Being a project manager involves overseeing all steps of a project, delegating assignments to team members and solving any problems along the way. As such, it can be a difficult and nuanced position. What does it take to be an effective project manager?
First, it’s important to understand the crucial role a project manager plays. Research conducted by McKinsey & Company and the BT Centre for Major Programme Management at the University of Oxford determined that software projects have the greatest risk for cost overages and schedule overruns compared to projects that don’t involve software across industries. The joint study also revealed the following:
“On average, large IT projects [projects costing more than $15 million] run 45 percent over budget and 7 percent over time, while delivering 56 percent less value than predicted…we found that these IT projects, in total, had a cost overrun of $66 billion, more than the GDP of Luxembourg. We also found that the longer a project is scheduled to last, the more likely it is that it will run over time and budget, with every additional year spent on the project increasing cost overruns by 15 percent.”
After reviewing nearly 1,500 IT projects, the Harvard Business Review discovered that the average cost overrun was 27%, while one-sixth of the projects suffered a cost overage of 200% and a scheduling overrun of close to 70%. The publication also identified several organizations, including Kmart and Auto Windscreens, which recorded IT project overruns so exponential, they were cited as one of the reasons the companies filed for bankruptcy. The Project Management Institute’s 2013 Pulse of the Profession reports that companies lose $135 million for every $1 billion they spend on failed business projects.
While overruns and project failures are expensive for individual corporations, they also take a toll on the economy at-large. According to Gallup, for instance, the United States suffers a loss of between $50 billion and $150 billion annually due to the failure of IT projects. In 2004, the European Union incurred an estimated loss of €142 billion as a result of failed IT projects.
According to PricewaterhouseCoopers LLC’s third global survey of the current state of project management, 97% of survey participants feel project management is vital to a company’s performance and success. Another 94% of respondents claimed that project management promotes growth. Even though business managers and executives recognize the critical role effective project management plays in a company’s overall success, the 2013 Pulse of the Profession reports that the percentage of projects considered to have met their original objectives and purpose fell from 72% in 2008 to 62% in 2012.
Causes of Project Failure
In its third global survey of the current state of project management, PricewaterhouseCoopers LLC identifies “poor estimation during the planning phase [as]…the largest (32%) contributor to project failures.” In its Business Journal, Gallup suggests that projects fail because today’s project management practices focus on the “rational,” while ignoring the “emotional,” meaning current project management techniques address how to get something done without accounting for the emotions involved with executing a project.
Gallup’s Business Journal also claims that project failures can usually be attributed to one of the following three factors:
- Technical: Technical factors include the specific project management techniques used to move the project toward completion and the actual technology used to execute the project.
- Individual: Individual issues include leading, managing the scope or magnitude of the project and communicating.
- Stakeholder: Stakeholder factors include support at the executive level, user participation and whether the project has a specific goal.
Technical problems can usually be resolved with traditional project management techniques such as budgeting, making schedule revisions and analyzing relevant data. Individual and stakeholder issues often cannot be resolved with the same techniques, however, because they involve emotions and other non-procedural factors.
The Key to Project Management Success
As a result of their survey of IT professionals, McKinsey & Company and the University of Oxford found the key to project management success is a project manager’s ability to excel across four dimensions. A failure to excel in the first two dimensions is usually responsible for approximately 50% of project cost overages. Failing with the third and fourth dimensions is the cause of about 40% of cost overruns.
Here are the four dimensions that lead to success:
- “Focusing on managing strategy and stakeholders instead of exclusively concentrating on budget and scheduling”
- “Mastering technology and project content by securing critical internal and external talent”
- “Building effective teams by aligning their incentives with the overall goals of projects”
- “Excelling at core project-management practices, such as short delivery cycles and rigorous quality checks”
What Makes a Good Project Manager?
What makes a project manager great is the ability to excel in the four dimensions discussed above. Having certain qualities is also part of what makes a good project manager, because these characteristics help managers perform well across the four critical dimensions.
“I started developing the characteristics of a successful project manager even when I was still an IT consultant nearly 20 years ago,” says Ryan Dennis, current Senior Mobile Technology Manager for Bank of America. “Back then, there wasn’t a course that thoroughly explained how to be an effective project manager that I knew about. So I learned what was necessary in-part through trial and error, but mostly through mentoring and following the lead of people who consistently executed projects that met or exceeded expectations within budget and on time.”
“One of the biggest changes I’ve experienced over the course of my career in general, and during my 14-year tenure with Bank of America in particular, is that we’re using more and more offshore talent. With this increased globalization in the workplace, project managers need to be familiar with, and have an appreciation for, cultures other than their own in order to be successful. If you don’t have that, communication suffers and conflict can arise. It can also cause delays in production,” Dennis continues.
“For instance, right now I have four multi-million dollar projects that need to be completed by August of this year. Most of my team members reside in India, which is 12 hours ahead of my workplace in terms of time. Because of this difference, I schedule meetings at different times than I would if everyone was in the same time zone. I also am mindful of when Indian holidays occur and avoid scheduling due dates for deliverables around those dates. Whereas Americans are used to working holidays at least on occasion, Indian culture is different in that workers are not accustomed to heading into the office during times of celebration,” Dennis explains.
“In addition to understanding multiple cultures, I feel that the willingness to stand up for your team as well as your employer is critical when it comes to exactly what makes a good project manager,” Dennis says. “Given my programming background, I can tell when one of my on-or-offshore counterparts is dragging out part of a project because I know how long it takes to perform programming tasks first-hand. This gives me the ability to stand up for my employer and protect against blown deadlines and cost overruns when necessary. It also gives me the ability to stand up for my team when we’re asked to do things that simply aren’t realistic or practical. I find that’s sometimes necessary when a deliverable is complete and someone who doesn’t thoroughly understand the technology wants stuff added to the deliverable after the fact. That’s called ’scope creep’ and, in my experience, it’s often to blame for budget overages.”
Qualities of a Great Project Manager
In addition to being familiar with multiple cultures and demonstrating a willingness to voice concerns on behalf of both their teams and their employers, great project managers have other invaluable qualities that tend to make them stand apart from their peers. “Seeing the big picture and having good communication skills help me as a project manager,” says Christopher Plizga, Vice President of Operations for Hospitality Group Management. “I’ve worked in the hospitality industry my entire adult life and over the past 25 years, I’ve overseen the construction and renovation of several multi-million properties in various locations. Having a clear vision of the project at-hand and the ability to communicate that vision have helped me to keep projects on track.”
“For instance, I oversaw the construction of a new hotel in Charlotte, NC when I first moved to the state more than two decades ago,” Plizga explains. “I was working with a foreman who was experienced and friendly, but who simply didn’t understand that work delays at the start of the build were going to have consequences that extended beyond increased costs and a postponed grand opening. So, I arranged a meeting and explained that construction delays at any point during construction were also going to affect revenue. For every day that the project overran its deadline, my employer was going to lose revenue in addition to incurring greater costs. Once he saw the math, he bought into the bigger picture and we were able to keep construction delays to a minimum afterward.”
“I firmly believe that having a vision that your team supports and the ability to communicate meaningfully with your team members, regardless of whether they work directly for you or are outside vendors, are the two most important qualities of a project manager,” states Plizga. “Other characteristics are important as well, but experience has taught me that those two are the most valuable for a successful PM.”
Here are 10 additional traits that effective project managers normally possess:
- Ethics: Ethics are a big part of what makes a good project manager because acting on them consistently builds trust between a project manager and his or her team members. Great project managers work and act in an honorable, honest manner at all times while adhering to the ethical standards that govern their behavior. By doing so, ethical project managers inspire others to adopt the same standards, which enriches the relationship between them and their teams because they share the same level of integrity.
- Excitement: One of the most visible qualities of a project manager is excitement. Great project managers are excited about their role in a project as well as the project itself, and they let their excitement show on their faces and in their words and actions. Their enthusiasm is often infectious and helps team members become and remain excited about the project they’re working on, even when problems arise.
- Ability to Delegate: The ability to delegate is one of the chief characteristics that separates great project managers from average ones. Delegating responsibilities demonstrates that a project manager trusts his or her team members to get things done on their own. The ability to delegate doesn’t involve simply handing out assignments. It also involves a project manager refraining from micro-managing team members as they labor to complete their work.
- Competence: A project manager doesn’t need to be an expert in every technicality involved with a project, but they do need to be a competent leader to be a great project manager. Competent leaders are able to inspire, manage, motivate and rally teams to achieve common goals on time and within budget. They are able to drive their teams to deliver projects that meet or exceed end users’ expectations by being an example and adapting their leadership style so it’s appropriate given the differences that exist among team members. They are also able to keep sponsors and stakeholders enthusiastic about the project, even when a budget or timeline needs to be revised.
- Composure: Successful project managers have the qualities necessary to retain their composure in the face of adversity. They don’t panic when something goes wrong or stress themselves or their teams out over the little things. Instead, a hallmark of an effective project manager is seeing an obstacle as an opportunity for improvement.
- Problem-Solving Skills: The ability of project managers to retain their composure is also one of the reasons why successful managers have sound problem-solving skills. With an eye on the “big picture,” effective project managers separate emotion from fact and work to resolve problems practically and quickly. They solicit feedback from their teams, stakeholders and sponsors and listen to their ideas about how a problem can be resolved. When working to overcome an obstacle, successful project managers don’t get distracted with unnecessary information. They are able to separate the data they need to resolve a problem from extraneous information that doesn’t directly relate to the challenge immediately before them.
- Team-Building Skills: Team-building skills are a big part of what makes a good project manager. Excellent project managers unify their teams behind a common goal and resolve conflicts fairly. Project managers recognize the dynamics present within their team and use them to create a sense of shared purpose despite the cultural and personal differences that exist between coworkers.
- Relatability: Successful project managers are relatable and approachable. They appreciate input provided by their team and employ the skills of team members to generate ideas and resolve problems. They also empathize with their teams and understand their teammates have external influences that may sometimes impact their work performance. They recognize that, while the project they are working on is a priority, workers have obligations outside of the office that are equally important. Being empathetic reinforces the trust that exists between effective project managers and their teams.
- Organization: Good project managers are organized and have superior time-management skills. By being organized, project managers are able to concentrate on executing the shared vision for the project. Organized project managers are also able to prioritize assignments and responsibilities, make appropriate decisions quickly and recognize when a change of course is necessary.
- Driven by Results: Effective project managers are results-driven and ready to take action to produce the results sponsors, stakeholders and end users expect. They remain focused on the end result and the intermediate steps necessary to achieve that result. Successful project managers don’t put things off or ignore the aspects of a project they don’t enjoy. They anticipate problems and take immediate steps to prevent and resolve them.
According to the Project Management Institute, an increasing number of companies are directing their resources into projects instead of their day-to-day routines. With the cost of failed projects so high worldwide, the demand for great project managers continues to grow. For a person to be successful as a project manager, he or she must develop as many of the traits that are already associated with great project managers as possible, which can be achieved through hands-on experience, mentoring and classes dedicated to the subject of how to become an effective project manager.