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10 Easy Ways to Improve Your Project Manager Skills

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If you need a refresher course on project management or just some help to keep you at the top of your game, here are some tips that should add an edge to your expertise. To compile the list and flesh it out with in-the-field wisdom, I spoke with Mike Taylor, president, Innovative-e, a SharePoint consulting and technology services company, and Jason Westland, CEO of Method123, a New Zealand-based company that specializes in project management and has staff in 10 countries, including the US.

In a nutshell, here’s what Taylor and Westland had to say:

No. 1: Defining the Project

Too often, project managers are handed a project and directed to make it happen — on time, on scope, and on budget. Just as often, the busy PM rolls up her/his sleeves and gets to work without making sure the project definition is well understood.

“I find it useful to pause long enough to dig deep to get the answer to: ‘Why is this being done and what value is being sought from the initiative?’” said Taylor. “You need to make sure the project definition is correct. Keep the answer handy; it will help during project execution.”

No. 2: Planning the Work

Taylor recommends you begin by reviewing the project estimates and the estimating techniques used by project team members. “Make folks commit and re-commit to their estimates,” he advises. “Challenge assumptions to make sure estimates aren’t overly optimistic or padded.”

No. 3: Creating the Work Plan

Once the plan is on paper, Taylor recommends doing a formal review of it, walking through the task definitions, dependencies and so on with other team members.

No. 4: Ensuring Quality

Westland believes that quality begins at the beginning of each project, with a PM setting quality targets and communicating them to the team. “Use quality assurance reviews to measure the quality of your deliverables, to ensure your targets are met,” said Westland. “Also use quality control techniques to manage day-to-day quality on the project.”

No. 5: Establishing Scope

Usually the scope of a project is determined when the project’s business case is defined. Sometimes, however, PMs fail to do comprehensive planning.

“Make sure your scope definition/requirements are detailed enough to remove as much ambiguity as possible,” cautions Taylor, who recommends that requirements should be spelled out on functional levels. “If you only have high-level verbiage vaguely describing what is ‘desired’ your scope isn’t fully baked.”

Another tip, he said, is to make sure that everything not specifically defined as in-scope is documented as out-of-scope and the document is signed by relevant stakeholders.

No. 6: Handling Risks

Every project has a level of risk and uncertainty. This is normal because between the start and end of each project, new issues crop-up that can affect the project. “You need to record these risks formally in a risk register,” said Westland. “Review each risk, identify its likelihood of occurrence, and assess its potential impact on the project. Then take action to mitigate each risk quickly and efficiently.”

No. 7: Streamline Communication

Keep everyone in your project well informed by giving them the right information at the right time, advises Westland, who recommends doing a weekly status report and sending it to project stakeholders. “It’s important to meet with your team weekly, talk through the progress over the prior week and the goals set for the week ahead,” he said. “Record minutes and send them out after the meeting. Also, make everyone accountable for the targets set.”

No. 8: Producing Documentation

Westland believes you a PM never start new documents from scratch but should use a template for each. “Document every step in the Project Life Cycle using project management templates to save you time and effort,” he said.

No. 9: Resolving Issues

Sometimes the reason for doing the project gets lost in all the work to get it done; and problems raise their not-so-pretty heads. “Triage issues as soon as possible,” counsels Taylor. “This means having timely, honest assessments with stakeholders about the impact of each issue on the project.”

No. 10: Measuring Metrics

To stay on track, PMs need to measure progress weekly, advises Westland. “Measure progress against schedule and determine if you’re under or over target,” he said. “Also, measure current expenses against budget. Only through accurate measurement can you truly know if you’re on track.”

Herman Mehling has written about IT for more than 25 years. He has worked for many leading computer publications and websites, including Computer Reseller News, eWeek, and InformationWeek. Currently, he contributes regularly to and as well as

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