What is the Single Most Important Skill for a Project Manager?

embrace values and deliver outcomes“What is the most important skill that a Project Manager needs to be successful?” This question is asked endlessly in articles, blog posts, discussion groups and polls. The usual answers are skills such as: “Leadership”, “Communication”, “Team-building”, “Honesty”, and “Technical Knowledge”.

The problem with these answers is that they are too generic: noble intent but general and therefore open to many interpretations in the real world.  “Communicate what?” is the first question that comes to my mind.

But there is a skill that not only differentiates great PM’s from others, but also speaks to why Project Management is different to other forms of management activity.

That most important skill for PM’s is the ability to obtain an outcome.

If you do nothing else to improve your PM skills, do this

A project is an outcome

Let’s think about the basic definition of a project, as follows:

“A project is a temporary endeavour designed to produce a unique product, service or result with a defined beginning and end (usually time-constrained, and often constrained by funding or deliverables), undertaken to meet unique goals and objectives, typically to bring about beneficial change or added value” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_management

Simply put, a project achieves a defined outcome that adds value. This is the very nature of a project, and the intrinsic purpose of project management is to manage available resources to achieve the defined outcome.

In sum a project is made up of many outcomes, achieved from the lowest level with simple interaction outcomes, e.g. a decision in a meeting, up to the top level at which, the “outcome” is the delivery of the all the project objectives.

In other words, a project the aggregate of all the outcomes that have been achieved throughout its life.

If a project is the result of all its outcomes, then the job of the project manager is to obtain those outcomes, step-by-step, one-by-one until project completion. It may be for the PM to directly obtain those outcomes, or it may be that s/he facilitates the outcomes in the way the project is set up, or even just by establishing the need for outcomes as the central core of the project.

hierarchy of project assets 910x550

Therefore the one skill that a successful project manager cannot lack is the ability to obtain an outcome.  More importantly, the ability to obtain a persistent outcome at any level: one that locks in progress towards the end result

Outcomes are everything

If you are a football player, your job (generally) is to “move the ball downfield”.  Football, and sports generally, are relatively easy to track.  In Gridiron the exquisite measurement of progress downfield is almost as much of the game as scoring.  The concept of the “1st Down” and how that controls the pace and structure of the game is unique.  All progress by players is measured in much detail: how many yards carried or thrown.  And the disappointment when a move doesn’t come off (“is incomplete” in Gridiron parlance), is palpable on and off the field. Gains are “locked in” by resetting the counter back to 1 after a particular distance.  It’s like mountaineers with ropes and pitons, locking in the maximum amount you can fall back; it’s like the valves in your veins: blood moves forward but cannot come back.

“The achievements of an organization are the results of the combined effort of each individual.” Vince Lombardi

In a project, outcomes are everything even at the lowest level: An agreement is reached, a decision is made, some knowledge is absorbed, a resource is assigned, a document is signed off, some code is written, an action is taken and so forth.

These outcomes result from the many interactions between project team members, suppliers both internal and external and multiple stakeholders and so forth.  But sadly, not all interactions produce outcomes.

“Don’t mistake activity with achievement.” ― John Wooden

Have you ever experienced a meeting or discussion where nothing happens: there’s a lot of talk, there may even be great discussion, but the meeting ends and everyone goes their separate ways? Have you ever been involved in a series of activities, sometimes over many weeks, where there is a lot of action, but the goals remain elusive, and nothing seems to be achieved? Anyone who has been on an average project for more than a few minutes has probably seen this type of thing: a meeting or discussion that ends with nothing accomplished except perhaps the passage of time.

From the smallest two-person interaction between the PM and a team-member (bumping into each other in the corridor, say, or having a coffee) to the top-level project, the ability to identify and generate outcomes is something that no good PM is without.

The degree to which a project achieves its outcomes, and more importantly the speed and efficiency with which the project proceeds towards its end goals, is defined by the degree to which these interactions at all levels produce outcomes, as opposed to simply interactions.

a project is merely the aggregate of all the outcomes achieved by the team during its life.

Obtaining outcomes is relatively easy, once you know to try

In the great scheme of things, getting outcomes is relatively easy, once it becomes the focus of your activities.

The first step is understanding that this is a primary purpose of the PM role, and to build the skills to achieve them: you need to put outcome achievement as your top focus area: and to view all interactions as opportunities to lock in an outcome, however small.

Recognise that there is no such thing as a casual interaction in a Project Manager’s life, even if it is unplanned.  No matter how casual the interaction may appear, each one needs to be planned and setup around a specific structure.

There’s not much more satisfying to a good PM than a precise, crisp and well-thought out interaction which results in an outcome, with little friction or waste.

These outcome-producing decision points can only be workable if they end up being owned and made by the various team members, rather than imposed; and those decisions must cause actions which result in persistent changes in the project context that push the project team and its deliverables closer to the goal.

Outcomes made must be persistent, and like memory persistence comes from re-inforcement.

“All that we are is the result of what we have thought. The mind is everything. What we think, we become.” Buddha

The PM who understands this process works to create outcome triggers at every opportunity.

Drawing from other disciplines

Professional Selling

If you think managing projects to achieve a deadline is hard, you should try professional selling.  No matter what your approach to sales might be, the entire operating tempo of the sales professional revolves around the sale event.

“Always be closing”  Blake (Alec Baldwin) from “Glengarry Glen Ross” by David Mamet

The key to this quote, as far as project management is concerned, is to be driving activities towards an outcome: in selling it’s either to close the sale, or to move on: that the sale will most likely never be made.

Tommy Hopkins wrote a great book called “How to Master the Art of Selling” which I spent a lot of time reading, absorbing and practicing.

There is a massive amount of material on the web about his techniques, and even larger amount produced by others.

Look for the “decisive moment”

The “decisive moment” in an interaction is that moment at which the outcome can be achieved most optimally: any sooner and the audience is not primed to receive it, and any later, the momentum of the discussion has passed.  Too far either side of the “decisive moment” and no outcome will be achieved from the interaction.

the term originated in the field of photography.  and was coined by the great photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, who pioneered the form of “street photography” or “real life reportage” intended to capture the essence of what the photographer saw, without special effects of any kind.

Cartier-Bresson felt that the camera was a form of instant painting and created his whole approach and technique to capturing the spontaneity and grace of the subjects in the moment that most illustrated them.  Cartier-Bresson said:

“There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera. That is the moment the photographer is creative,” he said. “Oop! The Moment! Once you miss it, it is gone forever.” Henri Cartier-Bresson

The term came from a quote from Cardinal de Retz (a French churchman in the 17th Century) who said:

“There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment” – Cardinal de Retz

And I agree with Cardinal de Retz: I believe that each interaction within a project: be it a coffee with someone in your team, or a meeting, or a presentation to the Steering committee or whatever, has a “decisive moment” at which the PM can create an outcome or at least an outcome trigger.

Did you have any thoughts about this post?  We’d love to hear them so please comment.

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