Project Management Skills

Project Management Skills For a Successful Project Manager 

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP
Dick’s Books on Amazon

What project management skills do consistently successful project managers have in common?  There are personality traits, interpersonal skills, the ability to communicate, and knowledge of the right techniques to use in various project situations. Let’s start by examining the project management skills commonly used to define the consistently successful project manager. We’ll also examine a few of the myths about these skills. Then we’ll go on to examine how an organization’s project management processes and the scope of their projects affect the requirements for the successful project manager.

Project Management Skills and How They Evolved

Project Management Skills: Technical expertise – Expertise is the most ancient of the project manager ingredients. In the old days, many organizations a successful project manager required only strong technical expertise. After all, without outstanding technical expertise how could a project manager command the respect of the team? How could they plan a technically strong solution or solve problems that arose? Without superior technical knowledge, how could a PM enforce high performance standards? How could they avoid having the “wool pulled over their eyes” by team members?

Project Management Skills: Ability to Work with the User/Client – As project management evolved, it became apparent that project managers also required the ability to “sell” and persuade users and clients. Then a basic communication requirement evolved into the need for project managers to “see” the project from the user’s or client’s perspective. They couldn’t just concern themselves with the technical skills. Project managers had to learn to plan projects based on the impact on the users’/clients’ business. They had to be able to drive the effort to deliver business relevant results. Presentation Skills Video

Project Management Skills: Project Management Tools & Techniques – It also became apparent there were specialized tools and techniques that a project manager needed to be successful. For tier #1 projects (small efforts within a department), this tool set consisted of a planning template and software for creating Gantt charts. For tier #2 projects (multi-department or cross-functional projects), the project management skills and tools included higher level communications skills and software tools for modeling options and tracking performance. For tier #3 projects (strategic-level projects),the project management skills and tools grew to include strategic planning skills and interpersonal skills for multiple stakeholder situations. People realized that the best project managers had a big tool kit and the knowledge to pick the right tools for each project.

Project Management Skills: Ability to Motivate Project Team Members – Along with recognition of special project management skills and tools came recognition that the “expert power” of the technical guru was not enough to build highly motivated project teams. PMs, particularly those borrowing people across functional departments, needed the ability to determine the right way to deal with each team member. They needed the interpersonal skills to develop effective project team cultures. The management skills to define the “right” assignment for each team member and the skill to build commitment to estimates and deadlines were essential. Project Manager Communication Skills

Project Management Skills: Ability to Solve Problems – Organizations have always wanted project managers who are good problem solvers, good fire fighters.  That fit nicely with the historic requirement that project managers be the technical guru and pull off heroic technical rescues. But executives learned to value PMs who could perform risk management and avoid having any fires to put out.project management skills

These skills are a basic list of the project management skills required for success. But there is no such thing as “one PM skill set fits all.” You need to think about the processes an organization needs to develop its own successful project managers.

Moving Up From Tier #1 Projects to Tier #2 and #3

It would be nice if the project management skills and techniques that make PMs successful on small projects were an automatic springboard to success on larger projects. But the reverse is often true. The techniques and styles that work well on a tier #1 project (limited scope within a functional unit) are usually a disaster when you apply them to tier #2 (cross functional) and tier #3 (strategic) projects.  Unfortunately, the ingredients for project success change as:

  • The size of the project team grows
  • The project’s scope spans functional or organizational boundaries
  • The project “reaches” for benefits that are less tactical and more strategic.

A PM’s strong technical knowledge can successfully manage small technical projects with 2-4 people.  Their technical knowledge and individual problem-solving ability lets them catch and fix all the problems. But that micromanaging style can’t expand to cover a team of 6, 12 or more people. As the scale of their project increases, PMs need to elevate their techniques. They must get rid of that delicious temptation to make all the decisions.

Running a project for the boss within a functional unit is straightforward. The whole team usually has a common boss so authority, priority and resource allocation issues are easily resolved. The boss also controls the scope whenever an issue arises. But when the team is drawn from across functional or organizational boundaries and the stakeholders multiply, superior PM techniques need to fill the gap.

The necessary project management skills also change based on the business outcome the project has to deliver. If it’s enhancing an existing functionality or process, the PM doesn’t need much “strategic vision.” But as projects aim for improvements in operational performance or strategic-level results, the PM must be able to see beyond the technology and drive the project toward those measured business outcomes.

The PM Alone Does Not Determine Project Results

Even the most superbly equipped PMs fail when the organization’s growth or density of projects increases. These factors can make the organization’s project environment a mess of over-allocated resources and priorities that change from moment to moment. When organizations increase the frequency and volume of projects without establishing organizational processes, the project failure rate climbs. And everyone usually points to the capabilities of the project managers as the source of the problem. Good PMs can cope with changing scope, priorities and resource availability. But they cannot overcome issues like the following that plague organizations:

  • Uncontrolled project initiation
  • No prioritization of projects
  • Absence of PM authority to manage borrowed team members.

First, the organization must bring order to project initiation with portfolio management processes. Projects should be treated like investments by the portfolio managers. They must evaluate their “yield” when determining priorities and allocating resources. Management can no longer pretend that 98% of the projects can be priority #1 or that projects can require 350% of the available resources.

Second, they must become a matrix organization for projects. They must give PMs some authority to directly assign work and reward outstanding performance of the people they borrow across functional lines.

Project Management Skills Summary

The ideas in this article may be useful in considering the skills project managers need to succeed with different types of projects. It also helps define a PM’s career progression. But there is a point where the organization itself must evolve to achieve consistent success. This requires implementing consistent project management processes and executive controls. For more information on these ideas, take a look at our Basic and Advanced Project Management courses. These courses are online with private, personal instruction. You’ll have as many live video conferences as you need.

We can also design a customized program for your organization and deliver it at your site or in online webinars.


Author: Dick Billows, PMP

Dick has more than 25 years of project and program management experience throughout the US and overseas. Dick was a partner in the 4th largest professional firm and a VP in a Fortune 200 company. He trained and developed 100's of project managers using his methodology. Dick is the author of 14 books, over 300 articles and director/producer of 90 short project management training videos. He and a team of 25 project managers work with client companies & students across the US and in Europe, South America, Asia and the Middle East. They have assisted over 300 organizations in improving their project performance. Books by Dick Billows, PMP are on