project management; communications; plan ahead; collaboration; teamwork; project planning; effective project managers

By Christian J. Knutson, P.E., PgMP, PMP

Effective project management is a blend of technical and non-technical skill sets and experience that, unfortunately, doesn’t manifest itself overnight.  It takes years to build the chops of an effective project manager and a good bit of thick skin.  As any seasoned PM will tell you, the path to good experience goes right through failure.  Since professionals tend to not like failure, one must have good control of their ego to not overlook the lessons that come from missed schedules, cost overruns and out-of-scope work.


What Effective Project Managers Do Consistently

Here are seven things that effective project managers do consistently, learned from a career of failures, successes and outcomes that fall somewhere in between.

  1. We versus I. The old adage “there’s no ‘I’ in ‘team’”, is legitimate. Somewhere along my journey in project management I picked up the habit of never uttering the word “I” when referring to any activity where I wasn’t a solo actor.  Funny thing is, there haven’t been any project management situations where I was a solo actor.  Projects are accomplished by teams and there are never any solo failures or solo successes.  If you have to revert to the singular, use it only when taking the heat for something the team did wrong.  For every other case, always use “we”, “us”, “the team”, or some other inclusive language.  The project team will appreciate it.


  1. Collaborate. Since you are working in a project team, there are people (perhaps a lot of people) involved in the project. It’s highly unlikely that you will see eye-to-eye with everyone throughout the entire project.  In fact, if you do, something’s not right.  One certainty of any project is challenge and disagreement.  In order to move past challenges and disagreements, you will absolutely need to develop the skills to collaborate to develop solutions.  One doesn’t have to be best friends with everyone on the project team.  One must, however, be able to collaborate with everyone on the project team.  Remember #1 above.


  1. Communicate. This seems to be a hard skill for engineers and project managers to effectively master. Unfortunately, if you want to be effective, you must master the skill.  This doesn’t mean you need to be a master orator.  It does mean that you need to be able to coherently give direction, make yourself understood, and have a process for managing your email and phone conversations.  According to the Project Management Institute’s Project Management Book of Knowledge®, project managers spend upwards of ninety percent of their time communicating.  If you are lacking in this area, it’s imperative that you develop your competence and confidence in order to ensure you have a chance of being successful as a project manager.


  1. Report Concisely. This skill is closely linked to #3 and becomes critical when presenting project information to stakeholders not immediately part of the project team. Effective project managers put a good dose of thought into what information they report to stakeholders.  This is done to ensure that relevant, timely information is presented that provides an accurate picture of the project. In most situations, information related to scope, schedule and cost aren’t adequate to satiate the curiosity of all stakeholders.  However, not all stakeholders will be interested in information pertaining to risk, RFIs, or other components.  To get around this, it’s important to develop an understanding of what information your stakeholders need and when.  Then, work with the project team to develop products that scratch the itch.  Equally as important as understanding what information to share, is to know where the data is going to come from and when the reports will be released.


  1. Think Ahead. It’s not enough that you think through the next day or next week on a project.  To be an effective project manager you need to think all the way through the project from initiation through close-out.  Professional athletes and special operations warriors use the technique of visualization to step through their performance in their mind before they lace up their cleats or boots and hit the field.  You too need to visualize how the project will unfold. What are the major milestones that will be encountered?  What are the risks that are known to likely affect the project and when will they be of greatest concern?  How will you handle a key project team member departing?  What about a cost overrun on a work package?  Thinking ahead is how effective project managers lead-turn issues and have a good idea of how to react to a situation.  Before the situation even occurs.


  1. Help Everyone Stay in Their Lane. Project delivery is a complex human undertaking, especially in the A/E/C industry.  It’s very easy for project team members, the project manager included, to venture off the reservation into someone else’s pasture.  Effective project managers do the spade work during project initiation to delineate roles, responsibilities and authorities on the project.  By doing this, they understand who does what and who has the authority to make decisions.  Especially resource decisions.  They then use the roles, responsibilities and authorities throughout the project to ensure that they and everyone else stay in their lane and do their work. Nothing is more frustrating than having multiple project team members tackling the same issue at the expense of taking care of their own responsibilities.  Just as frustrating are situations where a decision is needed, but no one seems to know who can make it.  Or worse, having competing individuals who each believe they have the authority to make the decision.  When everyone stays in their lane, projects tend to progress more smoothly.


  1. Generate Solutions. Projects inevitably present project managers with problems that require solutions.   Effective project managers need to be adept at generating solutions to problems.  This doesn’t mean that one has to be the sole producer of good ideas.  On the contrary, as #2 above highlights, project managers need to be good collaborators.  When presented with a problem, having the skill set to get the project team focused on developing solutions is a vitally important skill to have. Not all project managers have the ability to focus a project team on solutioneering, and for these unfortunate PMs, they’ll find that not only do good solutions elude them, but so does the project’s schedule and finances.  Developing the capability to come up with multiple solutions to problems as they emerge, as well as developing solutions to problems that may never emerge (see #5 above) is a vital skill to develop and employ often.


The take-away from all seven skill sets? Non-technical skills are vitally important for a project manager to be effective in their role.  Regardless how technically savvy you are, the project manager who is better able to collaborate, think ahead and generate solutions will win out over the project manager with intimate knowledge on how to apply Earned Value Management.   While the application of EVM may be very important for a project, stakeholders and clients will be more interested in your ability to perform consistently across these seven skills sets.  How effective are you?  What are you doing to better yourself in each of these skills?