Project Management Cheat Sheet
While it is great to embrace the knowledge and read about the perfect processes to lead a team, it is also crucial to understand that there is no single perfect process that can be applied universally. In this article, I will run down the most important skills that can help you to become a better project manager, regardless of the technique, framework, or methodology you use.
The Team, the Team, the Team
The team is your safe house. It is essential to establish a great relationship with your team and enhance team communication and team spirit. The team has to be a safe place for all members, where they feel the strongest. Whatever the decision, it is made by the team; whatever feature is built, it is built by the team; you all take credit as a team rather than individually.
A few years back, I changed my formal communication etiquette by switching from “I” to “We.” For example, when I am sharing something with the stakeholders outside of the team, I say: “We have created the velocity chart for the last sprint. We have done the budget and timeline cost projection.” Although this might seem unusual at first, it has obvious benefits. First, the power lies within the team, and a decision becomes more robust if you have reached it as a team. Second, project managers lead by example, and by not saying “I,” we demonstrate that we are not taking credit for anything by ourselves. The same applies to mistakes—everything that was done wrong is on the team. We don’t blame individual team members. Afterward, we hold an internal review to adjust the process and improve in order to avoid similar mistakes in the future.
Stop Searching for a Perfect Process
If you are chasing the perfect process for your team, you can stop right now. There is no such thing that can be applied universally.
Project managers are exposed to many different frameworks, practices, and processes throughout their careers. They choose to employ some of the frameworks within their team to discover what specifically works. However, if the team resists the process, it is important not to follow a “one size fits all” model.
Conversely, project managers should tailor the process to work with their team. During my career in IT, I haven’t come across one team that employs any framework completely “by the book.” What works for us and our team formation, culture, and mentality is highly unlikely to work for other teams. Therefore, project managers should keep on testing various practices until they reach a sweet spot—a combination of practices that work best for the team.
If the team introduced Scrum but found daily meetings additional overhead, the alternative is to have a meeting bot in Slack and schedule calls only when necessary. The same attitude can be applied to sprint reviews—if team members find them counterproductive, managers can decide to schedule reviews based on the team’s needs. It is essential to understand that we are not the guardians of Scrum, Kanban, or other frameworks, and they are only there to assist the team to seek productivity and motivation.
Having Many Hands to Complete Many Tasks
When it comes to project stakeholders, communication is the key. Like it or not, a project manager has to be included in all communication on the project. Sometimes, managers get overwhelmed by the overload of messages and tasks, but that is the job that they signed up for.
Experienced project managers master the skill of looking quickly through communications and deciding what requires their close attention. In the beginning, it might take more effort to achieve that, but the goal is to restrain yourself from getting into the details, like deep technical discussions, if they do not benefit the project. Instead, to save time and avoid back-and-forth messaging, the project manager can schedule a team call to find a solution. One 15-minute call can often replace hours of inconclusive written communication.
All stakeholders should be aware that the project manager is the single point of contact. Prioritizing and delegating responsibilities is the project manager’s essential role, to make sure the project stays on track. Many managers choose to complete tasks themselves to make sure the requirements are met, but in the long run, they can lose their focus on the important things. Delegate everything that can be delegated. You still can do the tasks that typically require the project manager’s attention; for example, I do some QA for important features and tasks, but I never get too involved in other members’ assignments.
Trust Estimates by Default, Then Measure and Discuss
A project manager has to trust the estimates their team members give for tasks. Before becoming a project manager, I was a developer for four years. I have never argued an estimate with a developer without having some data to back up my argument. And by data I mean the team member’s previous record of estimated and actual time spent on tasks, not my own development experience. You have to take into account people’s different experiences and backgrounds when they estimate tasks. If a project manager wants to discuss and argue about an estimate, they have to back their arguments with data and be clear about what they want to achieve.
Transparency and Control of Sensitive Information
Project managers are the connectors between business and technology, and they often possess information from both sides. Apart from seeing the big picture, they face some risks as well, such as handling sensitive information. It is essential to find the fine line between being a transparent leader and handling confidential information properly.
In companies where project managers are not considered top management, they still have access to a lot of confidential information. Sometimes, they are not told specifically what information is confidential and have to figure it out themselves. The final goal is not to withhold information from the team, and all of the information that is significant for project delivery needs to be available to everyone on the team. Still, some of it should stay confidential for a reason, as it can ruin team motivation or spark unnecessary arguments. For example, if the company is on the verge of signing a big deal with investors, there is an option to announce the news to the team or keep it to a certain group of people until the deal is verified. The second option is better as the deal can go sideways any time, and if the team’s expectations are not met, it can decrease the motivation.
There are a couple of reasons to seek maximum transparency. First, keeping other people in the communication loop decreases the risk of missing something important. Since there are plenty of discussions within the project, it is not unusual for managers to misplace some information or simply forget to react. Second, with more people in the loop, there is less need to reiterate the same information to different team members, as they already know it.
Flag Risks Early
A project manager has to form a systematic approach to removing obstacles so team members are able to tackle all the project tasks. If managers do not address blockers after sprints, many items could end up being marked as blocked in the backlog. There is a tendency to remove blockers only from the most important tasks, however, this potentially leads to disaster, as a significant number of mutually dependent tasks could be blocked.
It is a good idea to create an action items list dedicated solely to removing blockers and follow through each of them with the dedicated stakeholder. It is equally important to make proper connections between the tasks so that everyone is aware of which high-priority tasks will be blocked due to blockers in the lower levels. Eventually, project managers end up with two options. First, they can keep their own list of to-dos with their priorities that focus on removing blockers. Second, they can add more details to the tasks and connect them thoroughly by adding dependencies that keep blockers aligned for all the connected tasks. The second option becomes too complex, especially on big projects; managers often end up doing both in order to keep the work going and remove blockers on time.
From Setbacks and Tough Times to Small Wins
If missing a deadline becomes inevitable, the project manager should not get angry with the team. These are precisely the times that call for motivation boosters, not blame. Step up and be a leader; if necessary, take the blame on yourself and motivate the team to overcome and deliver the functionality the best you can. Schedule a review to understand what went wrong and how your team can work better in the future in order to prevent those setbacks from happening again.
Equally important is to celebrate small wins together. Schedule a short meeting to praise the team, for example, when you deliver results within the approved timeline. Cumulative small wins lead to overall project success.
Consistent documentation is one of the most important habits for every project manager. In my experience, meeting management is usually underestimated, and as a result, I have spent many hours on wasteful meetings during my project management career. Preparation is the key to every successful meeting, and it takes roughly five minutes:
- Create the agenda and decide on the required participants. Make sure that all participants are invited.
- Send the agenda to participants and check with them about whether anything else should be discussed.
- If you have a virtual meeting, check if the link was sent.
When the meeting starts:
- Join a couple of minutes early, welcome everyone, greet them, and after a short period of small talk, dive directly into the agenda.
- During the meeting, keep notes, write down all action items, check for any questions after you have gotten through the agenda, and close the meeting.
- After the meeting is finished, immediately share the notes and action items with the team.
From my experience, 15 minutes is often more productive than a one- or two-hour meeting, because everyone keeps to the point and you can prevent participants from deviating from the agenda—unless there is something important to discuss.
A few bonus tips that can save a lot of time:
- Have a template for meeting notes.
- When possible, send recurring invitations.
- Create templates for following up with action items.
- Set yourself reminders for the follow-up emails.
The Right Tools Make the Difference
Choosing the right software tools is a key part of project management. It is common for project managers to get involved in discussions about what specific tools the team should work with. Such discussions can be either time-wasting or productive, depending on the team’s understanding of what they want to achieve with a particular tool. There are some factors to consider when deciding on the most appropriate tools:
- Size of the team
- Team composition
- Project methodology or framework
- How much detail the report should include
I have organized my list of tools by team size. For smaller teams, especially if they are at the beginning of a project, I use Trello. This tool has most of the features needed with the Kanban framework. When I am working on a medium-sized project with dozens of people, I consider using Asana. It has some decent project management features, including a certain degree of reporting. However, if the project involves more than 20 people and detailed levels of reporting, I tend to use Jira. It integrates well with a host of other solutions available in the market, allowing for great customization. I also use Clubhouse as my go-to tool for all small to medium-sized projects, and I have found a great set of functionalities there.
Adjusting Is the Key
Frameworks, processes, and tools have to be adjusted based on the team’s needs and pains, not the other way around. As you gain experience, you amass a boatload of tools and methodologies that you like, hate, use sparingly, or have discarded. New ones will spring up with every passing year, and some of the older ones will become outmoded. But the skills you develop as a leader will enable you to make the most out of every framework.
Further reading on the Toptal Projects Blog:
Understanding the basics
What are best practices in project management?
There are some best practices for project managers: establish a great relationship with your team and enhance team communication; prioritize and delegate the responsibilities; be the single point of contact; form a systematic approach to removing obstacles; document meetings; celebrate small wins with your team.
What exactly does a project manager do?
Project managers are the connectors between business and technology. They make sure that the project stays on track and is delivered within the agreed timeline and cost.
What are project management skills?
Project managers can develop skills that can serve them well throughout their career—team management and team building, time and meeting management, good judgment, communication, transparency, delegation, and trust. These are perennial management skills that come with time, attention, and practice.
What must a project manager do to manage a project effectively?
In order to manage a project effectively, the project manager should put efforts to structure team work. The key elements are trusting the team, setting the right deadlines, as well as delegating tasks. Flagging risks early is also essential. Managers have to prepare for meetings and keep a habit to document them.
What are the pillars of project management?
The three essential components of project management are processes, resources, and people. A successful project manager must effectively manage the resources assigned to the project, including members of the project team.
Located in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina
Member since July 18, 2018
About the author
Adi is a project manager who is driven by the passion to build great products.