Being a project manager can be a stressful job that requires both technical and communication skills. Here are seven ways to improve your skills as a project manager.

7 Ways to be a Better Project Manager

Apr 29, 2020

by by Mark Crawford

Being a project manager (PM) can be stressful job, often dealing with conflicting inputs from upper management, engineers, and customers. The main goal of the PM is getting the product and engineering teams to work together without friction. This often requires periodic strategy sessions, analyzing data, brainstorming, and other types of communication and review. 

Engineers typically want to build and are often reluctant to move into management roles; yet they are often tapped for these positions, such as PM, without proper training or experience, sometimes creating confusion and stress.

Below are seven ways to improve your skills as a project manager.

1) Develop Technical Skills

The type of product, and its end use, determines how technical a PM needs to be for a project. For example, the greatest requirement could be understanding customer lifecycles rather than the specifics of how a product is built. By contrast, if it is a highly technical product with machine learning algorithms and APIs, “the role may require a lot more technical depth to not only understand how to build the product but also how to talk credibly with the customers who will use it,” said Julia Austin, a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School.

2) Emotional Intelligence (emotional quotient)

The best PMs empathize with the needs and concerns of the engineering team, customers, and stakeholders. A PM with a high EQ maintains strong relationships within their organization, especially through relationship management skills. “By forming authentic and trustworthy connections with both internal and external stakeholders, the best PMs inspire people and help them reach their full potential,” said Austin. “Relationship management is also vital in successful negotiation and resolving conflicts.”

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3) Communicate

Follow the “Golden Rule”—communicate with your teams the way you expect others to communicate with you to achieve success. Be timely and polite, with empathy for challenges and schedules. Keep everyone updated and in the loop on work deadlines. “Virtually every product executive we’ve ever spoken to lists communication as one of the top skills they demand in a PM,” said Shaun Juncal, product marketer at ProductPlan, a product strategy consulting firm. “PMs are more likely to prove ineffective if they cannot communicate clearly and effectively with professionals across a wide range of disciplines and teams in the company.”

4) Clarify Roles and Delegate Authority

Project managers are expected to provide engineers with the user story (product parameters, end use, customer requirements) and then give the engineers the freedom to do their job. PMs need to resist the urge to micromanage. “Clarity of purpose, planning, and responsibility pays rich dividends,” said Rajat Harlalka, a product manager and technology consultant. “Product managers should own the what and why, and engineers own the how.”

5) Be Inclusive

Include engineers in major decisions. Some product managers want to hijack the creative process and create all the design ideas, which they “toss over the wall to the engineers for implementation,” said Harlalka. “In my experience, engineers should be involved in the product thinking process. Understanding the why and the upside is a great motivator and might even have a positive impact on their implementation choices.”

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6) Become Team- or Customer-Centric

Engineers are accustomed to working alone and making their own decisions, believing the “my way” approach leads to the best possible product. However, “failure to overcome this belief can be disastrous, because it delays the realization that, in most cases, your own ideas are terrible when they are not based on the customer,” said Peter Stadlinger, director of product for Einstein at Salesforce. “The ultimate goal for product managers is to instinctively focus on the customer and not their own egos.”

7) Be Curious

One of the key characteristics that Shivan Bindal, director of product management for Procore, a project management firm, looks for in a PM is a strong sense of curiosity. “A curious product manager is one who will never be satisfied with just one answer,” Shivan said. It is easy for some PMs to settle for the first good idea that comes along, which might not be the best—explore new ideas and don’t be afraid of failure.

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Solving Problems

Healthy relationships between product managers and engineers are critical to the timely success of any project. “With shared leadership, inclusive decision-making, mutual respect, and a commitment to helping each other succeed, you can build a team that delivers results and attracts great people,” said Harlalka.

PMs who master the above skill sets become critical thinkers and problem solvers who can convey these ideas effectively to the engineering team.

Juncal indicated that, for most product leaders, problem-solving is the trait that is most valued in a PM. “These executives understand that product management is a tricky role—one in which there is always a lot of moving parts—and that driving a product successfully to the market will require plenty of creative solutions to unexpected challenges,” he said. “So, when they’re looking for a new PM, these sharp product leaders look for natural problem-solving aptitude, which often presents itself as creative thinking.”

Mark Crawford is a technology writer based in Corrales, N.M.

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