What Should a New Project Manager Focus On?

It was about 17 years ago. I sat opposite the new project manager. What to tell her?

The First Meeting

I remember sitting down with a new project manager over coffee. Don’t get me wrong: she had lots of good experience, but was off to manage her first project for a client the next day…

Her basic course in project management was scheduled for a few weeks’ time, so I had to help her get to grips with the basics, and I had a couple of hours to do it. I still recall the advice I gave, and I wouldn’t change it today.

Number 1: First of All, Build a Relationship with Your Client

Everything follows from this. But if you don’t pay attention to this at the start, then any errors you make may not be forgiven.

It is all too easy to get your head down and focus on ‘the project’, but remember that your client (or your boss, or your project sponsor, or your Project Director) is the driving force behind the project for you. What they want needs to figure highly in your list of priorities. Without a relationship, you won’t be able to find out what that is.

Read next: How to manage your first meeting with a project sponsor

The Project Hierarchy

The next thing a new project manager needs to focus on is the ‘project hierarchy’. I don’t mean ‘who’s at the top of the tree, and who are the team members?’ What I mean by this is the hierarchy of importance of project concepts.

I learned it as GOSPA:

  • Goals
  • Objectives
  • Strategy
  • Plans
  • Actions (need a free action log template? Download one here)

A new project manager, like any other, needs to focus their energies on these four things, in that order. And, of course, your relationship with your client is key to starting the process of defining your project’s goals.

The Triple Constraint

If there is one concept in project management that is more subtle than people often think, and more important than any other, I would nominate the Triple Constraint. You may know it by other names: the Iron Triangle, the Time-Cost-Quality Triangle, or the Triangle of Balance.

Whatever name it has, it is super important for understanding the competing tensions and priorities on your project.

At the objectives stage of GOSPA, it is vital to understand the relative importance of the three dimensions of time, cost, and quality.

The Triple Constraint won’t solve any of your problems, I tell new project managers. But it will always make your choices very clear.

And if you have understood your client’s and your other stakeholders’ priorities properly, it may even help you select wisely from among your choices.

Project Management is a People Discipline

It is easy to get caught up in the strategizing, planning, and delivery actions that follow in the GOSPA framework. And many people think that this is the heart of project management. And don’t get me wrong… it is important.

It’s just the attitude that places them front and center that can get you into trouble. Because, above all else, project management is a people discipline. And if you treat strategy, planning, and delivery as academic, theoretical, or abstract activities, you are lost.

So your next focus, as a new project manager, is people. And this means three things to me:

  1. The Governance Hierarchy
    This is your sponsor, steering group or project board, project auditors and assessors, and anyone else who has a responsibility for the proper performance of your project. Build your relationships with them, and understand their needs and concerns, so you can properly address them.
  2. Your Project Team.
    These are the people who will make your project happen, so they are vitally important. Remember that, as well as managing your project, you are responsible for managing the people on your project. This means giving leadership and support, guiding and developing them, and allocating work wisely.
  3. Your Stakeholders
    These are the people who will ultimately determine whether your project is a success… or not. So engage with them positively so you can learn from them, keep them informed and, when necessary, influence them gently.

Get a pack of templates to get started in the right direction when engaging stakeholders.

Shift Happens!

Projects are inherently uncertain, and uncertainty creates risk. A common error I often see new project managers make is to prepare well for risks, by identifying potential problems, analyzing their likelihood and impact, and then recording actions in their risk register.

What they then do is move on and forget them.

Risks won’t be intimidated by an awesome risk register. You need to work them actively, and use your register as a day-to-day risk management tool. That way you constantly reduce the risk profile of your project.

Read next: 14 common project risks to include in your risk register

One More Thing

There is one more thing I remember advising this new project manager all those years ago. And it is arguably the most important tip of all.

It is very easy to get caught up in all the priorities I have already discussed. And as a new project manager, this can soon drag you down into the details. You need to be able to pull back and see the project as a large interconnected whole.

And you also need to be able to reflect on what you are learning, what you are observing, and the trends and patterns that no one else is seeing.

Create time and space each week, once a week, for thinking. Half an hour’s true headspace, where you have no interruptions, will soon become the most valuable time in your week.

Sure, sometimes you’ll think of nothing and make no notes. But at other times, a chance to clear your mind of the minutia of your project will allow it to bring something important that you have been missing, into your consciousness. And surely that is what a new project manager should focus on too.