Project Management Skills for Busy Leaders

A dashboard project management pad filled in with to-do's on a blue desk next to two pens and washi tape.

“Simplicity is complexity resolved.” — Constantin Brâncuși 

So little of what we do on a daily basis happens in a vacuum. Typically, we’re consumed with multi-faceted tasks that are made up of several parts. Sometimes those tasks are simple, and sometimes they’re high level and require specialized skills from different teams or people.  

Even if you’re just leading a team of one, it’s easy to become overwhelmed on a project. 

Whatever it is you’re working on, having a toolbox of project management skills is critical for success.

Think about a project from your past that involved many moving pieces. What made it successful or unsuccessful? 

Plans succeed or fail based on communication, accountability, and planning.

Getting to a place where each piece of a project fits together perfectly can take an investment of time and a lot of coordination, and you should always expect a few bumps along the way. After all, the more moving parts there are, the more chances there are for things to go wrong. That’s just reality! 

In this post, learn the 4 essential project management skills that you need in order to make projects of all sizes happen. With a little practice and persistence, you’re sure to be running a well-oiled machine. 

1. Staying organized

The best project managers must keep track of details big and small: the end goal, how different departments are collaborating, and the status of all contributors.

They need to be able to see the project from a 30,000-foot view and also dive into each detailed zone of the project and know what’s what. That isn’t easy to do without some serious organization skills, which makes organization one of the most important project management skills a person can have.

Juggling multiple teams or deadlines can get pretty complicated pretty quickly, so keeping to-do lists separate is a good way to stay organized and avoid forgetting something. Thinking like a project manager means seeing the whole and the pieces all at the same time, so finding a way to integrate both mindsets into your daily or weekly planning will be a game-changer. 

The Ink+Volt Dashboard Deskpad was made with that kind of high level + daily detail organization in mind. It’s divided into 6 focus areas, so you can keep to-do lists, deadlines or any kind of notes for each project or team. Then, you can add your top priorities for the week and keep track of any big deadlines with the weekly calendar at the top.

2. Time management

As stressful as deadlines are, they provide projects with structure and help everybody to complete their tasks in a way that benefits the entire team.

The presence of deadlines, however, can create a lot of stress on a project, so being aware of how time is spent is a critical skill. Deadlines must be logical and they must create a delicate balance between having enough time for good work while also not delaying the overall timeline.

“Time management is essential in project management (because), often, time is a project manager’s scarcest resource,” explains Christopher Bolick, lead faculty in the project management programs within Northeastern University’s College of Professional Studies.

This is why keeping a schedule, only committing to meetings that are purposeful, and having a solid long-term structure in place is so important, he said. But Bolick knows, like most of us, that there are few days that go exactly as planned. 

Being able to pivot at a roadblock can be the difference between meeting a deadline and having to push something back, which could have ramifications for other team members and pieces of the overall project goal. 

The best way to prepare for the unexpected is to make sure there is a timetable that allows for a little chaos, and to make sure that the timeline (and any changes to it) are communicated to the entire team. 

Send deadline reminders often, communicate expectations clearly, and remember to react quickly when needed. Sharing information with the right people, even when it's bad news, is better for the team's success than staying quiet.

Bolick recommends keeping stakeholders engaged and informed, so that communication comes more easily and it’s less likely that one piece will blow up the entire project. 

3. Resolving conflicts

In the world of project management, there will always be bumps along the way, especially with different ideas and personalities working together to meet a common goal. A project manager will ideally find ways to avoid workplace conflicts before they begin and put them to rest as quickly as possible when they do happen.

While these instances can be awkward, they are inevitable. Having a process on how to handle them can be the quickest way to get around them.

First, try to get to the source of the conflict. More often than not, conflicts are a simple instance of miscommunication or mismatched expectations. Getting people together to clarify things and create an agreed-upon plan is often all it takes to get people moving again.

Take time to listen and learn about the conflict. As a project manager, you may be able to add insight, but make sure you have all the details first. Sometimes a team member just wants to be heard.

Finally, look for a common goal. In these situations, you’re acting as more of a mediator rather than an authority. Remember to listen, remind your colleagues that compromise is important, and you’re all there for similar reasons. Try to establish a course of action that everybody can live with while still completing the project and meeting deadlines. 

4. Decision-making

Perhaps one of the most difficult parts of project management is making decisions. You may have to determine whether to change course, extend deadlines, or alter budgets.

Those types of decisions can have big impacts. It can feel like a lot of pressure. Likewise, small decisions — like when to call a meeting or determining a minor detail — can be tedious and daunting in their own way. Decision fatigue is a real thing, and being the ultimate decision-maker over and over again can become quite taxing, even if the stakes are fairly low.

You may be worried about which choice is the right one and how it will impact the project or team as a whole, but putting off decisions can prolong work, sabotage deadlines, and derail efficiency. 

If you’re in the place where you need to make a decision and you aren’t 100% confident, take a step back and make a short list of possible outcomes. A pro and con list can do wonders in these situations, as can doing a deeper dive into logistical details and personal intuition.

Over time, making decisions comes more natural, but it might always be a little bit uncomfortable for some people. During those instances, remember that often action is better than inaction and choice paralysis will only leave you standing in the same spot.

Remember that you can make the wrong choice and simply change course later if needed. Narrow your choices as much as possible, make an informed judgment, and then go from there.

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