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Guiding Principles Through My PM Lens

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A few weeks ago our own VP of Operations Bruce McMahon wrote an epic post about the “7 Habits of Highly Effective Digital Project Managers.” I’m very familiar with what’s written there, since I started my Project Management career under the leadership and guidance of Bruce. And if I’ve learned one thing from him, it’s to constantly challenge yourself to “stop doing things wrong and start doing things right.”

As I’ve grown in my role, established my own style and applied my learnings, I’ve fastened myself to 9 core principles (take THAT, Bruce!) that have supported me along the way; tenets I live by to ensure that I am successfully managing projects, teams and clients and being the best PM and person that I can be every day. As far as I’m concerned, paired with Bruce’s 7 Habits, these are the keys to success.

Emily Scala (a.k.a Specialist Emily Scala, U.S. Army) Gets Tactical, Yo

Set Up Your Tools Ahead Of Time

Every PM has a go-to collection of tools, templates and spreadsheets galore. During the planning phase of a project, before things really kick into high gear, be proactive in setting up all the tools that you’ll need during the course of the project. I repeat: don’t wait. Once things get going, you could find yourself perpetually trying to catch up and never having all of the data and information you need when you’ve got questions to answer.

Establish a Communication Plan Up Front

Setup a communication plan, review it with the client, and gain acceptance (in writing). You want to ensure that your client is aligned with the methods, style and frequency from the get-go. But be flexible—as a project progresses, needs shift and communication strategies may need to be adjusted—just make sure you update that plan to reflect the changes.

Always Be 1 Step Ahead

Being effective at tracking and anticipating risks might be the thing that separates the mediocre PMs from the rock stars. The further you can get out in front of potential issues, resource forecasting, etc., the better your odds of a successful mitigation, and the smoother the rest of the project will go. There’s a lot of simple wisdom in the old adage: “be proactive, not reactive”.

Manage Scope Creep (No, REALLY Manage It)

The proposal or statement of work is a PM’s bible, the source of truth for the scope of the project. There will be work that is requested that may fall outside of the scope lines. That’s where continually setting expectations and clearly communicating what is in and out of scope comes into play. Document changes in your change control log, provide a change order document that outlines the requested work, level of effort, schedule impact and assumptions, and secure client agreement prior to starting the new work. Doing anything less is a mistake you’ll only make once.

Communicate Effectively

I’ve learned that your communication style should change depending on who you’re addressing. Tailor your message to your audience, be clear, concise and friendly. The hierarchy of information also plays an important role, since you want to don’t want important items like next steps, decisions, approvals, etc., to get obscured. Bubble those things up to the top of the email, bold the text, introduce bulleted items so the eye can easily scan the content. At the end of the day, success=the receiver of your email understands your message and reacts as desired.

Motivate Your Team

During the course of a project, you may hit some hard times and experience challenges that may get people down. Be a motivator for your team, and keep the positivity flowing through both the challenging and easy times. Make sure you share kind words from the client, recognize and celebrate successes, and keep your own spirits up for your team’s sake. After a successful delivery or a late night to meet a delivery, take them out for a coffee or ice cream. It’s the small acts of gratitude and kindness that will stay with them and keep them going.

Ensure Your Team is Clear on Activities

It’s a PM’s job to ensure that the project team is aware of upcoming tasks, key deliverables, important meetings and how many hours they have assigned to them to complete the work for that week. Your style and delivery method can be whatever you feel comfortable with but make sure that this communication is sent out on (or prior to) Monday morning so your team can hit the ground running. This also gently nudges your team members to raise any issues or concerns sooner than later.

Be Mindful & Kind

The golden rule applies; treat people how you would want to be treated. Everyone is different, and ability/understanding varies depending on experience. Take the time to figure out each team member’s individual needs, strengths, and areas where they might need more help— and always approach people and situations with these things in mind. If you do this, people will respect you, enjoy working with you and at times even go above the call of duty to get things done for you. “Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.”—Dalai Lama.

 Conduct a Project Retrospective

This is a key component in a project’s lifecycle and is often overlooked due to scheduling conflicts, workload and other countless obstacles. This meeting should occur no more 3 weeks after a project is completed so the experience is still fresh in the team’s mind. It should be an open forum that fosters sharing, openness and truthful input. Make sure you capture the successes, challenges, lessons learned and future opportunities in a format so that the knowledge can be widely shared and incorporated the next time around. This is part of the continuous improvement process.


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