Helpful Advice for New Project Managers

[article]
Summary:
In the same way that math is a learned skill, project management is a learned skill. You can get better with practice, instruction, and mentoring. Avoid being surprised by the new job requirements, acknowledge it is a new role for you, and seek a mentor to help you navigate.

One of the most challenging moves in any project manager’s career is the first big step from tech lead (or lead analyst or subject matter expert) to rookie project manager (PM). I’ll refer to the “before” role as tech lead in the text below, but basically I’m talking about transitioning from being primarily a DOER (tech lead) to the role of someone who organizes, prioritizes, and facilitates work for DOERs (project manager) while trying to keep an eye on the bigger picture.

It doesn’t seem like it should be such a big step; many of the skills required are similar and it seems like a natural career progression. But the perception that it is a baby step rather than a leap is an illusion that can result in needlessly skinned knees.

There are four big reasons (and several smaller ones) behind the challenge:

1. Vision
The tech leader’s role is to identify ambiguity in the project boundary (“Is feature X in or out?”) and the PM’s role is to resolve the question with discussions, decisions, and assumptions (“For now, we will assume feature X is out of scope.”) that are confirmed by project sponsorship. The PM is responsible for creating, defining, negotiating, and maintaining a common shared vision among project sponsors and the project team. The additional responsibility and the communication and diplomacy required to manage across the different parts of the organization can be a painful surprise, particularly if the new PM doesn’t realize the work is required from the outset.

2. Priorities
Tech leaders are responsible for validating and implementing project priorities within their domain. A project manager typically works with sponsors and tech leads to clarify priorities for the project (a collection of domains) and communicating them to the tech leads. The new PM may have little or no experience establishing priorities and actively working to balance the needs of multiple stakeholders within an organization. Communicating priorities effectively is a challenge.

3. Pushback
A good tech lead tries to do the best he can with the resources available; while a good PM does so as well, a PM has a different responsibility to senior management: to push back firmly but respectfully on irrational demands. A common explanation for delay you might hear from a tech lead is “I can’t get time to work with person X...” in which X is a key stakeholder. A project manager must push back hard on anyone whose availability jeopardizes the project’s ability to achieve its schedule, scope, and resource goals, assuring any consequential delays are escalated to project sponsors for consideration. If sponsors can’t or won’t remedy the problem, the project manager assures they are aware of and accept the implications.

4. Doing versus Managing (and time management)  
When things aren’t going as expected, it’s common that the tech leader’s first response is to work harder. What may be more challenging for the new project manager is developing the discipline to balance doing and management. When a project slips behind, should he or she do more (and manage less) to catch up? If not carefully approached, this dilemma is an invitation to a death spiral; the PM works more and manages less, leading to more ambiguity and fuzzier priorities that create more work (and rework) and more need for management and an increased temptation to do even more (and manage even less).

About the author

Payson Hall's picture Payson Hall

Payson Hall is a consulting project manager for Catalysis Group, Inc. in Sacramento, California. Payson consults on project management issues and teaches project management. Email Payson at payson@catalysisgroup.com. Follow him on twitter at @paysonhall.

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