10 Habits of Successful Project Managers

Project manager in a stand-up meeting discussing project on a whiteboard.

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Why do certain project managers bring their projects in on time, on budget and with satisfied customers while others have a hard time? Let’s look at the ten habits that highly successful project managers share to find out.

These habits get mentioned over and over again in performance appraisals and in end-of-project reviews where the client, team or sponsor is offering feedback to the project manager.

You don’t need to have ten years of experience to deliver success every time. By changing your habits and brushing up your skills you can drastically improve the chances of your project being a success and give yourself a less stressful time at work as well.

#1. Using the Right Team

The most effective and successful project managers know the capabilities of their team members. It means that they can allocate the right work to the right people.

Using the wrong resource on a task can lead to it taking longer or being poorly done. It helps to know the strengths and weaknesses of the individuals working with you so that you can best allocate them to project tasks.

#2. Managing Project Issues

All projects hit issues from time to time. Successful project managers don’t let it worry them. They know the processes for issue management and also how best to deal with problems as they arise.

You can do that too. Once you know how to assess a project issue, you’ll find that issue management becomes an easy habit to incorporate into your weekly routine. Put some time aside to go through your issue log each week, and you’ll soon find that it’s an easy job to stay on top of managing problems.

#3. Coping With Changes

Projects are designed to change things, but that kind of change is happening to other people. It’s harder to manage the change that is aimed squarely at the project team, upsetting the detailed project schedule and creating new work and a whole pile of documentation updates.

Successful project managers have a change management process that they follow. Following defined steps makes it easier to turn any action into a habit because it’s structured and repetitive.

The change management process looks like this:

  • Receive information about the change
  • Assess the change
  • Establish how much work it would be to do the change
  • Prepare a recommendation about whether it is worth going ahead

Once you've prepared a recommendation, ask your sponsor to get a decision from about whether you should incorporate the change or not. You can approve some small changes yourself as long as they are within your remit and authority levels. Successful project managers know that coping with changes is part of the job and they have a plan to deal with them as and when they arise.

#4. Managing Project Costs

It is highly likely that your project is going to incur costs, even if you don’t have full control over the purse strings yourself. Being able to manage financial elements in your control has to be a habit. If you don’t approach it regularly and routinely, you will find the job becomes so huge it’s impossible to do well.

Fantastic project managers stay on top of the expenses with filing systems that work for invoices, quotes, and estimates. Get into the habit of using your budgeting software (even if that is just a spreadsheet).

You can’t manage your project costs until you have a plan for what you are going to spend. Learn how to create a project budget so you can get started.

#5. Teambuilding

The project team might not be working directly for you. So, why is team building part of the habits of successful project managers? It’s because you need your team to work together effectively and you need the individuals involved in the project to quickly come to a point where they trust each other. You get that through building the team. Watch out for situations where your team is falling apart. Bullying behavior, in particular, is unacceptable.

#6. Understanding Processes

The sixth habit of highly successful project managers is that they understand the processes that exist within their sphere of control. That means that they know what work procedures need to be followed. They don’t waste time trying to work out how to write a business case because they know that there is a procedure for that and they can follow the steps.

The most successful project managers are not a slave to the process. They know when the right thing to do is to follow the process. They know when it’s better to tweak it slightly to make the tasks overall easier for everyone. An example of that would be to remove the bureaucracy from a small project by tailoring the processes accordingly.

#7. Updating the Schedule

Project schedules shouldn’t be left to chance. The most successful project managers will make it a habit to regularly check their schedules for accuracy and update them.

There are lots of ways to track your project's progress. The most important thing is that you do it. If you are struggling to make this habit your own, then book a short meeting in your diary with yourself and your schedule once a week. Use the same time each week and take 30 minutes to review where you are and where you need to be. Make the necessary amendments, tell the team and carry on with the project.

If your schedule changes have an impact on the end date for the project or on the delivery date for major milestones, then talk to your sponsor. You shouldn’t change the fundamentals of your baselined plan without going through a formal approval process.

#8. Managing Project Risk

Knowing what to include in your risk register is one thing, but habitually reviewing it and acting on the risks raised is something different. It’s not enough to use the beginning of your project to identify risks and then not think about them again. Risk management needs to be part of your project habits because without it you’ll find that risks turn into issues and create problems for you.

It is another area where standard processes and booking a regular slot to do a risk review can help. You can include it as part of your team meetings. Make it a habit to review your risks with the team, close any that are no longer a threat and plan actions for those that you want to mitigate.

#9. Tracking Time

Project managers know a lot about project time management, but that tends to be in the domain of scheduling and planning. What we’re talking about is time tracking on a more regular, daily basis. We’re talking about timesheets.

Project teams often aren’t that keen to use timesheets if they haven’t done so before. Many project management software tools have time tracking inherent in the product. That can make it easier to introduce the switch to time tracking as a team.

Whether or not you track your team’s time (which is recommended) it is important that you know where your own time goes in a day. You should make it a habit to keep a note of how you spend your time. It will help you understand whether you are spending time on the top priority project tasks. You might think that you are, but are you? Timesheets or time recording of some form will help, even if it is just an hourly log on a notepad.

#10. Delivering Business Change

Finally, the habit that makes project managers most successful is their ability to equate project outputs to business results. If users don’t use your product or the software quickly falls out of date or customers aren’t as amazed as you are then your project has been a waste of time.

The most successful project teams make sure that they know what business results they're aiming for. They build a solution that delivers that business change in a sustainable fashion. What they deliver when the project ends is fully used and totally adopted by the customer. It’s a success because it has been built to be a success from the start.

Understanding business objectives is a key criterion for any project manager who wants to make an impact on customers and stakeholders. If you can show that you have delivered something of value, then it’s easy to demonstrate the impact you have and the value that you bring to the company.

Make it a habit of asking your stakeholders what business value they are expecting and how they want to use whatever it is that your project is delivering for them. Talk to them about how they define success. You can build this into a repeatable process at the start of every project.