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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Productivity

3 Rules That Will Make Anyone a Better Project Manager

Whether you’re a project manager in name or in practice, the position can often feel like an exercise in wrangling cats, corralling wild horses, or whatever other herding metaphor feels like the best fit for your particular situation. As a project manager, it’s your responsibility not necessarily to do, but to make sure that others do.

I know from experience that getting others to do something is usually harder than throwing your hands up and doing it yourself. It’s hard to strike the proper balance between gentle reminders and nagging. Sometimes the lines blur between lending support and fully taking over. But I also know that trying to do 10 other people’s jobs tends to result in exhaustion, frustration, and subpar results.

Here are three lessons I took from my years in project management that can help even the most seasoned project manager save time, get things done, and—perhaps most important—stay sane.

1. Delegation Means More Than Just “You Do It”

Delegation is key whether you’re a project manager or a CEO. You don’t win any awards for trying to do everything yourself, even if you think you’re best equipped to do it. But delegation is also an art, and it involves more than simply pointing a finger and barking orders.

The first key to successful delegation is choosing the right person for the task, and this means getting to know the teams you’ll be working with so you can recognize members’ individual strengths. One task may require making dozens of phone calls, and here it may be best to choose the person with the friendliest disposition. Another might call for heavy statistical analysis, and you’ll need a keen sense of who has the most quantitatively oriented brain.

Once you’ve found the best person for each task, though, don’t set everyone running without the proper initiation. Make sure they fully understand what you’re asking of them. Have them repeat it back to you if necessary—it might just prevent a lot of unnecessary work on everyone’s part and improve your chances of getting what you asked for. And give them the tools they need to get the job done right. If they need access to someone who won’t respond to their emails, a software upgrade, or training on a particular skill, make yourself available as a resource so you can help them help you.

2. Ditch the Tools That Don’t Help You

Project management methodology offers an arsenal of tracking tools to make sure you always know where you are and where you’re heading. There are project plans, charters, and scope documents. Risk logs, stakeholder charts, and contact sheets. Agenda templates, budget trackers—the list goes on and on. If you don’t pay close attention, you could find yourself up to your elbows in tracking documents.

The simple solution is to pick and choose the tools you find most useful and ditch the ones you don’t. This might sound obvious, but it can be easy to feel like you have to keep using a tool just because it’s there. You might start off with 10 different documents and find, three weeks in, that you’ve let four of them languish, and not out of laziness. Allow yourself to reevaluate as you go; don’t feel beholden to a spreadsheet just because it exists.

Also, be sure to keep close control of all your tools, because a tool gone rogue can cause you more pain than peace of mind. Assign a clear owner for each one, and be sure you can track who made which modifications, and when.

Above all else, don’t let the tracking become the project itself!

3. Don’t Skimp on the Final Phase

You’ve launched the new technology, initiated the new program, or established a process change that will save time and money. You’re done!

Well, not so fast. It’s tempting to complete the last step in your project plan, wipe your hands, and move onto the next project. But ignoring critical project closeout steps can lead to the undoing of the changes you’ve put into place. Think of it like knitting a sweater. If you fail to tie that final knot, the whole thing can unravel, leaving you with a mess of tangled yarn after months of dedicated work.

Project closeout means taking the steps to ensure that your changes will stick. These steps vary depending on what changes you’ve put in place. Say you’ve implemented a new application to automate customer requests, but the staff who needs to use it doesn’t fully understand its bells and whistles. This could be a recipe for equal frustration among employees and customers alike. In this case, providing adequate training and ensuring employee comfort with the new changes is key to your project’s success.

Or say you’ve hired consultants to develop a new system for processing employee benefit changes, and the last day of their contract comes and goes without a proper knowledge transfer. Within days, you find yourself unsure of where they’ve saved certain documents and unprepared to run with the work they’ve done. In this case, building a week into your timeline to fully download the consultants’ knowledge of the project could have saved you the headaches and elevated heart rates.

As a project manager, your success hangs in the balance: delegating but offering support, tracking things but not too much, getting on to the next thing but not too hastily. The right balance will always depend on the goal at hand and the personalities of the people involved.

But if you take the time to readjust your approach for maximum success, you’ll get those wild horses in their stables—and maybe even on time and under budget, too.

Love project management? Check out open jobs in the field!

Photo of project tools courtesy of Shutterstock.