10 ideas for helping a weak project manager get better at the job

Managers and team members can take specific steps to help a struggling PM identify a skills gap and find solutions.

Businessman burying his head uner a laptop asking for help

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Whether the problems start at the beginning of a project or crop up at the halfway point, a weak project manager can cause a lot of trouble. The best case scenario is tension and conflict on an internal team. The worst case is missing deadlines or taking a financial hit.

Michael Astashkevich, the chief technical officer at Smart IT, said that not helping a PM who is having trouble can cause a company to lose a client. He recommends assessing a PM’s skills before the project begins and throughout the work.

“Therefore, for it not to come down to two options, either changing the PM or losing the project, I always recommend being very upfront in your communication and leading an open dialogue without making assumptions,” he said.

Being a successful project manager requires mastery of many skills including influence, negotiation, politics, change, conflict management, sales, and humor.  Managers should keep this comprehensive view in mind when determining how to help a struggling PM.

SEE: Cross-training toolkit (TechRepublic Premium)

If you are working with a project manager who needs help, here are 10 ideas from analysts, consultants, and executives for taking on this problem and creating a stronger team in the process.

Create regular feedback sessions

If the team is in the habit of discussing the strengths and weaknesses of the project, it will be easier to deliver bad news or ask hard questions as part of a regular meeting instead of a special conversation.

“Propose monthly or weekly meetings where the team will talk and the manager will listen, or you can provide feedback at one-on-one meetings. Try to make your working process transparent and explain the steps to the manager so (s)he will understand what you are doing and why it takes a specific amount of time. Team management is a two-way street.” – Murad Musakaev, project and business development manager at the game studio Full HP Ltd. 

“Team members who encounter a poor performing project manager need to exercise accountability and take action up the organization to guide such a manager. Ask questions about vision, strategy, portfolio selection criteria, methodology, process, team development, action plans, and status reporting. These questions may bring attention to missing but critical ingredients.” – Randall L. Englund, executive consultant, Englund Project Management Consultancy

Put it in writing

When you’ve got to have a difficult conversation, don’t rely on a face-to-face meeting alone to deliver the message. 

“Always document your concerns. If the PM gives you an impossible deadline, always send a politely worded email to the PM saying that you will do best but you are not entirely sure that you can finish in the time allotted. Hold up your part of the deal and stay professional in all your dealings with the PM and the project.” – Pushpraj Kumar, business analyst at software development company iFour Technolab

Try a vocabulary test

It sounds obvious, but part of the problem may be terminology. If the project team is not communicating well, make sure everyone understands the lifecycle of a project and how a project unfolds. Most people are reluctant to speak up and admit they don’t know something.

“I have witnessed people disconnect from their work because they don’t understand the terminology or acronyms. If you frame the discussion as an educational session for the entire team, the project manager will not be singled out. Share a glossary or review various terms to explain what those terms are and how they are used. For instance, if someone on the project team asks another member of the team if they have completed their tasks on the WBS, I would suggest that the other team member responds by saying ‘Yes, I have completed my tasks on the work breakdown structure,’ or ‘Yes, I have completed my tasks identified on the work plan.'” – Mary Beth Imbarrato, founder and owner, MBI Consulting, a strategic planning and project management training company

Use a positive example

“In the case of an unengaged project manager, find a project manager within the group that is engaged. Find a project manager that is using the tools and is exploiting the benefits and enlist them to share with the broader team or the individuals who are less than convinced. Peer pressure is a powerful thing. If a less than engaged project manager is seeing one of their peers being successful as a result of adopting and embracing the tools the company provides, it will turn the heads of other project managers and start to pull them on board.” – Bret Tushaus, vice president of product management at Deltek, a project management software and consulting company

Establish a common project management tool

An all-in-one collaboration tool for the team and the management can solve some of the problems created by a weak project manager. 

“If the project manager cannot coordinate the team well, it would be helpful to have the whole team at one place, communicating individually and in chat rooms. Such tools usually come with features such as text/audio/video chat, screen-sharing and remote control, unlimited size file transfer, virtual whiteboard and more. These will enable the team to collaborate quickly, seek assistance, exchange ideas and important files. It will help reduce the gap in the communication, as usually that’s the biggest issue.” – Nikola Baldikov, digital marketing manager at Brosix, an instant message platform

Motivate the PM to use PM tools

Sometimes, project managers will see various tools, especially software-based ones, as something that gets in the way of how they like to manage their projects.

“If it can be demonstrated to a project manager how having the data ‘in the system’ can benefit them from a tracking perspective and will make it very clear to them, in real time, when an adjustment may need to be made to stay on track, you can quickly get that project manager on board. This is the age old idea of identifying a problem before it becomes a problem. Project managers need to see how adopting the tools we make available to them can help them manage their risks and stay ahead of their projects.” –   Tushaus

Involve everyone in the planning process

Get off to a good start and make sure everyone involved in a project has a say about the timeframe.

“The biggest complaint I’ve seen about PMs is about expectations – they do their planning with maybe a manager and developer and that gets passed to the entire team who is responsible for execution. There is so much room for error here that taking the extra time to include everyone in the planning is worth it in the long run.” – Quincy Smith, founder, ESL Authority, a job board and information site about teaching abroad

Be kind

It’s easy to be angry when work is not going smoothly, but it’s more productive in the long run to offer help rather than criticism.

“From the very beginning, if the PM does not perform as expected, I would advise the team to show signs of support and understanding. The team should be prepared to make allowances for the PM and for each other. The feeling of support and the atmosphere of trust are crucially important for an inexperienced and insecure PM. If the PM is new not only to the project but to the company in general, it is useful to introduce the PM to company processes and routines.”  – Max Savonin, CEO at the software development company KeenEthics 

Address the issue of a part-time PM

A project manager often has other responsibilities in addition to running a project. This is a problem when team members working on the project full-time need to discuss issues, risks or changes to the project. 

“If the PM is MIA, there are two different paths a team member can take: 1) Ask the PM if they can possibly off-load some of their “day job” and spend more time with the project team or 2) Ask the PM to provide specific days and times where they will be focusing on the project only. It would be even better if the PM could be co-located with the project team if possible. Having a ‘presence’ is incredibly important to a project team and having positive progression in a project effort.” – Imbarrato 

Review your own approach

Work is a two-way street. Everyone has a role in ensuring success or risking failure. As you work with a wobbly project manager, make sure you are doing your part too.

“Project sponsors have a crucial role to ensure they are doing their jobs to select, train, and develop competent project managers. On-going support is required throughout project life cycles. Be tuned to morale and performance of team members that may reflect badly on the project manager. Step in when needed to get everything on track. Excellence in project sponsorship is a necessary factor to ensure project managers and teams are motivated and
guided to meet strategic goals.” – Englund

“Talking about what’s not working can help you discover that you could change. We naturally assume that we’re in the right and the other person is wrong. But, of course, it’s only one possible reality. It is entirely possible that by talking with the other person you might learn about something you might be doing to cause or exacerbate the problem. You will gain the insight about what’s not working for them, and how you might be able to shift your approach to fix that.” – Halelly Azulay, founder of TalentGrow, a leadership development consulting firm

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