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Being a project manager is a tough job. It’s not enough to create project plans and delegate tasks. You also have to be a leader, a people manager, and a clear communicator.
With so many skills to learn, which ones should you focus on developing first?
In this post, I’ll walk you through 8 vital but sometimes overlooked project management skills. You’ll learn the importance of these skills and get a brief lesson on how to develop them further.
What the Project Management Institute Says
Project Management Institute or PMI is one of the biggest PM organizations in the world. The Project Management Professional (PMP) it offers is quickly becoming a requirement for most PM positions.
To qualify as a PMP, you have to demonstrate a number of skills and competencies across different domains. Regardless of whether you want to get certified or not, a look at these skill requirements is a good way to orient yourself in project management.
The reason is: if PMI evaluates a skill in its certification exams, you can assume that it’s important for managing a project in real life.
Here are a few project management skills you should have as part of the PMP exam curriculum:
Knowledge & Performance
- Integration management
- Scope management
- Time management
- Cost management
- Quality management
- Human resource management
- Risk management
- Stakeholder management
Besides the above knowledge areas, PMI also requires the following personal skills and competencies for its qualified professionals:
- Achievement and action
- Impact and influence
- Managerial skills
- Cognitive skills
- Personal Effectiveness
While not always necessary, the above list should tell you what qualities you need to be an effective project manager.
In the next section, we’ll look at the exact skills project managers need to have and how to learn them.
8 Essential Project Management Skills
Regardless of your industry or specialization, there are a few skills that will serve you well on every project.
Some of these are:
Leadership is complementary to management. While the latter focuses on managing complexity, the former brings order and vision to projects. Little wonder that project managers are expected to have leadership talent alongside management know-how.
There is a direct correlation between the complexity of a project and the need for leadership. In fact, one influential paper even argued that positive leadership contributed almost 76% to a project’s success.
When you break down the elements that make a project successful, you’ll find that they’re all related to leadership in some way. Communication, team building, and strategizing - are all key PM skills that are also essential for leadership.
Be a better leader and you’ll undoubtedly be a better project manager.
How to learn leadership
Leadership is a difficult skill to learn. You can’t really learn it from a textbook; it has to be practiced.
Start by identifying the core areas that define good leadership. As Benis and Thomson noted in 2002, leadership has four key components:
- The ability to adapt to changes.
- The ability to motivate others.
- The ability to communicate a vision
- Integrity and authenticity
Strive to use these skills in your projects. Identify a few things you can do in all four stages of the project that would contribute positively towards leadership.
For instance, In the ‘initiate’ stage, you can focus on motivating resources and establishing the vision. In the ‘close’ stage, you can reward and recognize positive contributions.
Communication lies at the very heart of project management. Between outlining your vision, delegating authority, and collaborating with stakeholders, you’ll have your hands full of emails, phone calls, and Skype chats.
In an analysis of the most important project management skills among practitioners, Prof. Eddie Fisher notes that:
“Good people project managers need to have good effective communications skills with people at all levels of the organisation. They need to understand cross cultural behaviours better and need to accept people more for what they are”
Effective communication is also at the root of good leadership which, as we saw above, is also essential for project management.
How to improve communication
In a 2010 paper presented at the Project Management Institute, Rajkumar Sivasankari says that effective PM communication has six aspects - 5Ws and 1H:
- What to communicate
- Why the message is necessary
- Who to send the message to
- Where to send the message
- When to send the message
- How to send the message
For any complex project, you should have a project communication plan that defines each of the above for any scenario. Say, if you have an emergency, you should know exactly who to communicate with, what to communicate, and how to communicate it. You can even take advantage of this project communication template from Workamajig to make this easier.
3. Influencing Others
All project management is, at its core, people management.
And managing people essentially means managing their emotions, building trust, and persuading them to do their best.
In other words, project managers need to influence others effectively.
As Prof. Eddie Fisher writes in the PM practitioner survey mentioned above:
“Project managers need to be good natural influencers and persuaders and people need to feel at ease in the presence of the leader. Effective project managers need to...make the team feel as one team and that they are working together on the project”
In a project, you might use your ability to influence others in several situations, such as:
- Selling the benefits of a project to a stakeholder
- Helping team members unblock their values to improve performance.
The more complex the project, the more you’ll need this critical skill. As the stakes get higher, the amount of resistance and objections increases as well. Wielding influence effectively can mean the difference between a successful or a stalled project.
How to learn this skill
Drawing from Dr. Robert Cialdini’s groundbreaking book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, your influence as a project manager will spring from the following:
- Authority, i.e. your position as the manager, your job title, your proven expertise, and your past performance record.
- Social proof, i.e. your accomplishments, awards, past records, and what others think of you both within and outside the team.
- Commitment and Consistency, i.e. how detailed and committed you and the team members are to the project. Clear communication protocols help immensely here as they establish a cadence of commitment.
- Liking, i.e. how much people actually like you as a manager, a person, and a boss.
- Reciprocity, i.e. how much you’ve done for your team members (who are then more liable to repay the favor).
Hard influence - using your position or title to persuade others - is effective but doesn’t lead to long-term team happiness. You’re much better off using soft influence through social proof, clear communication, good performance, reciprocity, and likability.
4. Conflict Management
Conflicts are inevitable in any project. You’ll have conflicts between team members, between team members and stakeholders, and even between yourself and your team.
The ability to manage and resolve conflicts is an understated but critical skill for project managers.
Conflicts can arise due to a number of reasons, such as:
- Clash of interests between stakeholders and team members, or between team members.
- Scope and schedule changes especially post-initiation phase.
- Project management conflicts over how the PM communicates, delegates and manages the project.
- Vendor disputes can hold back a project’s progress.
Given that managers spend roughly 15% of their time resolving conflicts, conflict management is a skill that will hold you in good stead as a project manager.
How to learn conflict management
Briefly, there are five approaches to resolving conflicts in a project in order of effectiveness:
- Confronting is where both parties confront their problems and reach a resolution through direct communication. This is the preferred way to resolve most problems
- Compromising, where the parties reach a resolution through ‘give and take’.
- Smoothing, where one party downplays its own problems to ensure project completion. This isn’t always ideal since it leaves one party dissatisfied with the resolution.
- Forcing, where one party forces the other party to accept its position. This usually leads to resentment.
- Forcing, where one party forces the other party to accept its position. This usually leads to resentment.
For a more general-purpose approach to conflict management, read these two books:
- Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High by Kerry Patterson
- Confronting Without Offending: Positive and Practical Steps to Resolving Conflict by Deborah Smith Pegues
5. Task Management and Scheduling
Task management and project scheduling are the bread and butter of any project manager’s work.
Project scheduling, as you might know, is the process of breaking down a project into its constituent activities and allocating resources for them. You have to factor in the resources available to you and how to best utilize them.
Most projects start with a project schedule. This document will be the bedrock of the project.
Here’s an example of a project schedule document:
Task management is where you list and manage the tasks involved in accomplishing project activities. For instance, if you’re conducting surveys to gather user feedback, you might have the following tasks associated with it:
- Creating surveys
- Sending surveys to users and collecting data
- Analyzing survey data
- Creating reports
You’ll need both project schedules and task management to run the project smoothly.
How to learn them
The best way to learn project scheduling and task management is to use a project management tool (like Workamajig). These tools typically include templates to help you create project schedules. You can then create tasks associated with each project activity and track their progress within the software.
For example, here’s a project schedule in Workamajig:
Each activity in the schedule has a list of associated tasks in a to-do list:
This can help even beginners create detailed project schedules.
6. Risk Management
Any complex project is inherently risky. The risks can range from the sudden departure of a key team member to a delayed delivery from a vendor.
Foreseeing and planning for such risks is called risk management.
“Risk management measures the uncertainty involved when you 'roll the dice' during your project, and allows the project manager to obtain a consensus on how to best handle risks and unexpected events on the project”
Risk management makes you a better manager precisely because it is such an overlooked skill. Since most risks aren’t urgent, PMs often ignore or delay planning for them. Consequently, when risks do arise, managers don’t have failsafe systems to manage them.
This is why PMI calls risk management a “vital key to effective project management”.
How to learn this skill
In a project management setting, risk management is focused on identifying and creating solutions to potential risks.
This is a multi-step process:
- Identifying risks through expert analysis or digging through project reports to spot gaps and potential conflicts.
- Categorizing risks as technical (related to technology or quality), external (related to customers, vendors, etc.), organizational (logistics, budget, etc.), and project management related.
- Analyzing risks based on their probability of occurrence and impact. A high-impact, high-probability risk is a high priority.
- Planning responses to each risk, moving from high priority to low priority risks.
This PMI paper is a good place to learn about risk management for project managers. For a deeper understanding, consult PMI’s Practice Standard for Project Risk Management. Practicing integrated project management is another way of mitigating project risk.
7. Coaching Team Members
As the project manager, your job is to be the go-between the stakeholders and the people working on the project. The more complex the project, the more people you’ll have who don’t quite know what the project demands.
Being able to coach these team members and get the best out of them is a vital project management skill.
Coaching becomes even more important when you have external resources working on the project (freelancers, contractors, etc.). Since these people might not be familiar with your requirements and processes, you’ll need to coach them to get better results.
Generally speaking, the more inexperienced your team is, the more coaching they’ll need.
How to learn this skill
“Coaching is a way of helping others to make progress and overcome issues without directly telling them what to do...coaches help people to find the answers for themselves, by engaging in structured conversations and asking insightful questions”
Coaching, thus, is a form of leadership and effective communication.
To coach team members to do their best, you need to:
- Communicate clearly with stakeholders to fully understand their requirements.
- Document all processes and requirements to help team members (internal and external) get on board quickly.
- Work with team members to help them understand their weaknesses and strengths.
- Influence team members to deliver their best results by focusing on the project’s benefits, creating a positive work environment, and emphasizing the big picture.
Do this and you’ll be a better coach, leader, and project manager.
8. Cost Management
As a project manager, the budget is the canvas you work with. What you can do (and can’t) will depend on the budget you have access to.
Since budgets are usually fixed, managing costs becomes a vital skill for project managers. While the quality of the final work is important, what often matters more is whether you were able to deliver the work within budget.
As the Project Management Journal notes:
“The cost management function maintains its important focus at every stage throughout the life cycle of a project..the management of cost is the most important as all project aspects affect this function. What counts for the owner is the “bottom line.”
This is why cost management is one of the ten key knowledge areas in the PMBOK guide.
How to learn cost management
Effective cost management is rooted in practice, not theory. The more projects you plan and deliver, the better your estimates.
That said, there is a step-by-step approach to cost management:
- Resource planning to figure out the resources required to deliver results using Work Breakdown Structures and past records of successful projects.
- Estimating costs using one of several different project estimation techniques such as analogous, top-down, bottom-up, parametric, or three-point estimating.
- Creating a budget based on the cost estimate and project schedule. This will tell you what resources you require at what time.
- Cost control by keeping track of actual vs. expected spending, usually with a project management tool, and taking steps to reduce costs if things are going over budget.
Case studies are a great way to learn cost management. Google “cost management case studies” and go through a few results to see how managers plan and control costs in actual projects across industries.
Over to You
Being an effective project manager means wearing several hats. You have to be a leader, a people manager, an astute planner, and an effective communicator. Learning the skills mentioned above will help you become a better project manager.
Here’s what you can take away from this post:
- Strong leaders make strong project managers.
- Effective communication is the bedrock of project management.
- Being able to influence others and resolve conflicts is a vital PM skill.
- Managing risks and project costs is crucial.
- Creating project schedules and managing tasks will improve project success.
- Being able to coach new team members to get the best out of them will make you a more effective project manager.