Become a More Effective Project Manager

efficient project manager

Today's business environment is hyper-focused on efficiency, and the job of a project manager is quite different – and a lot harder – than it was just a decade ago. According to the research advisory organization The Standish Group, only 39% of all projects meet their goals, and the PM plays a crucial role in their success (or failure).

But what makes these project managers effective and what skills should you nurture to ensure your PM practice is successful? Brushing up on the following 6 soft skills will help a PM become more efficient.


Every business magazine and leadership coach talk about the importance of communication. Even though as much as 90% of a project manager's time may be spent communicating, this mission critical skill is often overlooked. Almost every area of a project will require good communication skills, from pitching ideas to stakeholders or explaining processes to senior managers, to keeping your team on track, assigning tasks or boosting morale.

PM communication can be improved, by making sure messages are conveyed clearly, concisely and completely, in a form or format that is familiar and easy for audiences to understand. Perhaps surprisingly, good communication also requires excellent listening skills, where PMs are able to absorb what others are trying to communicate back to them.

The most effective PMs adapt their communication style to fit their audiences. For example, while peers and team members may understand Project Management terminology, clients and executives will find it difficult to follow our industry jargon and our methodology. One technique to overcome this is to provide simple visuals such as graphs, charts and timelines that will communicate high-level information to non-technical audiences in an appealing, easy-to-understand manner.

efficient project management plan

Networking and Politics

Great project managers cultivate and rely on informal networks, both inside and outside the organization, to identify problems or solve critical issues. They understand the political dynamics of an organization and are aware that not everyone across the org may want the project to succeed. Project Management requires savviness in relationships and the ability to anticipate such dynamics. A project’s success or failure can sometimes be attributed as much to managing politics as to managing the actual project implementation. Project Managers need to develop their ability to read and anticipate the intentions and motivations of all parties involved or influencing their project.


The requirements for managing a project end-to-end are extremely broad. This means PMs will depend on excellent organizational skills in order to manage these broad responsibilities effectively. An effective project manager should have clear visibility on all the required pieces and processes at all times, as well as an understanding of how each piece or process contributes to the success of the project. Setting objectives and deadlines, creating milestones, putting together viable schedules, making timelines and tracking progress are pivotal to the successful delivery of a project.

Risk Management

One significant lapse that can threaten successfully achieving a project’s objectives – or even rendering it impossible to deliver – is the failure to foresee risks and the failure to develop appropriate risk mitigation strategies. An experienced PM should exercise a risk anticipation process that identifies potential issues which could arise over the course of the project, assesses the adverse effects they may have on the project, and develops mitigation solutions in advance. Most importantly, effective PMs take these risks and mitigation strategies into consideration before creating plans, project schedules, resource requirements and budget projections.

Expertise in the Subject Matter of the Project

It has been said that a good PM can work in any field without specific experience in that particular industry. While this may be conceptually true, in reality, having some degree of PM knowledge in a vertical or sector is a key success enabler. Having vertical project experience immediately gives a PM authority, but, more importantly, they will add value to the project based on their insight and experiences. This doesn't mean, for example, that PMs working on a software development project must learn how to code software, but that they do need to understand industry methodologies, how development teams work, and what the critical pieces are for successful software development.


A mandatory skill in becoming an effective PM is knowing how to delegate tasks to the right individuals. This requires a deep understanding of each project team member’s capabilities and limitations. Good delegation skills will free-up a PM’s time and enable them to focus on other important areas of the project that require attention. Effective delegation also demonstrates to the project team members that the PM is confident in their skills and accountability. It empowers team members, who may now feel trusted, responsible and not micro-managed.

Project management is a profession that implies constant learning, practice and commitment. Nurturing the skills presented above by incorporating them into a daily practice and supplementing them with other techniques will help aspiring project managers become more effective.

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How to Communicate Project Status to Clients

Here’s something we don’t often think about when working with an external client. Our client probably has no idea of project-management methodology and they most likely don’t know Prince2 or PMBOK or any of the ambiguous vernacular we project managers use. Things like agile, burn down, critical path, earned value, epics, float, scrum, sprints, variance, and work breakdown may be intimidating terminology to non-practitioners. Yet, this is often the language we use when we communicate with them.

Occasionally, our client may be 100% assigned to working-on and managing our project. In cases like this, they may be comfortable with the project management process, however, it is more likely that this person has been assigned to the project because the project is somehow within the broader scope of their responsibilities. Additionally, overseeing the project may only be 5% of that person's overall duties. So, although the project may be strategic to him or her, it is probably not their primary daily function. That is why we shouldn’t expect them to be adept at understanding project management methodology or the terminology of our practice.

Clients like this want us to remember that they are not experts in project management, but that they are professionals with full time jobs in their particular field of business - manufacturing, finance, healthcare, transportation, etc. They hired us to be the expert in project management. They want us to communicate and report to them in a way that they can understand; and in a way that is not intimidating and filled with technical project jargon. Our client will have to answer to somebody higher-up in their organization, and that person will also need to be briefed on where your project stands. Clients want us to remember that they have to roll our project reviews and status reports up to their executives in a way their executives can digest them.

In a previous post we wrote about how Project Managers should communicate with their own managers and executives when providing status reports. Many of the same principles apply when communicating with external clients. Here are the top 3 must-dos when communicating with clients:

1. A picture is worth 1K words

Most often our clients are busy people who do not have the time to read text heavy, detailed communications. Graphs, charts and other project visuals can give the client a lot of information. They are also easy for clients to share or distribute within their organization. Including visuals in your communications such as a schedule or small scoreboard will help them understand your report at a glance. Alternatively, if visuals are not possible, presenting your key data on a slide that consists of bullet points and percents will make it more viewable and shareable.

One of the best visual ways to present project status to clients is to use a Gantt chart that also contains percent complete for each task, just like the one below.

2. Less detail is better

We are quite competent at producing richly detailed reports and communications. We are, after all, in a detail management profession, so communicating everything from budget and schedules to sprints and resources, is natural to us. Also, delivering this much detail may seem like we are demonstrating control and accountability. A smarter approach is to just provide a summary of key data that gives the status or health of the project at that particular moment. Of course, you will have the rich detail in case your client wants to drill down, however, it is better to start with a high-level summary and then bring in the detail when asked.

3. Watch your language

When communicating with clients, do so as if you were talking to a non-technical person in your organization, perhaps a marketing person or an admin. When preparing reports or client communications, you should assume that it will go beyond your immediate client, to a wider audience, or that your client will need to digest your report and roll-it up to their management. For these reasons, it makes sense to clean out any heavy terminology that we use in our daily work, or that our project management tools and applications spit out. Instead, communicate in a clear, neutral way that is easy for non-project audiences to understand.

Much of this comes down to being respectful of our client’s time and priorities. They are busy people, working on other important things. They do not have the time to try and digest long communications, nor may they have the capacity or desire to understand the project management world and the cryptic language we speak. Adapting our communications styles to fit their needs will make us more valuable professionals and it will increase the visibility of our work at the customer.

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Project reporting: be brief, be brilliant and be gone.

Less is More

I was once given this advice when preparing executive business reviews at a large corporation, “be brief, be brilliant and be gone.” I took me several years and my first management role, before I truly understood the wisdom of that advice. In enterprises, reporting flows uphill from the trenches all the way to the exec corridors. For this flow to happened, at each point along the way, reports need to be distilled, consumed and the regurgitated up to the next level.

When it comes to reporting your project to management and execs, many project managers fail to understand this perspective as they prepare project status reviews. The biggest mistake we make is to create reports with too much detail. Since our day-today work is detail-oriented we tend to think that our managers want to see this same level of detail too, and there lies the most common mistake in project reporting.

Our managers are under pressure to keep their executives informed about all the projects under their watch. To do this they depend on timely project status reports from around the organization, and they need to quickly consume them so they can keep their bosses informed and current. Your manager may only have allotted between 1 – 2 minutes to review your report and may become frustrated if it does not give them a sense for the overall health and progress of the project in that short amount of time.

Key Data Only

Your status report need to be succinct and concise so it can be consumed without much effort. It should be prepared in three levels. The first and most important level of reporting should immediately provide your manager a sense for the healthiness of the project. They should be able to assess this quickly based on a few key data points. This data should include:

  • Your rating of the project’s status:
              - Red: Project forecasted to be delayed.
              - Yellow: Project has potential problems which may cause delay.
              - Green: Project on schedule.

  • Actual % complete of the project at the time of your report vs. the planned % complete
  • How many days, weeks or months the project is ahead or behind the plan
  • List of top 3 critical issues the project faces

The second level of reporting should provide your managers more progress data on the plan, if they want to drill-down a little further. The best way to do this is to provide a high-level project schedule where you can break-out the progress of the key tasks. This will include:

  • % complete for each of the key tasks
  • Actual start date and finish date vs. the planned start date and finish date for each task
  • Flagging the critical milestones

The final level of reporting should provide your manager additional data on the key issues you have reported. They should be listed in order of priority with the most severe issues listed first. This part of your report should still be presented as data points or very short sentences, and not paragraphs, so it is simple for your manager to consume quickly. It should include:

  • Owner of each issue
  • Ageing report showing how long it has been open
  • Estimated time of resolution
  • Action report

Best Practices

There are several best practices with regard to status reporting. The first is to minimize your content by reducing it down to data points wherever possible. Doing this can be challenging particularly as you may assume management wants to see a narrative covering some of the details and nuances of the project. Avoiding long sentences or paragraphs in your report will help scale it down to the raw data, which will make it easier for management to consume. Train yourself to think about presenting just the most important data points, like a scoreboard, rather than writing a story.

Using charts, tables and visuals is a good way of distilling status reports down into something that is easily consumed by management. Presenting reports in a visual way makes it easier for managers to digest your project information quickly. It also provides them something they can share with their bosses or roll-up into their business reviews. Creating a single PowerPoint slide which can be shared or presented or included in other slide presentations is a good technique for communicating with managers in the enterprise.

Being consistent and rhythmic in your reporting is critical. Providing frequent status reports will instill management’s confidence in you and in your ability to control the project. This confidence will serve you well if/when you have to downgrade a project’s healthiness rating or raise key blocking issues. Proactively communicating status reports creates channels for dialogue and gives you the opportunity to showcase your work. Most importantly you are communicating with predictability and discipline so management is not chasing you for progress report.


If you mix brevity, with key status data and communicate it in a consistent, predictable manner, your management will be pleased with your reporting. This does not mean they won’t engage or seek further details, but it does mean there will be no confusion around the status of your project. Clarity like this calms management because it demonstrates that you are in control, which may mean less intervention and fewer panicked managers.

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Negotiate for Realistic Project Goals

Clients, executives and stakeholders may pressure you you to commit to an unrealistic project schedule or demanding project goals that you know are not achievable. This could be because they are looking to maximize the productivity of the project, or more likely because they are also responsible for a deadline and your project is a part of that. In these situations, there will be pressure to commit to a schedule or target that you know is highly improbable or even impossible to deliver. Under these circumstances, it is critical to negotiate for realistic goals rather than making a commitment you cannot keep. Here are some ideas to help you be prepared for those negotiations

Battling for realistic goals requires that you know what is achievable. If your team has prepared a schedule, study it carefully, analyze the assumptions and double check all the estimates. Supplement your analysis with any historical data from similar projects that have been completed in the past. Having confidence in your estimates will empower you to stand firm when clients, executives or stakeholders push for a commitment that is not possible. Being able to reference historical data that supports your position will also help you be credible and more persuasive as you negotiate.

Don’t say no, but rather reply with choices for achieving the outcome they want. This is an effective negotiation technique because it places the responsibility back to them which will drive a more reasonable conversation. To do this, mentally prepare a few trade-off scenarios in advance of potential negotiations with stakeholders. For example, if stakeholders pressure you to deliver your 1-year project in six months, suggest that is may be possible to achieve that but only if you get more people and more budget to work on the project. Then actually ask them if you can get X more people and Y amount in additional budget at a specific date?

You may also want to suggest that the project’s quality or the project’s scope will need to be reconsidered in order to meet their new demand. For example, if being pushed to complete an effort with less budget or less staff, probe to see if they are prepared to accept a lower-quality project or whether they would be satisfied with fewer features. For example, ask what functionality they are willing to sacrifice in order to cut the budget or ask whether they would be willing to accept a higher rate of failure than it was originally scoped in order to cut the headcount. Presenting them with choices like these and driving them to make trade-off decisions will force a more reasonable discussion.

If you anticipate being pressured to deliver something that is not realistic, be prepared to negotiate with good intent, but do not make a commitment you know you will not be able to achieve. Executives or stakeholders may be pushing you to change some of the dimensions of the project but, if you are properly prepared, you can negotiate with them to find reasonable and mutual ground. To do this, it is important that your estimates are solid and that you can provide them choices for achieving their demands but also the trade-offs those choices will require.

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Software Development Methodologies Timeline

The Software Development Methodologies Timeline illustrates the evolution of software development from the 1960s. It marks the years when the most significant methods emerged into the field.

The timeline categorizes each software methodology into a primary class that includes Agile, Structured Programming, Object Oriented, Waterfall, Engineering and Team Paradigms.

To quickly create similar PowerPoint timelines for personal, academic or business communications, we recommend using the free Office Timeline add-in which can also be used to edit and update the Software Development Methodologies timeline PowerPoint slide.

Quickly turn project data into professional timelines

Build stunning, uncomplicated timelines and Gantt charts that are easy to make and simple to communicate. Get the advanced features of Office Timeline Plus free for 14 days.