So you're the new project manager
tips for a good start
That great day has finally come. After working faithfully for months (or perhaps years), you are finally getting your chance to take over as a project manager. You may have eagerly sought this opportunity or it may have come quite unexpectedly. In either case, you are about to assume a leadership role for both the project and the people working on it. While there is a chance that you will be starting the project and staffing it from scratch, in this paper, I will assume that you are inheriting a project that already exists in some form. This could range from a small team doing early planning to an existing project with a fully staffed project office and a long history.
The question on your mind (and everyone else's) is: What do you do now that you are in charge? The classic answer is: “It depends.” Every project is unique, so what you should do depends on where the project is when you take it over and what it most needs to move forward. So your first job—other than to respond to crises—before you make any decisions is to assess the current state of the project. By the way, the skills you already have or will soon learn in assessing your project are vital to your continued success, and you will apply them frequently as the project moves forward.
Assessing Your Project
The easiest place to start when assessing your project is with your predecessor, assuming that there is one. He or she can provide you not only with current project information, but also with a candid assessment of where the project stands and where it is headed at the moment. They key here is candor. You will need to make your first value judgment on the quality of the information you receive from the person you will replace.
Reviewing project documentation will give you a good baseline and history of the project you are about to lead. Some of the key documents to review are the requirements (are they current and when were they last validated?); the project master plan and any recent project reviews (what is the most current organizational assessment of the project?); project funding (are there any funding or execution shortfalls?); test results (is performance meeting expectations?); and the contracts (key deliverables and earned value metrics?). While project documentation is a rich source for your assessment, it is not the only source and may not even be the best source. In some cases, the documentation may be out of date or out of step with current or emerging project realities.
Making a Good First Impression
Just as important as the documentation are the face-to-face contacts you make with project stakeholders. The fact that you are soon to take over the project should provide you an entrée with these individuals, but it is always good to get the proper approvals (such as from the current project manager) in advance. One of the best skills that you can bring to this inquiry is an open and honest approach coupled with a desire to hear what all of the stakeholders have to say, even if you disagree with their point of view. The key point here is your opportunity to make a solid first impression. This impression should be enhanced with time because each person you talk to will play a role in helping make you and the project successful. In some cases, the relationships you set up will actually be more important than the information you gain from these stakeholders. So to whom do you talk? The list of project stakeholders is potentially endless, and you must look both inside and outside the project office and your immediate environment.
Inside the project office, you should try to talk to as many of your team members and direct reports as you can. You should make it clear to them in advance that they are encouraged to share whatever thoughts and opinions they have about the project. You should also be interested in their ideas on how the project could be improved. You should make it clear that whatever they say will be held in confidence if they so request. Again, your secondary goal here is for each direct report to come away with a good impression of you as someone that he or she can work for and work with once you take over the project.
Moving outside the project office, you certainly need to touch base with all of your customer and stakeholder communities. There will normally be a customer point of contact for your project, but you may not want to stop there. If given the opportunity, you should consider visiting on-site locations and talking with customers who are or will be using your products or services. Building solid relationships with customers is a must if your project is to keep its priority status and funding stream and pass milestone reviews. In addition, you may have subcontractors and vendors working on or with your project team. Meeting with them should also be high on your list. Don't be surprised if they seek you out first. You may be amazed at the sheer number of support contractors and vendors who play important roles on your project.
By now you may be asking, “What about meeting with my new boss?” Yes, that's always important, and you have probably had at least one meeting already. But I recommend that you deliberately put off any follow-on meetings until you are able to gather enough information to make at least a preliminary assessment of your project; otherwise, you may find yourself making promises or commitments you can't keep. Scheduling a later meeting also gives you the chance to show your new boss that you are now up to speed, thereby gaining his or her confidence and support for your first actions.
The goal of your information review and face-to-face meetings is to confirm your current assessment of the project you are about to inherit. In the best-case scenario, you may find that you have inherited a well-running project and need only to sustain and perhaps build on this success. In most cases, though, you will find that your project is relatively sound but requires some changes to get back on track or to prevent future problems. In the worst case, you may find that your project is in more serious trouble and requires major transformation to keep it from falling apart. Your assessment of where the project stands will dictate the resulting leadership style you must employ. In a nutshell, this is the situational leadership approach. If you have done your homework well, your leadership style will be just what the project needs. If not, you could actually make things worse or create new issues that you or your replacement must address.
Three Core Actions to Take
While I have stressed that your actions as the new project manager are highly dependent on your assessment of the project, there are a few core actions that every new project manager must carry out regardless of the circumstances. Assuming you have done your assessment and made some conclusions about the current state of your project, your first actions should address the three themes described below. These themes and the two previous actions are also illustrated in Exhibit 1.
1. Provide Strategic Direction
Most projects are awash in documents providing direction. They could include a vision statement, that all-inclusive and cleverly worded statement found at the front of project briefings, reports, and even framed and hanging on the walls around the project office; a mission statement giving promises of great things you will do for your customers, stakeholder, and employees; a project charter; customer requirements; policy directives; milestone and project review documentation; and taskers from almost anyone. The problem soon becomes which of these sets of overlapping documents really drive the behavior of people who work on the project. You may be shocked to find that your people are working on many different and conflicting priorities.
Your task, should you choose to accept it (and you'd better if you are the new project manager!), is to sort through the complexities and ambiguities of the present situation and provide clear direction for your project office and outside stakeholders. The objective here is clarity. Everyone should know and be able to restate in some form what the project priorities are as well as what specific part they must play in achieving those priorities.
As an example, consider this vision statement that I have adapted from a real one used by an experienced U.S. Department of Defense program manager: “To produce and field by [insert month and year] a/an [insert name of your system] providing revolutionary combat capability with an average production price of less than [insert unit cost] resulting from a successful government/ prime contractor/ subcontractor teaming relationship—a relationship where the warfighter gets a system that will maintain superb performance with a low cost of ownership over the life of the project, the prime contractor and their suppliers get a reasonable profit, and the acquisition community gets a model for acquisition reform that others will emulate.” Note the inclusion of specific schedule and cost goals along with more general stakeholder objectives. Also, note that this or any other vision will likely not drive much behavior change unless the project manager makes it a part of his or her day-to-day priorities and walks the talk.
Direction is not effective unless it is communicated, and this means frequently and through different media. Writing down direction and priorities and sending them out is only the start. Nothing can replace your personal touch in communicating this important information, since you are now the leader and visible spokesperson for the project. Years of communication research have taught us that style is actually more important than substance in effective communication. Your style in communicating helps you to share the clarity of your vision as well as your commitment and passion to achieve it. This is the essence of leadership as well as of successful project management: setting a clear direction, getting people to follow you, and achieving the desired outcomes.
2. Gain Alignment
Now that you have reached some conclusions about the direction and priorities for your project, you need to figure out how to get everyone working toward this same set of priorities. After all, you don't expect to do all of the hard work on this project. That's why you have a project office. So you must next examine the current degree of alignment across the project office and stakeholder community based on your proposed direction and set of priorities. Your conclusions about alignment will come primarily from the information gathering and personal interviews done during your transition. This assessment will help you formulate a plan for achieving alignment within your team and among your external stakeholders.
But alignment is a personal decision. It cannot be directed as a task or deliverable; it must be built from the ground up, and the building blocks of alignment are relationship development and trust. Within the project office, you have directive authority, but you still need to get team members to buy in to your direction and priorities. This may be difficult if it represents a change from previous priorities, and it is complicated by part-time or matrix employees who get priorities from their parent organizations. Some team members may also have hidden agendas (such as protecting their parent organization or getting promoted).
But internal project office alignment is critical to program success. You must get the full support of your direct reports if you are to rely on them to lead in their areas of expertise. It takes only one loose cannon among your direct reports to throw the team out of alignment. In fact, you should never allow a personnel problem of any sort to persist, because it can have a devastating effect on team morale. It is far better to have a vacant position on your team than to hang on to a “problem employee.” That even includes a team member who is competent but doesn't support the current project direction. Aligning the team is your responsibility, and it will likely involve moving team members to different roles or, in some cases, off the team.
Alignment of the team is only the beginning. The real challenge for you as the new project manager is aligning the external stakeholders. Here you have no direct authority and must rely totally on your relationship-development and influence skills. Since this involves considerable time and energy, you must first determine where to concentrate your effort. Which few stakeholders are the real keys to your project's future success? The answer may surprise you. External alignment eventually translates into a series of individual relationships, each requiring a different approach on your part. Relationships are based on mutual give and take. What do you need to give stakeholders to secure their support for your project? In some cases, it may just be information, while in others it may involve much more time and attention to detail. Your success as a new project manager will be highly correlated to your ability to cultivate and retain a critical mass of external stakeholders.
3. Build and Use Your Credibility
This may seem like a strange requirement for a new project manager, but it is the best word I can offer to highlight the character dimension of project management success. In fact, the two previous themes of providing direction and gaining alignment are absolutely dependent on your personal credibility. Credibility means being believable, reliable, and worthy of confidence.
Providing direction depends heavily on communication, and your success in communicating is directly linked to your credibility. Gaining alignment based on relationships and influence is, again, wholly determined by your credibility. You bring your credibility with you based on past events, but you must work to build and maintain this credibility through your day-to-day actions. And it takes only one slip, questionable action, or poor decision to erode your credibility and potentially damage your project.
Project managers seldom have enough people, resources, or time for the challenging jobs they are given. With skillful use of their credibility along with their development of relationships and ability to influence the right people, project managers can grow their initial resource base by continually adding outside resources and support. Credibility thus becomes the force-multiplier that allows project managers to expand their power base into executable and achievable plans for their projects.
I would like to share the approach offered by another senior defense project manager who has taken over and successfully led multiple programs: “When I go into a project, I try to get to know it well—know the people, know the data very quickly—and I can usually do that in a few weeks. Then I try to structure vision and goals and a set of the right metrics so that I'll know quickly if anything has gone awry in the project. Then I try to assign directors accountability for achieving those goals.... I spend my time investing my personality and my vision and philosophy with groups of people and one-on-one.
There is great power and leverage for new project managers in establishing strategic direction, gaining alignment, and building credibility. After all, you only get one chance to make a good first start. The rest is execution.
Daly, P., & Watkins, M. (2006). The first 90 days in government. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.
Smith, P. (1986). Taking charge: A practical guide for leaders. Washington, DC: National Defense University Press.
Watkins, M. (2003). The first 90 days: Critical success strategies for new leaders at all levels. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.
Exhibit 1: So you're the new project manager: tips for a good start.
© 2009, Owen Gadeken
Originally published as part of 2009 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Orlando FL, USA