Successful Project Manager: 4 Key Traits

Written by:sherlockiscool

Published: April 27, 2012

Successful Project Managers:

4 key traits you must have

Let’s start with the basics for project managers

Have you ever invested time in researching or testing project management systems? Because these overlap with so many related areas of business like customer relationship management or accounts, it can quickly become a nightmare. Recently researching project management systems I came across an excellent post on the Copper Project Blog which reminded me of a key point: it’s vital to get the basics working first.

With technology, we can get bamboozled comparing features, when, to use a car analogy, getting from A to B safely has got more to do with the driver’s skill than the safety features of the car.

So with that in mind, I wanted to outline four traits that I think “makes a good project manager”, inspired by Ben’s article on the Copper Project blog, and based on my own experience of managing product design projects, and working with some great project managers. So here goes – these four traits are:

1 – Honesty and integrity

It might seem obvious, but being honest without upsetting everyone is a hard trick to pull off. Studies show that people most admire leaders who are honest and act with integrity. For instance one of the best things you can be known for as as project manager is always doing what you say you’ll do. This is really tough in design where often venturing into the unknown you’re constantly discovering new challenges which trip projects up. So when the going gets tough it’s vital that the Project Manager sticks to their principles, remains honest and open about any difficulties – staying focused on helping people solve the problems rather than pinning blame. When people see you’re being consistently honest and genuine they get a comfortable feeling that they can trust you, and will likely follow you anywhere.

2 – Big Picture Thinking

Good designers and project managers need to be able to fit all the details into the big picture. People who are more detail-focused can find this difficult. More than just having a broad general knowledge of the subject – the project manager must also understand how this project fits into the business goals and most importantly care about everything and everyone affecting that picture.  This doesn’t mean micro-managing every detail, but they do need to obsess about knowing where everyone “is at” compared to the plan. They must be able to know as soon as any problems appear and know how to help their people solve those problems.

3 – A high tolerance for uncertainty

Often project managers who have come from a technical background can find it very difficult to work through situations where there are no clear answers. Most technically-oriented people are accustomed to precision, detail and lots of information. This is where designers are more comfortable, being trained in using creativity and used to working with “messy thinking” as a way to explore solutions. These are situations where you have to take risks, making assumptions or decisions without enough information, perhaps based on contradictory data or differing “gut feel” opinions. A good project manager will be able to probe the situation to see where they can find definite answers – perhaps by asking difficult “why are we… ?” type questions, then be prepared to accept the “floaty bits” and live with making “good enough” decisions. Sometimes you just have to prepared to go with it, keeping it in mind for it to be resolved later. As the project progresses, it can easily change direction often making that “critical decision” irrelevant anyway! It can be a difficult balance between being too laissez-faire and risking making mistakes, or being too uptight and holding back innovation and progress.

4 – Flexibility and lack of ego

Following on from the uncertainty of projects is the ability to handle change. Projects will inevitably change direction and it is vital that a good project manager can run with this and is happy to redirect everyone’s effort mid project as new ideas and information are discovered. There’s no point getting upset if a particular design approach is shown to be wrong perhaps when a prototype fails to work. It has to be seen as useful information on the way to getting the right result. It is particularly important that the project manager never gets emotionally wedded to any one idea – especially when it’s theirs! This is a mistake you often see inexperienced PM’s making on “The Apprentice” TV show, where they can’t let their “brilliant” idea go even when other people start to spot problems with it. A good project manager knows that it is irrelevant who an idea comes from or how much effort has been invested in any particular direction – the important question is does it still serve the larger aims of the project… Which brings us full circle back to the need for ‘honesty‘ and ‘seeing the bigger picture‘.

So, what really makes a successful project design manager?

In reality, I think good project managers need a wide range of people and planning skills, knowledge of technology and an understanding of business – alongside some solid personal traits.

A good PM is the glue that binds the team and channels the communication, having to handle tricky semi-technical, semi-commercial conversations with the client one minute, helping a team member solve a gnarly technical problem the next and being able to wrap it all up to report progress to management at the end of the day.

It’s a tough job, which requires bravery, clear thinking and persistence – one which I believe is very often underrated.

Perhaps you are a project manager or have worked with some really good (or bad!) ones? I’d really like to hear about your experience and views of these traits. Please do share your thoughts!


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