Project management can often be a case of trial and error. BCS author Elizabeth Harrin looks at how to avoid some of the pitfalls of project management.

Change is an inevitable part of business and getting it right means the difference between a successful business and an unhappy one.

Changes normally happen as part of a project, and successful projects are normally led by project managers. Successful project managers are people who are experts in leading an initiative from the start, through the awkward bit in the middle and wrapping it up nicely at the end.

Even if you don't have full time project managers, you probably have someone in your organisation who you turn to when you need to deliver or change something.

Research has shown that the better equipped that person is, the better the outcome for your project. That goes for the rest of the organisation too - a company with a mature approach to project management will have better results than one just starting out.

However, if you are just starting out, you probably don't want to wait while your company builds up expertise by trial and error. So what are the skills a successful project manager needs and how do you get them?

There is no mystery to being a good project manager. It's just a blend of good technical ability and great interpersonal skills, and those can be developed both through training and practical experience.

Project management, like any profession, has its own jargon, processes and methods. There are organisations like the Association for Project Management that accredit project managers in these technical aspects but there are lots of short courses that offer a good starting point. A training provider can even tailor their courses to your specific needs and focus on the areas where your project managers really need support.

At the end of the course the delegates should have an idea about how to set up a project and manage it professionally. There are also lots of books available on the subject that can be used as support materials during and after a course.

Some providers also run training courses for the other people involved as project managers who don't do all the work themselves; instead they will co-ordinate a team, usually a group of experts in their individual subjects.

The project manager's role is to ensure that they all work together to deliver whatever it is the project is supposed to do, within the parameters set by senior management: typically a specific budget and timeframe.

Technical training on how to run a project is only half the story. Project managers have to be able to work with people of all levels, from the sales director who sets out the strategic direction to the IT developer who builds the thing or the customer service agent who has to use it.

Project managers should be individuals with attention to detail, good people skills and the drive to get things done. They should be able to negotiate, unblock sticky situations and be confident enough to present progress reports to the Board.
These skills are harder to learn in the classroom, but you can help your project managers develop by pairing them up with someone more experienced in a mentoring programme or offering tailored practical training in soft skills.

Investing time in supporting the development of your project managers will pay dividends. You'll find the changes your company implements will happen more easily and with fewer headaches for everyone concerned.

In a nutshell

Make your project a success

  • Firstly, is it really a project? Projects have a beginning, middle and end. If it’s operational or ongoing it’s not a project.
  • Make sure the project is supported at the highest level. If there is no senior sponsorship, people will be dragged off to work on other, more important, things. And if the senior team isn’t convinced by it, why are you doing it?
  • Communicate, communicate, and communicate. At the beginning everyone will be really positive and interested but it's hard work to keep that level of energy and commitment all the way through. Relevant, timely communication is essential.
  • Think carefully about who to involve. You can't consult everyone who will be affected by the change but you can ask each area to nominate a representative to be part of the project team. It's better to find out sooner rather than later what impact your project will have on each department.
  • When the project is over, organise a launch event or party to thank everyone involved for their hard work and celebrate the successful implementation.

Elizabeth Harrin is a senior project manager in the financial services sector and author of Project Management in the Real World from BCS. A member of BCS, Elizabeth lives and works in Paris, France.