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Advice for Accidental Project Managers

By: Tom Kendrick
Last updated 5/23/2012

Are you an experienced manager and individual project contributor who suddenly finds him or herself thrown into a project management role? The good news is that effective project leaders have a lot in common with good managers; however, being the one in charge comes with its own set of challenges. These tips from 101 Project Management Problems and How to Solve Them will ensure that you get started on the right foot.

How do you get your new project up and going?

Depends on:

  • Availability of mentoring, training, and other developmental assistance in your organization
  • Your aptitude for leading a team and any applicable previous experience you have
  • The experience of the team you are planning to lead

Getting Started
Initiation into project management often involves becoming an “accidental project manager.” Most of us get into it unexpectedly. One day you are minding our own business and doing a great job as a project contributor. Suddenly, without warning, someone taps you on the shoulder and says, “Surprise! You are now a project manager.”

Working on a project and leading a project would seem to have a lot in common, so selecting the most competent contributors to lead new projects seems fairly logical. Unfortunately, the two jobs are in fact quite different. Project contributors focus on tangible things and their own personal work. Project managers focus primarily on coordinating the work of others. The next two problems discuss the responsibilities and personality traits of an effective project manager, but if you are entirely new to project leadership you will first also need to set up a foundation for project management. Novice project managers will need to invest time gaining the confidence of the team, determining their approach, and then delegating work to others.

Engaging Your Team
Gaining the confidence of your contributors can be a bit of a challenge if you are inexperienced with team leadership. Some people fear dogs, and dogs seem to know this and unerringly single out those people to bother. Similarly, a project manager who is uncomfortable is instantly obvious to the project team members, who can quickly destroy the confidence of their team leader at the first signs of indecision, hesitancy, or weakness. Although you may have some coverage from any explicit backing and support of sponsors, managers, and influential stakeholders, you need at least to appear to know what you are doing. It's always best to actually know what you are doing, but in a pinch you can get away with a veneer of competence. Your strongest asset for building the needed confidence of your team as a novice project manager is generally your subject-matter expertise. You were asked to lead the project, and that was probably a result of someone thinking, probably correctly, that you are very good at something that is important to the project. Work with what you know well, and always lead with your strengths. Remember that "knowledge is power."

Seek a few early wins with your team, doing things like defining requirements, setting up processes, or initial planning. Once the pump is primed, people will start to take for granted that you know what you are doing (and you might also). Establishing and maintaining teamwork is essential to good project management, and there are lots of pointers on this throughout the book.

Choosing Your Approach
For small projects, a stack of yellow sticky notes, a whiteboard to scatter them on, and bravado may get you through. For most projects, though, a more formalized structure will serve you better. If possible, consult with an experienced project manager whom you respect and ask for mentoring and guidance. If training on project management is available, take advantage of it. Even if you are unable to schedule project management training in time for your first project, do it as soon as you can. This training, whenever you can sandwich it in, will help you to put project management processes in context and build valuable skills. Attending training will also show you that all the other new project managers are at least as confused as you are. If neither mentoring nor training is viable, get a good, thin book on project management and read through the basics. (There are a lot of excellent very large books on project management that are useful for reference, but for getting started, a 1,000-page tome or a “body of knowledge” can be overwhelming. Start with a “Tool Kit,” “for Dummies” book, “Idiot's Guide,” or similarly straightforward book on project management. You may also want to seek out a book written by someone in your field, to ensure that most of it will make sense and the recommendations will be relevant to your new project.)

Decide how you are going to set up your project, and document the specific steps you will use for initiation and planning. You will find many useful pointers for this throughout the problems discussed in the initiating and planning parts later in this book.

Delegating Work
One of the hardest things for a novice project manager to do is to recognize that project leadership is a full-time job. Leading a project effectively requires you to delegate project work to others—even work that you are personally very good at. Despite the fact that you may be better and faster at completing key activities than any of your team members, you cannot hope to do them all yourself while running a successful project. At first, delegating work to others who are less competent than you are can be quite difficult, even painful. You need to get over it. If you assign significant portions of the project work to yourself, you will end up with two full-time jobs: leading the project by day and working on the project activities you should have delegated at night and on weekends. This leads to exhaustion, project failure, or both.

© 2011 Tom Kendrick. Excerpted from 101 Project Management Problems and How to Solve Them, by Tom Kendrick. Used by permission of the publisher, AMACOM, a division of American Management Association (www.amacombooks.org)

About the Author(s)

Tom Kendrick is a project management consultant and former project management executive for Hewlett-Packard and for Visa, Inc.