In more than a decade of working in this business, I have had the privilege of working both under and alongside many different project managers (PMs). Through years of learning from others, and making plenty of my own mistakes, I’ve found that that there is not a one-size-fits-all strategy for project management in our unique line of work.
What I have found, however, is that there are three common abilities I have seen in all of the best PMs that I have ever worked with: time management, task management, and information management. Whether you are looking to improve your own PM skills, to hire a new PM, or to train one from within, these are three characteristics you should be looking for.
1) Time Management
My best PMs have effectively managed their time. Balancing a workload that requires equal parts “deep work” and time in the field is a difficult undertaking. Interestingly, these PMs did not follow prescripts for how much time they should spend in the field versus the office. Instead, they simply had good instincts for when their presence in the field was needed, and when their time would be better spent focusing at their desk.
Successful time management starts with the disciplined use of a calendar. By placing any and all events requiring your attendance on your calendar as soon as you’re made aware of them, you begin to build a picture of how your time will be spent in the days and weeks ahead. This will allow you to group field meetings into batches on certain days and block off time to be at your desk for extended periods of time on others.
By starting and ending every business day with a quick calendar check, you can make sure nothing creeps up on you. And lastly, use your calendar for scheduled events only. Using it as a place for miscellaneous to-dos or general reminders clouds your vision. That’s a job better suited for a task manager.
2) Task Management
The day-to-day work of a PM is full of demands coming at you from every direction. Technicians, programmers, bosses, general contractors, architects, designers, and homeowners are all looking to you as a first point of contact for any need or question related to the project. Handling all of these requests can feel like drinking from a fire hose. All of the best PMs that I’ve worked with combat this challenge through the rigorous use of a task management system. I’ve personally used Trello for years and recommend it to anyone who will listen, but there are hundreds of options out there.
Step one is to get in the habit of capturing everything in your task manager. It is rarely the case that you will be able to address a given request the minute it is assigned to you. Capturing the task in your system right away will free you from the worry that you may forget about it, and will allow you to continue working with a clear head.
Coming back to the assigned task when you have time, the next step is to break it down into the smallest possible action steps and push it forward. Oftentimes the tasks assigned to you as a PM will require multiple steps to complete. Looking at it as a whole can be daunting, and as such can lead you to procrastinate. When you consider that the next step may be as simple as sending a single e-mail or making a five-minute phone call, the task becomes a lot more manageable.
Step three is to follow through. Effective project management requires poking, prodding, and nagging until things get done. Any task management system that you come up with should allow you to mark a task as pending. Set due dates and reminders on these pending tasks and follow up relentlessly until the job gets done.
3) Information Management
From signed proposals and change orders, to plan sets and cut sheets, every project we undertake is awash in details. Miscommunication on any one of these details can mean the difference between a profitable installation and a financial train wreck. Therefore, it is one of the most important roles of a PM to manage the flow of information. The best PMs that I’ve worked with all realize the importance of this, and work hard to effectively organize information in a way that anyone on the team can easily find the relevant details.
Shared drives should be set up consistently between all projects, and in such a way that accounts for the fact that technicians in the field will often be looking for information on a phone or tablet. Proposals, drawings, and other internal documentation should be kept up to date as changes are happening, not at the end of the project. And important changes to the project should be proactively communicated to the entire team in real time. Only by organizing all of these details can a PM provide the team with what they need to do their jobs effectively and efficiently.
By looking at the role of PM through these three simple pillars, it becomes clear that these skills are all learnable and teachable. Of course, I have only scratched the surface of these capabilities, and the real challenge lies in executing on these pillars in the midst of our crazy workweeks. Ultimate success in the position of PM depends on this ability to make order out of chaos. Focusing on these three pillars provides a great starting point for anyone looking to add to their project management toolbox.