Skip to content

11 things a new project manager should know and do

Are you stepping into the role of a project manager for the first time? Here’s a list of 11 habits that can help you succeed.

1. Write it down

You never want to find yourself in a situation where someone denies a verbal agreement and you have no way of proving what was agreed. Any time you decide something with the customer, with your own team or even with your boss, write it down and put it somewhere where all of the relevant people can see it. If you agree something over the phone, simply send an email that says “As discussed over the phone, we agreed that something something -- please let me know if there’s any mistake.” Not only are you covering your back, you will also have the email as your own personal reminder, in case one of several hundred things happens to slip your mind or you need to go back to something that was discussed a year ago. Write it down!  

2. Repeat yourself  

So you wrote something down. Great! However, people seem to have somehow ignored it. With the constant influx of information from emails, chats, meetings and calls, it’s easy for people to miss something. Even in meetings people might not be paying attention. If you’re explaining the project plan to a team of 10, you’ll be lucky if 8 people are paying attention at any given moment. Repeat essential information across multiple channels to make sure it gets across. If you need something by a certain date or someone hasn’t replied to your previous query, you’ll do well to remind people. Help them help you succeed. 

Remember: the DRY principle only applies to software architecture. Almost every major problem on projects is a result of issues in communication.  

3. Understand the work your team does 

You’re not expected to be able to do everything yourself. But you must understand the work that others do, at least to the point of “what activities are performed, why we do them and what are the typical outputs.” If you don’t know the answers, you will have no way to evaluate whether a specific approach seems right or wrong and you can’t evaluate work estimates or possible reasons for overrun. It will be difficult for you to support your team – or defend them if needed. You will also have a tough time explaining any of the relevant concepts to business stakeholders, which may undermine your credibility.  

4. Explain “Why” 

People want to have control over their own work. In order for them to be able to make correct decisions, they need to know why something is being done, not just, what is being requested. Your team will be able to help you avoid mistakes if they know what you’re trying to accomplish. If you ask for the wrong thing, you may get the wrong thing, and your leadership approach will probably not appeal to the current generation.  

5. No one will ever do things exactly as you would and this is fine. 

If you’re transitioning from a role as some kind of subject-matter expert, you’re probably used to performing your own tasks in a certain way. When you start managing people who now do it instead of you, you’ll quickly notice that they don’t do things exactly like you would. It’s easy to fall into the trap of micro-managing a task because the result doesn’t look quite right. This can lead to a lot of wasted time, as you focus on minor details instead of looking at the big picture. It will also frustrate your team. Try to ask yourself “Is this good enough?” instead of “Is this how I would do it?” If there’s some real reason to do things in a very specific way, explain why!  

6. Know your numbers 

You should always know approximately, where your project is at. How many weeks of work are left? How much budget is remaining? What about for just this specific work stream? What are the hourly rates? How much is your average invoice? This is partially a matter of reliability and trust, but it’s also hard to make good decisions if you don’t have this data. If you’re not following these things, you will definitely regret it later. No one wants to hear that the budget will be overrun – six weeks after it already was.  

7. Bad news doesn’t age well 

As a project manager, you will often find yourself in a situation where something hasn’t gone as planned. Maybe you’ve made a mistake – or maybe someone on your team has. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that you communicate the problem as soon as possible. This is hard, because most of us prefer to avoid difficult or awkward social situations. It’s certainly not fun, but as a PM you don’t have this luxury. Communicating the problem allows everyone to help solve it – or re-plan other work. If your customer ever finds out you’ve known about an issue for weeks, but haven’t said anything, your relationship is basically done for. Which brings us to our next point. 

8. Trust takes time to build, but can be lost in the blink of an eye

You have limited control over what happens on your project and how well the things go. Maybe the situation was bad to begin with. Not enough money, not enough time. Or maybe the wrong people – or the right ones leaving to pursue a career elsewhere. What you do have is your integrity. You can deal with bad situations if there is trust. Customers can usually accept that their schedule won’t be met or that they can’t realize specific business goals as planned, but it may require them to do something differently or at least communicate the situation to their own superiors. If they hear about it early enough (see above) and they know that you’re doing everything you can, then you can work together to salvage the situation. However, if they think you are not being honest, they will second-guess you and you will need to constantly spend time proving things that would usually be accepted at face value. Don’t lie. Don’t leave out facts because they aren’t flattering. Admit if you don’t know something. And remember that this also applies to your own team.

9. Get it right the second time 

If your carefully crafted plan fails and you need to go back to the drawing board to re-plan, don’t overpromise and underdeliver. If you are constantly shifting your target, people will begin to understand that you’re not basing your plan on anything (like numbers) and will begin to distrust you. Take a good look at what is needed and plan a realistic, updated schedule with enough flexibility to deal with some uncertainty and surprises. Don’t say “next month” for the third month in a row.  

10. Read the fine print 

Most of the time contracts are something that are written once and only dug up when there’s some argument about what is included in the price or scope. However, as a project manager you need to both personally know what has been promised and also make your team aware of relevant requirements such as warranty terms, security and data privacy, the agreed scope of work, etc. Read the contract. If something needs to be done, make sure it’s somewhere in your backlog or todo list. 

11. Don’t be too hard on yourself 

As a subject-matter expert, it’s rare but possible to get everything right on your work in a project. As a project manager it’s virtually impossible. You will make mistakes and hopefully learn from them. Admit your failures and think about how you can avoid them in the future. And ask for advice. No one will begrudge you for asking for help – if the alternative is you making a wild guess and a wild mess. And since projects and leadership have been around for a while, you can find a wealth of good information online and in books. I would personally recommend Steve McConnell, Simon Sinek and Marcus Buckingham. 

By: Tommi Lind, Head of Development, Knowit Experience