12 Project Management Tips Beginners Should Know
Keeping a complex project running smoothly is no small feat. It takes top-notch organization, planning and communication abilities to keep everyone on the same page.
“Project management is a fast-paced, challenging and rewarding career,” says Andy Birks, senior project manager at Simply Aquarium. Birks says this role requires building relationships with people in a wide range of positions—and it requires a wide range of skills. “You’ve got to be detailed enough to speak to technical staff on their terms, and at the same time able to summarize the challenge at a very senior level when chairing governance meetings and project boards.”
Project managers oversee projects by making sure all necessary channels of communication are open, acting as the go-between for everyone involved and troubleshooting problems to keep the project objectives and timelines in good order.
“Projects are all around us,” says Mary Beth Imbarrato, Project Management Professional (PMP)® and founder of MBI Consulting. A huge portion of business activity revolves around projects—and companies need effective project managers to help guide those projects to successful completion.
Whether you’re just starting to dabble with informally leading projects or thinking of launching a full-fledged project management career, you can benefit by learning from the experience of established project managers.
To help with that, we asked project managers to share their best project management advice and tips and even highlight some of the common mistakes they’ve seen project managers make. These insights can help you decide if project management is something you’d consider for your own future.
Project management advice from experienced project managers
What would project managers say to their younger selves? Read on to see some of the macro-level advice they’d give.
1. Always identify stakeholders
“Make sure you identify the right stakeholders at the very start of a project and hold them and their departments to account,” Birks says. He explains that project managers often create a RACI (Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, Informed) model when projects begin, but getting the stakeholders right and not just going through the motions here can be easier said than done.
“It is the business that will [make use of] the change the project has delivered, and they need to be an active member of the project team and not just a spectator,” Birks explains.
2. Expect the unexpected
When you’re a project manager, every day will be different, according to Yana Barsegyan, head of project management at Digital Suits. “Even if you have planned everything in advance, calculated all the risks—still, something new and unexpected will definitely happen!” Barsegyan says the most important advice she’d give to new project managers is to learn how to love this ever-shifting part of the job.
3. Make your technology worthwhile
Project managers often have various productivity tools to help them track their projects and keep members accountable. But the tool can only perform if you know how to really utilize it. “Your project management tool will only be as good as the data you feed it and the rigor with which you monitor reports,” says Jesus Hernandez, project manager at SnapADU. “Consistent data entry and dashboard management are key to driving to successful outcomes.”
4. Automate what you can
“Every time you find yourself repeating actions, start thinking about how they can be systemized,” Hernandez advises. That might mean taking advantage of what your software can already do, delegating tasks or even outsourcing tasks to external resources. If you can save yourself time by cutting down on the relatively “mindless” tasks, you have that space to focus on the work only you can do.
Project management mistakes to avoid making
Everyone makes mistakes. But a little foresight into what can go wrong might help you navigate some of the common pitfalls of project management.
5. Treating symptoms instead of diagnosing larger issues
New project managers tend to focus on the consequences instead of locating the root cause of something, according to Barsegyan. But that approach is short-sighted because you will likely find yourself repeating the same issues over and over. “You need to get rid of the root in order to prevent repeatable issues.”
Is it a failure of communication? Unclear project goals? Unrealistic expectations based on timing and resources? Even if you’d much rather turn the page and move on to the next assignment after completing a challenge-ridden project, there’s value in taking the time to do a “post-mortem” recap. Identifying where things may have gone off the rails will likely help you in future project iterations.
6. Failing to utilize tools
Project management software tools can be complex and have a tricky learning curve when you’re just starting out. But according to Hernandez, it’s a huge mistake to shortchange a project management tool because it feels too complicated.
“Aim for the minimum viable understanding so that you can get started, and in time, add in other features to hone your workflow,” Hernandez says. “Within no time, you will be wishing for additional features!”
7. Unclear stakeholder responsibilities causing confusion post-launch
“I’ve seen several project managers, myself included, who think they’ve engaged the right accountable stakeholders, but in fact, they’ve struggled to hold them to that accountability throughout the project,” Birks says. The problem is when business owners do not feel accountable for the success of the project and therefore don’t take charge of the final launch and delivery.
“It is those business owners who will be using the new change in-life in the months and years to come, but often too much responsibility still remains with the project manager post-launch, and it can be difficult to disengage from the project.”
8. Repeating the same mistakes
“A common mistake is not learning from your mistake in the first place and having it occur again,” Imbarrato says. She suggests project managers take the time to reflect when mistakes are made and identify how they happened. Ask yourself why it happened, how it impacted your project and what you did to resolve it. “Then discuss your answers to these questions with the project team so that they can always be learning as well.”
Tips and tricks for project managers
Now that you’ve seen some of the macro-level concerns in project management, let’s get a little more granular. Check out these concrete tips and tricks for project managers.
9. Always know the status of project progress
Project managers are the lynchpin of organization in a project. And they need to have a pulse on what’s happening at every moment. “Always be aware of the day-to-day project progress as well as the overall one, and always be ready to report about it,” Barsegyan says.
While a project manager is often a step away from doing the production work of a project, that doesn’t mean they’re just sitting back and waiting for things to get done. You’ll need to find an appropriate cadence for checking in with key stakeholders. By doing this, you can identify potential issues for work that’s still to come, determine possible solutions and tee up the work coming in the next phase of a project. Unexpected delays come from the unknown—a proactive check-in can help keep those to a minimum.
10. Ask until you understand
When you are a project manager, people might be relying on you to ask the important questions for a project, Imbarrato says. “Ask for definitions, scenarios, who is going to be impacted by the project, what are the expectations for this project, what are the objectives, who has the skills to work on the project. Ask. Ask. Ask.”
There’s so much that can easily get lost or misinterpreted in a game of “telephone” between functional areas, project leads and project managers—and that can lead to costly mistakes. While you obviously don’t want to bog everything down with a deluge of questions at every step of the process, you can’t be afraid to ask for clarification.
11. Practice active listening
On top of asking questions, be prepared to truly listen to what stakeholders, team members and everyone around you are saying. “Practice your active listening skills. Learn from listening,” Imbarrato says. You will miss so many important things if you don’t pay close attention to what your team members are saying—particularly if they’re not very direct communicators. Learning to read between the lines and parse information that may be diplomatically worded can be a big help as well.
12. Make a plan for the plan
At the very start of a project, Birks recommends demonstrating to stakeholders and the project sponsor how you plan to communicate the timeframes and project delivery dates. If they know what to expect for how you’ll keep them involved, things will go much smoother. “Then analyze your initial requirements and produce a plan based on agreed estimates from delivery teams.” That agreement is crucial to ensure deadlines that are both acceptable and feasible to all parties.
Build a foundation of project management skills
If these project management tips, tricks and advice are useful to you, you might want to consider taking the steps to laying a real foundation in project management. The Rasmussen University Business Management Bachelor’s degree program can provide you with a well-rounded base of critical business skills—not to mention making you eligible to sit for well-regarded industry certifications like the Project Management Professional.