Project Manager Skills For Tough Times

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In light of the downturn in the information technology industry, all IT workers are having to do more work with less. That includes lower budgets, reduced staff and less time to handle an increasing work load.

To add fuel to the fire, after going on a spending spree to gobble up Web-enabling software, companies are now attempting to gain an actual return on investment (ROI) with these new e-business applications. All this translates into critical project management efforts that must find ways to do more with less.

What project management skills increase productivity and project success rates in light of these "do more with less" circumstances? Whether you are an IT executive looking to increase productivity or a project manager (PM) looking to expand your skills and enhance your resume, there are various approaches and resources available that are worthy of research and analysis.

Should project managers spend time honing their technical skills and, at the same time, try to remain as hands-on as possible? What about becoming skilled in various project delivery methodologies and best practice standards? Are soft skills, such as team leadership, more or less important during difficult times?

One of the first knee-jerk reactions of IT executives who find themselves with smaller operating budgets is to require project managers to not only plan and execute projects, but to actively fill technical roles. Many project managers were promoted because they were the cream of the technical crop, so why not steer them toward what they do best? This is a move that could save your organization some budget dollars in the short-term, but also could backfire in the long term.

Delegate, Mentor, Lead

By promoting a team member to PM, the door is now open for others to shine and that raw talent should continue to be groomed. The PM should focus on delegation, mentoring and leadership to bring out the best in their development team. This will reduce the risk of project failure as the PM focuses on time management, issue resolution and resource allocation.

A better use of time for PMs is to improve their ability to plan and track tasks, deliverables and resources, as well as manage client expectations to avoid scope creep. There are tools available that can help with the fine art of project management, such as Microsoft Project or even Web-based ASP project tools such as those offered by Project.net. I refer to it as an art because, although project tools will allow for better organization of management tasks, it will also be important to draw on past experience and gut instincts when creating estimates and resource requirements.

However, it is still important to learn the tools to manage and track all the operations involved in projects. Management should encourage PMs to take internal or external classes that teach the intricacies of the tools of choice.

As with most professions, project management has a globally recognized standard for measuring capabilities via a certification. The Project Management Institute provides a Project Management Professional (PMP) certification that is becoming more prevalent as a requirement for project managers, especially in technology organizations. There are stringent qualification standards, such as years of project experience, number of projects managed and a minimum number of project management education hours.

If these requirements are met, then the PMP candidate must pass an examination, agree to a code of conduct and must meet continuing certification requirements. This certification is best pursued by more seasoned managers, but could also be an achievement goal set for employees just beginning their PM careers.

Process improvement is another critical skill for project managers. For many large organizations, such as Fortune 1000 companies and government agencies, the Software Engineering Institute's (SEI) Capability Maturity Model for Software (SW- CMM) has become an essential element in building project management best practices.

The five levels that define this maturity process are Initial, Repeatable, Defined, Managed and Optimized. The Repeatable Level has the most focus on project management activities, defining such important tasks as requirements management, software project planning and configuration management. A certified member of the SEI Appraiser Program can verify a software organization's maturity level.

Executives in IT management should consider taking an introduction to CMM- SW course offered by the SEI to decide if they want their managers to pursue this goal. To learn more, check the SEI Web site.

In defining best practices related to process improvement, an IT organization should consider standardizing on a project life-cycle methodology. To ensure the success of the ongoing implementation of a selected methodology, project managers must become experts in each phase and should be able to evangelize the importance of the methodology throughout the IT organization and the business user community.

People Skills Paramount

Some of the options include purchasing a methodology like Rational Unified Process (RUP) or using a published one like the Microsoft Solutions Framework (MSF). These options are better than creating a proprietary methodology because project managers will be able to draw on the experiences of an established community. Not to mention it will add another marketable skill set to the PM's resume, such as the MSF Practitioner certification.

Finally, the question of project management soft skills is vitally important regardless of economic circumstances. PMs should put a primary focus on people skills including leadership, delegation, conflict resolution and negotiation. IT executive management and Human Resources should develop a framework for feedback on the organization's managers so they can learn from their peers and team members.

In addition, many universities and consulting firms offer programs that teach these soft skills. All of the prior skills previously mentioned will be worthless to the organization unless teams are inspired and led by respected, accountable, approachable and knowledgeable project managers.

Because times are tough in the IT industry and there is a strong focus on improving productivity and efficiency, now could be the perfect time to champion an effort to enhance project management skills and practices.

When the good times start rolling again, it will be easier to ignore efforts to recognize the importance of project management issues as IT organizations are once again overwhelmed with the latest technology fads. Take advantage of these difficult times to beef up your organization's project management standards because solid project management will never be considered a fad and will have a long lasting positive impact on your IT organization.

Eric Spiegel is president of eXpert Technology Solutions, a technology consulting firm based in Baltimore, Md.

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