Middle management gets a bad rap in IT circles. And, at times, it is earned and very much justified. But, about just as often, the contempt is a little misguided. The biggest reason behind the opinion split might be that efficient leadership is just that: efficient.
Great managers are seamless. You seldom notice when they’re there. In general, a smooth-running operation is considered to be par for the course in any decent-enough company. But, when they are not there, you can tell in an instant. People stop meeting deadlines, tasks start lagging behind, and, before you notice, all hell breaks loose.
The truth is that you can’t run a successful project without middle management. You can talk about holacracy all you want, but when push comes to shove, you need leaders. You need people taking responsibility and guiding the team forward.
Because that’s the case, most IT companies have project managers at the projects’ helm, planning, organizing, and, you guessed it, managing resources. They’re the people that, when done right, maximize productivity and streamline the workflow.
That being said, what does ‘doing it right’ entail? And what separates great project managers from some The Office caricature?
Without further ado, here’s what you can do to make sure you don’t turn into that person (and we all know who ‘that person’ is, don’t we?).
Meet & Greet
When the project is just getting started and most people don’t know each other, it’s always a good idea to kick things off with a kickoff meeting. In this meeting, you can discuss and decide the project’s stakeholders’ involvement. To wit, what these people’s roles will be and how relevant they are going to be to the primary objective. At the same time, you should ensure that everyone’s interests are aligned.
As you can imagine, when everyone’s on the same page and the roles are outlined, you can usually get the ball rolling without major hiccups. Plus, you face fewer communication challenges down the road.
Set the Scope & Objective
Be it a small-time short-term project or a massive long-haul endeavor, establishing the project’s scope and main objectives first is paramount. Before you get busy managing, make sure that the relevant parties have approved these objectives so that nobody would feel blindsided in the future.
Likewise, make the scope as unambiguous as possible to avoid any possible misunderstandings between the project’s members. To do that, the scope should include clear-cut project goals, deliverables, performance standards, and constraints. As long as you do that, the team will be able to work toward the same end without much difficulty.
Communication is Key
Heard that story before, huh? Well, the truth is often boring. Still, as cliché as it may sound, communication is key to a healthy relationship. And, needless to say, working relationships are no exception.
More often than not, effective communication is the biggest difference between experienced and incompetent project managers. So, because the project’s success often rests on communications’ shoulders, all involved parties must be kept in the loop throughout the entire lifecycle of the project.
Besides running project-wide meetings, don’t neglect an occasional one-on-one with each member of the team. Make sure that everyone feels heard. When the people involved feel like their voice matters, that’s usually when they do their best work.
And, in case that doesn’t strike you as obvious, there are several studies that indicate a direct correlation between a working communication plan and a successful project.
No one’s perfect. But, unlike pencils, people don’t have erasers. What we do have, however, are pretty serious cognitive skills. So put those to good use and always ask the people you work with for feedback.
No matter how good of a job you do, the proverbial room is always spacious enough for improvement. But, without a functioning feedback loop, that room can be easy to miss on your own.
Of course, people will seldom volunteer that information. After all, most employees will usually avoid criticizing superiors (at least face to face). So, it is up to you to make them feel safe and comfortable enough to do so.
You’re not a prison guard. You’re the captain of the ship. And, as good as you may be, you’ll make mistakes. With constructive criticism, you’ll be able to recognize these mistakes, learn from them, and avoid making similar mistakes down the line.
Plan the Resources
Will you be working with unlimited resources? Chances are, you won’t be. Even the biggest, baddest, richest companies are not almighty. The funds will be limited, the time will be limited, and, last but not least, the available staff will be limited as well. And, as frightening as it may sound, there’s a pretty good chance the staff will be juggling multiple projects at the same time. Because that’s the case, project management is often as much about resource management as it is about the work.
Daunting? A little. But, with the right (and thorough) resource plan, you’ll be able to utilize the available talent, funds, and infrastructure to the fullest. What’s more, it’s not as difficult these days as it was a decade ago. Using the latest project management tools, you can track these resources, oversee them, and get the most out of ‘em with relative ease.
Better Safe Than Sorry
You can play it safe and try to be smart and cautious all you want. But, as risk averse as you may be, something will always go wrong. It’s not a question of ‘if’, but ‘when’. And, when that happens, you better be prepared.
To do that, the best project managers always incorporate multiple contingency plans. So, when some solution goes up in smoke, they know what to do and how to fix it without delay.
Aside from having a plan, it’s always a good idea to keep an active risk response team on the clock. These people will make sure the project doesn’t get delayed into oblivion the moment the smallest thing goes awry. Instead, there are the specialists that are well-equipped to tackle most risky situations stat.
Transparency is a Must
Like we’ve established before, communication is everything. That being said, effective communication is as much about what you say as it is about what you don’t say. When you talk about the most successful project management practices, complete transparency in the project should be very close to the list’s top.
Apart from keeping the entire team on the same page, full transparency means there are no work-related secrets between colleagues. When that’s the case, people will always feel more inclined to collaborate and do so in a more efficient fashion. Likewise, nothing makes coworkers lose trust and desire to work side by side when the big-picture stuff isn’t visible and you’re forced to play telephone all the time.
Flexible Wins the Race
Like we’ve said before, you should always have a plan. Set the scope, outline objectives, do everything that we’ve mentioned before you ought to do. But, as much as you prepare, things will always change. And that’s fine.
All you have to do is try to be flexible where possible. Expect change requests and accommodate them (assuming they’re reasonable enough). When you don’t include some wiggle room from the get-go, the smallest development can become the biggest headache. And, when you don’t address it asap, the project might go haywire pretty quickly. Also known as scope creep, this issue has affected at least half the projects in 2018.
With that in mind, we’d recommend practicing reasonable flexibility but, at the same time, documenting every single switch, shift, and revision that you receive from clients and colleagues.
Document Every Move
Elaborating on the previous step, documenting not just every change but every move you make project-wise is always the right choice.
Though soft skills, hard skills, and experience always contribute, the bridge from failure island to success isle can be naught but a detailed project log. When that log covers (and explains) every decision you’ve made along the way, tracking the project’s progress and keeping everyone accountable becomes a cakewalk.
Other than that, proper documentation also lets you easily show new talent the ropes and get them up to speed in very little time. Furthermore, when you or project managers from different departments run into issues, you can always look at the project record and help each other overcome it.
Avoid Unrealistic Milestones
We all want to go the extra mile and put as much distance between us and competitors as possible. But, as always, the road to project hell is paved with good intentions. Oftentimes, inexperienced project managers set overly ambitious milestones and say yes to deadlines, features, and work volume that is nigh impossible to implement.
It’s an easy trap to fall into: clients pushing the product forth is nothing new and so are managers succumbing to the clients’ pressure. The problem is that, in the long term, the bottom line (the project’s success) suffers, and so does the team.
Sure, you might come through in the pinch and, overworking caffeine-induced specialists, meet the most unrealistic deadline. But burnout and exhaustion will always catch up to you. And, when that happens, the final product will take a huge hit. Plus, extreme overtime will always have a detrimental effect on the people’s morale, demotivating them a great deal.
So, as much as you may dislike conflict, realizing the team’s limits and standing up to unreasonable requests from clients will always be the right thing to do.
Review & Reflect
It’s always better to learn from other people’s mistakes. That being said, as brilliant as you may be, you’ll always make a fair share of your own mistakes in the process. The smart thing to do is not worry about making these mistakes but learn from them afterward.
It’s the oldest play in the book, but the wheel has already been invented, so no need to start anything from scratch. Learn from your past. Review and reflect upon the team’s performance. Set up a meeting and invite all of the team members to it. Talk not just about what went right but also what you did wrong. Discuss the project’s shortcomings and the management strategies that you could all benefit from implementing. Besides improving as a leader, a practice like that will also help you strengthen your team.
Build Up Leadership Skills
In IT, tech chops are always valuable. But managing a project is, at the very least, as much about leadership skills as it is about hard skills. Taking that into account, you can always look beyond the IT bounds for growth opportunities.
Take initiative and go above and beyond the responsibilities that you currently shoulder. Learn to listen. At the same time, also learn to follow. True leaders have no problem yielding control to other people when they know it is for the best of the project.
Improve your situational awareness. When you do that, you’ll become much better at seeing the big picture and anticipating problems before they hit you like a truck.
In the opposite direction, learn to motivate and inspire others. If any of your team members ever feels in need of guidance, encouragement, and a proverbial shot in the arm, you should be there for him.
Being a good project manager means having a plan but also being ready to deviate from it. It means being a leader but also a follower. As long as you do that with open communication and 100% transparency, your project will always produce results.
And if you don’t have the time or the resources for it, you can always look toward WondermentApps for help! We’ve worked with enterprise customers, start-ups, and everything in-between. Though the WondermentApps’ project managers are more comfortable with Agile methodologies, we’ve also implemented Kanban and custom management styles to match different projects’ needs.
Besides managing the project from scratch, the WondermentApps team has ample experience getting the projects that have gone off course back on track. That, along with the high-level tech skills that we bring to the table, is what helps us empower every project we touch.