems to be significantly more difficult because of the requirement that everything is planned out and given dates ahead of time. Agile Project Management, especially Scrum, requires detailed planning upfront, but dates are not given until several sprints are completed to establish a baseline for team velocity. A project can be projected ahead of time if the team has been together for a long time and steady velocity metrics have been defined. 

One of the reasons I am partial to Scrum when it comes to project management methods is because of  its relatively scientific way of predicting the future. Instead of writing down best case scenarios before the project starts, Scrum implements ways of tracking progress and establishing predictions off of generic work load and team speed rather than off of human predictions.

For the next twelve months focus on building the skill of accurate project forecasting and you will be on your way to mastering the discipline of project management.

9. Avoid the Creep

I sat in a conference several years ago and listened in horror as someone told me that project creep was equivalent to stealing money from the company. The project I was working on at the time had significant project creep, as directed by the client, but was still making significant progress and promised to give us a 20X return on our investment when it was completed. I came back from that conference and spent some time reflecting on whether or not my inability to control the creep was equivalent to larceny.

In the years since I have learned a thing or two about project creep. I have learned that project creep is not always bad. The failure to manage project creep however is always bad. Let me explain. If you work for an agency that charges on a per hour basis, project creep can bring in more cash right? Well, the reality is that it can bring in more cash, but it sacrifices your relationship with the customer who is paying you with the goal of getting a completed project. What if you are working with a SaaS company and a project starts to creep, but the additional features will be incredibly valuable to the end user? Still, if you allow this, you are extending the time it takes for the end user to receive benefits and the company to get a return on their investment.

Bottom line is that project creep is always bad… when it is inside of a deliverable. If the creep extends the time it takes to deliver value to a customer, be it internal or external, it is bad and should be avoided. That said, a good project manager should have the skill to encourage scope creep outside of deliverables. In other words, a good project manager should be able to facilitate conversations that help stakeholders and customers see the potential of adding additional deliverables, containing new systems or features, AFTER the current scope is completed and delivered to the end user. By managing scope creep in this way you are both protecting budgets and reputations, as well as securing future work for you and your team that will bring additional benefit to the customer.

This year, focus on avoiding the creep. Encourage the conversation, but delay the expectation of effort until after your current deliverable is completed and in the hands of the user.

Shout out to macrovector_official for the awesome header vector art!