Project management is the application of a diverse set of project management skills and experience to inform and lead a project team, delivering a piece of work on time and within budget. Project managers call upon a range of skills, including technical expertise, people management, and strategic and business management, and often oversee a number of projects simultaneously.
Projects might include rolling out new software across a business, constructing an office tower, or opening a new chain of retail outlets. Even planning an overseas trip or renovating a house can be considered project management. Whatever a particular project might involve, there are a number of key project management skills that will help ensure a project is delivered on time, within budget and without compromising quality or safety.
Key project management skills
While the particularities of the project manager role may be constantly evolving, key project management skills stay somewhat consistent. Regardless of future technological advances or workplace culture shifts, foundational project management skills, such as communication, team and time management, and critical thinking and problem solving, will remain core to all of what a project manager does. Keep reading to learn more about these examples of project management skills.
Communication is vital to the success of any project, regardless of its complexity or the size or diversity of the team. Project managers need to be able to communicate directly, clearly and effectively to ensure project team members are aware of what needs to get done – and how and when. With the trend of freelance and remote workers (discussed later in the article), communication has never been more important.
Project managers often act as the link between project stakeholders and project team members, meaning it is also their responsibility to ensure information, such as changing priorities and project requirements, is communicated to the project team.
From conflict resolution and performance evaluation (at the individual and team levels) to coaching and training, project management also means people management. Successful project managers are in tune with and value the personal needs of individual team members – from additional training to flexible working arrangements. Project managers must recognise team management as a key project management skill to ensure individual and project success.
Since all projects have a projected completion date, time management begins the moment a project does and drives the project forward. When considering time management, Task Manager writer Fred Wilson says it’s important to create a thoughtful project timeline, including deadlines, and have a clear idea of the resources available – and needed – to fulfil the project’s requirements. Using effective time management can increase team productivity and performance.
Critical thinking and problem solving
It’s essential for project managers to consider critical thinking and problem solving as crucial components of their project management skillset. These skills include the ability to predict problems before they occur and to find measured solutions with broad project considerations.
Trends in project management
Having a solid foundation of key project management skills is essential when working in a changing and rapidly growing field. While some of the trends highlighted below might not be new to project management, it’s important to note their continuing impact and how they could shape project management in the future.
Being aware of these trends ensures project managers stay employable and relevant in their domain. Additionally gaining a deeper understanding offers an exciting opportunity to lead innovative change in project management.
Remote and virtual teams
Whether professionals work as freelancers for multiple clients or remotely for a single employer, flexible working environments are increasingly popular. According to the Freelancing in Australia study conducted by communications firm Edelman, more than 4 million Australians freelanced in 2015 – and most of them were happy doing so. Fifty-eight per cent of freelancers said they wouldn't return to traditional employment, no matter the financial incentive.
It’s not only freelancers who are happy with their situation; employers, too, are taking full advantage of the gig economy. The Future of Jobs Report found ‘businesses are set to expand their use of contractors doing task-specialised work, with many respondents highlighting their intention to engage workers in a more flexible manner, utilising remote staffing beyond physical offices’.
In turn, project managers may have a smaller team of employed or fixed-contract professionals working alongside remote freelancers, hired for their specific skill sets and experience. This presents project managers with opportunities to build strong, diverse and capable project teams. Conversely, it also introduces new challenges.
Research conducted by Dr. Penny Pullan for the Project Management Institute studied the challenges remote teams face. Individuals working in and leading virtual teams have to overcome obstacles such as missing out on the nuances of a conversation, working across time zones and cultures, and building trust within the team. However, the biggest challenge cited was engaging remote workers.
The same survey also revealed possible solutions to these challenges. The main suggestion, ironically, was meeting face to face – if not regularly, then at the start of a project or periodically throughout the year. Other suggestions to help build a cohesive and aligned virtual team included:
- Prioritising regular, clear communication
- Clearly defining roles and responsibilities
- Having a shared vision and a sense of purpose within the team
Kanban workflow management tools, which allow project managers to allocate tasks and track individual progress, will also continue to be important when working with virtual teams. An increasingly popular Agile approach, Kanban project management aims to make processes (workflows) and project teams more efficient by breaking down large goals into small, actionable tasks. This allows teams to do more in less time by bypassing unnecessary work and workflow bottlenecks and making process improvements along the way. The visual nature of Kanban allows project managers and team members to see tasks in progress, top priorities, due dates, etc., making this an ideal tool for virtual teams.
Dr Pullan suggests the following tips for project managers leading virtual teams:
Run effective virtual meetings
Regular and effectively run virtual team meetings can help keep remote team members engaged, especially when meeting participants are actively called on for their input and comments.
Take things slow
As simple as it might sound, slowing down allows project managers to more effectively engage with each team member and better understand individual needs and working styles. Dr Pullan also suggests building a common vision and establishing shared objectives for the team from the beginning. While potentially time-consuming at first, doing so can help prevent conflict, disengagement and other resource drains further down the line.
Project managers should make a communication plan that considers how team members should interact over the course of a project. According to Dr Pullan, ‘It should cover technology too, both for virtual meetings and collaboration tools for sharing information and storing documents’. This will ensure the team is clear about what is expected and will also encourage a supportive, united front.
Emphasis on emotional intelligence and other soft skills
With remote workers and an increase in automated tasks and communication, modern working conditions can push us further away from our colleagues, even those we work most closely with. Emotional intelligence is an essential project management skill. According to the Digital Project Manager, ‘a project manager’s people-focused role [is] as an empathetic listener, anticipator of needs, adept coordinator, tactful negotiator and motivational leader’.
Soft skills – such as leadership, communication, team work, creativity, flexibility and adaptability – can be defined by how people interact in their relationships.
According to the Project Management Institute, ‘Being able to anticipate the people-dynamics and optimise each interaction is a critical skill required to build team confidence and team focus to ensure projects end on budget and on time while delivering exceptional outcomes’. While these soft skills can be more difficult to master than hard skills due to their intangible nature, they are no less important.
Since Agile’s introduction in the software industry in the early 2000s, Agile has been used by teams across all industries, including human resources, manufacturing and retail, enabling continuous improvement and concentrated implementation of project goals. And while Agile isn’t necessarily a trend, it does continue to play an important role in project management.
Agile is a project management approach ‘based on delivering requirements iteratively and incrementally throughout the life cycle,’ according to the Association for Project Managers (APM). The Agile approach breaks down goals into actionable, prioritised tasks; promotes collaborative teamwork; and allows for project managers and team members to respond effectively to changing requirements. APM says the Agile approach acts to ‘empower those involved, build accountability, encourage diversity of ideas, [allow] the early release of benefits and [promote] continuous improvement’.
Over time, the definition of Agile has expanded exponentially. Forbes writer Steve Denning argues that what is most important and relevant today is the Agile mindset (or business agility), rather than more traditional related methodologies: ‘Most of the largest and fastest-growing firms on the planet – Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, Netflix and Microsoft – are recognisably Agile in much of what they do, even though most don’t use standard Agile vocabulary’.
Developing strong project management skills for the future
When you’re looking at how to future-proof your project management skills, consider the following advice from Forbes writer Dana Brownlee:
- Rather than become an automation or AI expert, talk to experts in your industry and look for training and educational opportunities specific to their recommendations.
- Focus on both technical and relationship training.
- Keep up to date with project management methodologies (e.g. by watching online tutorials).
- Develop conflict management skills to better lead project teams.
Professionals currently working in – or looking to work in – project management should consider further education to equip themselves with management and leadership skills that are in demand across diverse industries. RMIT’s online Graduate Diploma in Project Management, for example, focuses on the practical application of theory – and is often completed by part- or full-time professionals already working in the field. On-the-job training, coaching and participating in seminars and workshops can also be beneficial when focusing on a specific skill such as Kanban or Agile methodologies or people management.
The future of project management in Australia
Project managers (PMs) and hardhats are sometimes synonymous, but project management goes beyond construction, touching many different industries. The results of a global study conducted for the Project Management Institute by the Anderson Economic Group show that by 2027 employers will need 87.7 million individuals working in project management-oriented roles.
The same study for the Project Management Institute found that, across the globe, there is a widening gap between the need for skilled project managers and the availability of project managers to fill these roles due to the surge in the numbers of jobs that require project management skills. The demand for project managers is growing across industries, with the most significant growth seen in manufacturing and construction, information services and publishing, and finance and insurance. These global trends are relevant to the Australian workforce, meaning there has been no better time to pursue a career in project management.
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