5 “Essential” Hard Skills for Effective Project Management

Project management organizations understand that hard skills are essential fundamentals for successfully landing projects. PMs know that effectively managing any project will require they have learned these skills.

These are the hard Skills for Project Managers:

  1. Project Charter Preparation
  2. Work Breakdown
  3. Scheduling
  4. Budgeting
  5. Risk Management

1. Project Charter Preparation

Project charters are the blueprint for effective project management. They should be issued by management and they should provide a summary of the business opportunity the project is intending to capitalize on. However often management does not produce the charter and it is frequently up to the project manager to develop it.

A good project charter will define the purpose, objectives and the scope of the project. Project charters also include key details such as budgetary guidance, stakeholder lists and a timeline. They become a critical reference point throughout the project’s life cycle. PMs who become proficient in creating project charters will be better equipped for communicating with their project sponsors and for gaining stakeholder buy-in. Our five tips for developing this skill are:

  • Use the project charter’s development as an opportunity to engage your sponsor and stakeholders. Collaborating early will establish beneficial relationships that will help later on.
  • Be clear and concise – think one or two pages. A brief project charter will not only be better received by busy stakeholders, it will also help you communicate succinctly.
  • Include measurable, time-bound objectives that are realistic, easy to understand and simple to track.
  • Set the project’s preliminary timeline with a simple visual that includes key milestones and when they will be delivered. A good visual will be updated and re-used in status reports throughout the project's life.
  • Reuse project charter statements when communicating. This will help realign audiences with the important business objectives of the project.

2. Work Breakdown

Developing a work breakdown structure or WBS is a critical planning item in managing a project. Work breakdown structure’s help PM’s organize the scope of their projects and enable them to do a variety of project management tasks such as assigning resources and defining deliverables. Since a WBS forms the foundation for all cost and time estimations it is a crucial skill for any project managers to have in their tool box.

Project managers need to become skilled in breaking down all project deliverables into smaller work packages, a process called decomposition. Here are some best practices in creating a WBS:

  • Include 100% of the items required for successful project delivery in the development of your WBS – internal and external deliverable.
  • Lean on your team when creating a Work Breakdown Schedule. They will contribute valuable experience and perspectives to the process.
  • Leverage any existing models or templates that your group or company may have created in the past.
  • Using tools like mind mapping software for the decomposition process and will help you capture and structure the WBS.

3. Scheduling

Project managers know they need to produce a time based schedule of activities so they can set the order in which tasks will be completed. Over the course of the project their schedule will help them see each task, whether it has been completed, is partially done or still needs to be done. It will also allow project managers to see where there are dependencies so they can plan the most efficient path for delivering tasks.

Scheduling is a challenging part of project management and a hard skill PMs need to have. They will benefit from having completed a WBS document which will help set up the project tasks and estimate and sequence them on the schedule. Here are 5 tips to help PMs enhance their scheduling skills:

  • Add progress milestones as check points to the schedule and regularly check them.
  • Wherever possible put higher risk tasks closer to the beginning of your schedule, so you have more runway to manage delays.
  • Know the different types of duration counts that can be used for estimating task duration.
  • Baseline schedules after they have been created so you can compare the plan versus actual when you get into execution.
  • Anticipate that the project schedule will change as tasks or client needs fluctuate and have a process for handling changes.

4. Budgeting

Writing project budgets is an important hard skill for getting projects properly funded and for controlling them. A project manager’s ability to get approval for the necessary funding is dependent on the costs they forecast in their budget. An approved budget also forms a baseline against which actual costs can be measured against to determine if the project is on the right track.

Projects that go way over budget are often viewed as unsuccessful, even if they are delivered on time. Project Managers need to be skilled in forecasting and managing budgets. Here are a few strategies for developing project budgeting skills.

  • Consult with your project team and sponsor when estimating your costs. They have experience that may help you more accurately estimate.
  • After you have estimated costs, identify risks such as third party dependencies, depth of experience on your bench or unfamiliar technology, and manage this risk by adding padding to the budget.
  • Your budget should not just be the total costs of your project, it is the total cost + padding for risk mitigation.
  • Learn from similar budgets that your team or company may have created before, paying special attention to the areas that went beyond budget.
  • Protect your budget against any scope creep. Use your change management process and seek additional funding to cover any unplanned work that can ruin the budget.

5. Risk Management

Projects rarely go exactly as expected and stuff goes wrong along the way. Project managers who are skilled at managing unexpected obstacles plan for it. It is a hard skill that begins with trying to identify the vulnerable areas of the project and then assessing the probability and the impact to the project in worse case scenarios. Skilled PM’s should be able to determine which vulnerabilities require risk management strategies, and they include those strategies into the main project plan to mitigate the risk.

  • Understand how much risk is tolerable on the project. You will need to calibrate any risk management plans with this level of risk toleration.
  • Divide your risk areas into three categories, High Risk, Medium Risk and Low Risk. Create a mitigation plan for all High Risk vulnerabilities.
  • Execute recurring risk assessment exercises regularly through the life of the project as a way of monitoring for new risks that may have surfaced.
  • Identify positive risks and create plan in advance for capitalizing on these opportunities so they can be turned into favorable outcomes.
  • The costs for all risk management plans need to be built into the budget early.

You may also have noticed that many of the hard and soft skills we have listed here are interrelated. Project managers will need to employ many different skills, particularly as the complexity of their project increases. Those who have the right combination of expertise and experience will be valuable in any project focused enterprises and all PMOs. Any PM who effectively utilizes some of these hard and soft skills will greatly increase their chances of success. At the same time they will also be improving their own personal brand amongst colleagues, clients and management.

Becoming proficient at project management will mean that practitioners are constantly adding to their existing skills with new best practices and techniques. Doing so will not only help them become more successful at their project management career but it will also help them stand out as high performers in the broader organization.

Also a recent MIT-Sloan Report reveals that at the enterprise level, ecological considerations have led to greater success for business.

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5 “Must Have” Soft Skills for Project Management

Project focused organizations and teams value soft skills because they help with the successful delivery of almost any project, particularly projects that require cross organization collaboration and projects that are complex and risky.

Here are our Top 5 “Must Have Soft Skills for Project Managers:”

  1. Emotional Intelligence
  2. Ethics and Integrity
  3. People Management
  4. Adaptive Communication
  5. Listening

1. Emotional Intelligence

In the enterprise, this soft skill describes a Project Manager’s self-awareness, their social awareness and their relationship awareness. Broadly speaking this means the ability they have to recognize their own emotions, as well as the emotions of the others contributing to the project. It is on our “must have” list because it includes the skill of regulating emotions in the right way, at the right time so PMs can handle challenging situations calmly and objectively. Developing this soft skill will enable PMs to:

  • Find common ground and build trust more easily with the people and stakeholders involved with the project.
  • Read the emotions of team members and empathize better.
  • Anticipate team dynamics by seeing how team members are interacting verbally and non-verbally.
  • Be open and adaptable to internal and external changes by staying focused on the big picture.
  • Be aware of personal stress and team stress and mindful of how this impacts productivity.

2. Ethics and Integrity

Of course ethics sounds like a no-branier on any list. However in the project world being honest about intentions, consistently transparent, accountable, and reliable in delivering commitments are hugely important things. It is number 2 on our list because each PM is actually a leader, and integrity is a sought after leadership quality in the enterprise.

PMOs recognize their project managers are not only representing the project they are working on, but also representing the company to their clients, executives and partners. For PMs, developing muscle around ethics and integrity also strengthens their personal brand within the team, and importantly, with management and customers. Here are some focus areas to strengthen this soft skill:

  • Accountability for keeping and delivering commitments you made.
  • Keeping actions consistent with your principles.
  • Taking on tough issues directly and honestly, especially when things go wrong.
  • Establishing a proactive communication process that is fiercely transparent.
  • Consistently making decisions fairly, without favoritism or prejudice.
  • Taking ownership and responsibility of the end result without shifting blame.

3. People Management

The key to delivering any project successfully is the people on the project team. Beyond the project team, a project manager will also need to be engaged with outside contributors, stakeholders and other people related to the project. Managing all the people involved in a project will require PMs draw on some of the previously mentioned soft skills such as self-awareness, the ability to empathize well, good communication and the ability to form trust based relationships. Ultimately the PMs mission is to move projects forward successfully. This means managing people - managing up, managing down, managing laterally and managing beyond the organization.

It is a broadly studied subject with many experts who know a lot, however, in the PM world having competency around People Management is so critical that it makes it onto our Top 5 “must do’ list. To develop these skills, here are 12 disciplines Project Managers can by attention to:

  • Stand up for your team always.
  • Clearly communicate a project vision and it’s goals.
  • Inspire and motivate others to secure their commitment.
  • Keep people focused on the big goal.
  • Create an environment where people cross-collaborate easily.
  • Support by removing barriers others may have.
  • Be personally engaged with all people involved in the project.
  • Share information transparently and receive information openly.
  • Stay positive and refrain from any complaining.
  • Handle personality differences by focusing people on achieving the task.
  • Tailor your motivational techniques to each individuals needs.
  • Manage up openly and often to avoid surprises.

4. Adaptive Communication

Developing a consistent, clear and proactive communications style is a “must do.” The ability to communicate anything about the project - plans, ideas and reviews – to anyone related to the project - staff, clients, partners and executives - in a way where you are heard, understood and recognized is critical for the success of your project.

Recognize that not all audiences are the same and the ability to flex communication styles and content so to deliver the right messages to the right audience at the right time is a valuable and important soft skill for project managers. Failing to adapt communication styles may compromise a PMs ability to influence executives, cooperate with partners or orchestrate cross organization teaming.

For example executives don’t want to see PM level details in a project review, rather than a high level summary. And vice-versa, project staff can’t operate on high level summary rather than a detailed project report. Project managers who are aware of the needs of each audience will be mindful of how best to communicate to them. Being proficient in adapting communications requires project managers:

  • Are aware of what is most important to the colleagues, staff, clients, partners and execs they are communicating with.
  • Flex their communication styles on-the-fly to fit the needs of their target audiences.
  • Are competent with multiple communication vehicles and can match the most the efficient medium for each audience.
  • Anticipate which issues could be triggers for their audience and are prepared to handle tough discussions.
  • Listen deeply, without emotion and are open to what is being communicated back.

5. Listening

What? Yes, listening made our PM “must do” list. Focused listening is a powerful soft skill in project management and one that is actually more difficult than it sounds on the surface. Many people say they are great communicators, but few may say they are really good at deep focused listening. Busy project managers are not prepared to do this kind of listening every day. It requires a disciplined effort to listen with a strong intention to understand what is really being communicated.

Listening deeply is an interpersonal skill that, not only helps PMs build trust with others, but also can help them detect un-anticipated risk early. For PMs some practices that can be incorporated into their daily work rhythms include:

  • Going into discussions prepared to listen without distraction.
  • Apply patience by not interrupting others and pausing before responding.
  • Avoid making assumptions or jumping to conclusions.
  • Ask probing questions that enrich the discussion at the right moments.
  • Try to be aware of what purposely may not being communicated and why.

Unlike hard skills, soft skills are difficult to teach and therefore it is difficult for enterprises to provide effective training. For some PMs soft skills come naturally; others will need to learn them but they can be learned. Learning begins with awareness and a desire to improve. With awareness, PMs will see others around the company using soft skills and pay attention to those who have mastered one or several soft skills. But like anything it requires practice to improve, and those who apply a consistent focus on one or several of these soft skills will improve as Project Managers.

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7 Simple Steps to Get Underperformers Back On Track

Building a high performance team requires full participation and engagement by all members. As a successful project manager, it is critical to utilize the best from each and every one of your team members. Underperforming team members will hinder productivity and can put project deliverables at risk.

The project manager job is a management role that is responsible for successfully delivering a project as planned. Likewise, team members are also responsible for delivering the assigned work, at the expected standard. If a team member does not meet the performance standards, as manager of the project, you must address the risk that person brings to the project.

By utilizing the following communication and management strategies, you can evaluate the problem and try to help low-performing team members get back on track. Here are 7 simple questions that can be asked to evaluate a performance problem.

  1. The What - Does your team member know what they have to do? Have you clearly documented the roles and responsibilities for this individual? Are the objectives specific and measurable? Have you been clear in both verbal and written communication?
    Try asking: “What do you think the core mission for your job is?” or “What are your key deliverables for this role?
  2. The How - Does your team member know the performance level expected of them? Have you been deliberate in explaining and modeling the expected level of performance? Do you provide ongoing feedback, noting both the areas of excellence and those that need improvement?
    Try asking: “What do you feel your key strengths are?” or “Are there any areas you feel you need more training or guidance?
  3. Look Back - Has your team member performed that task correctly before? If the answer is yes, it means that questions 1 and 2 have affirmative answers, too. An affirmative answer to this question may show that a recent situation may be causing the performance issue.
    Try asking: “It appears that something has changed with your work. Can you tell me what you think is different?
  4. Outside Issues - Is there something happening in your team members' personal or professional life that may affect his/her performance?
    Try asking: “Is there something going on at home or outside of work that is consuming more attention than usual?
  5. Recent Changes - Have there been recent changes in your team members' job requirement? In this case, it may be necessary to provide some additional training, or perhaps the changes have negatively impacted their attitude.
    Try asking: “How are you feeling about the changes to your role?” and “What are the best parts and worst parts of the change?
  6. Right employee, wrong role - Is the under-performance simply a case of misalignment? Meaning is the employee an asset to your team but in the wrong role? Is there a different role on the team that might be a better fit? Can you change the scope of their role?
    Try asking: “What parts of your job are you enjoying?
  7. Lack of Skills - Does your team member have the right training and resources to enable them to perform at the expected level? Try and look at the situation from their vantage point.
    Try asking: “Do you have everything you need to complete your tasks?” or “What would you need to be able to do your best work?

Remember to follow-up with notes or documentation after any conversation with team members about low performance. Be specific in your follow-ups and focus on hard data, making sure to avoid any emotions, assumptions or opinions. You may also want to suggest a plan to improve the performance issues. Your plan should be measurable and time bound.

Use these strategies to address any performance risks quickly before they can impact the team or the overall success of the project.

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Seven strategies to make yourself heard

We all want to be heard. To be both heard and understood, when it comes to communicating in the workplace, it is critical to keep these strategies in mind.

  1. Know what you want to accomplish. What is the key message or theme you wish to communicate? Before you begin, you need to know what the desired outcome is. What is the exact reaction you want to get from your audience? Before speaking, try to visualize mentally how you want your audience to look when receiving your message and the way you want them to feel afterwards.
  2. Know your audience. It is important to understand what your audience also wants from your communication. Before communicating, try to better understand your audience. Who are they? What do they already know? Do they need a lot of details? What may they want to hear? Are they engaged and interested in what you have to say?
  3. Know yourself as a communicator. Everyone has a unique way of communicating his or her message. Try to identify what your personal style is. Focus on cultivating your authentic voice through your communication. These may be unique to you, such as your way of thinking, the vocabulary you use, your voice and tone, and the body language you convey when communicating. Pay attention to the speed at which you speak and the tone of your voice.
  4. Use the 3 communication C’s. Focus on communicating clearly, concisely and confidently, particularly in your verbal communications. A good rule of thumb is the “rule of three.” Do not introduce more than three items at a time or try to accomplish more than three things in meeting. It is good to clearly state: “I have three points of feedback. First…Second…and Third…” Use fewer words and choose the ones that convey specific support for your ideas. Be confident in your knowledge and opinions and your audience will stay engaged.
  5. Be heard through active listening. The proverb states that we have two ears and one mouth, and that we should listen twice as much as we speak. One of the best ways to be heard is to be a good listener. Often when others speak, we are just waiting for a break where we can jump in to share our opinions or experiences. Practicing active listening and pausing to collect your ideas before your share yours will refocus the audience’s attention on your message.
  6. Eliminate Negativity. Work to eliminate these absolutes in your communications - should, have to, always and never. Most often, these four words will come across as extreme, judgmental and bossy. This will create some audience resistance to what you are trying to communicate.
  7. Be prepared. Be prepared by doing your research and having visual aids to support your message. Go into all communication armed with the facts and data points needed to convey your message if challenged. Review your message in advance, to determine whether there is conflicting data, and try to anticipate where there could be a difference of opinion.

Keeping these seven tips in mind will help you command an audience’s attention. They will not only hear you, but will also be more deeply engaged in your message.

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8 Inexpensive ways to Reward Your Employees

As leaders of teams and companies, we are missing the mark in a critical area, employee recognition. According to U.S. Department of Labor and Statistics, individuals that voluntarily leave work cite lack of appreciation as one of the major reasons for leaving. In addition:

  • 69% of American workers say they would work harder if they felt their efforts were better recognized.
  • 78% said being recognized motivates them in their job.
  • When managers recognize their employees’ performance, they increase employee engagement by nearly 60%.

Effective employee recognition can drive performance, increase retention, and impact your bottom line. Luckily, it doesn’t take a lot of money or planning to create a recognition program. Check out these 8 simple, thoughtful, and low or no-cost ideas that leaders can use to give employees the recognition they deserve.

  1. A handwritten thank you note. Keep blank note cards in your desk and drop a quick note to your team with your sincere thanks. Be timely in delivering the note after the great work.
  2. A simple and sincere "Thank you!" or "Great job!" If you work in the same building as your employee, call them into your office and deliver the message in person. If you work in a remote environment, a simple phone call works well. Since many employees don’t always assume the best when they are called by their manager, they will be especially pleased to receive your recognition and appreciation for a job well done.
  3. An e-mail to your employee that copies your boss. E-mail is the most used method of communication at work so it can be a quick and informal way to send recognition and appreciation. If you choose to send a thank you via e-mail add your management and other stakeholders for wider visibility and recognition.
  4. Food or Beverage. Think of a fun way to celebrate your employees and keep them well fed. One idea is donuts when working on public holidays or lunch delivery when you are working on a deadline. Some management teams have cooked pancake breakfasts for their staff to appreciate good effort or a job well done. Be creative and have fun!
  5. Get to know each other. Add an employee highlight part to your team meetings, or create a wall of fame. Celebrate all accomplishments or milestones, not just work related achievements. For example if a team member is running a ½ marathon, learning a new language or doing some volunteer work share that with the entire team.
  6. Free Friday. Give your team a few hours off on a Friday to do whatever they want. If you have morale budget give them make it available and send them off into their weekend early.
  7. Coffee with the boss. For some this may seem like a punishment rather than a reward, but 1:1 time with a key leader in the business is a great reward for work well done.
  8. Create a monthly or quarterly award program. Create several award categories that align with the key goals and objectives of your team, or create a single superstar or MVP award. Create or buy something that can be displayed such as a certificate, an inexpensive trophy or a simple rock painted gold. Give the award a title such as the "You Rocked it” or "Made it Happen” award.

Don't delay appreciation. Recognizing and rewarding your employees for their contributions will help you create an engaged and productive team.

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