Most project management classes teach the basic tools and how to use them. They’ll cover topics like risk analysis, budgeting, work breakdown structures and critical paths to name a few. These are fundamental tools for any good project manager to learn and know; however, by themselves, they will be nothing more than tasks to complete along the way.

What is missing from many of these classes is the mindset you need when using these tools; i.e. the mental game. In athletics, great coaches not only instill the fundamental skills in their players, they also instill in them a winning mindset, a conquering attitude and the mental strategy with which to approach the game so that you can persevere through tough situations.

In the world of product development, it is no different.  As a project manager, how you approach your projects mentally will be just as important as how well you perform your tasks.  The tips below not only assume you already have a working understanding of the basic tools of project management, but will help put you in the right mindset as you prepare for the game ahead.


1. Your name is on the project

Imagine that your name and phone number will be etched onto every product shipped. Your reputation and the success of the product is on the line here. Own the results of every aspect of the project, even if a task has been delegated to someone else. Be the first one who loses sleep if something is not going right. Take the mindset of Gene Kranz depicted by his famous statement in the movie Apollo 13, “Failure is NOT an option!”.  This level of ownership is hard work, but it is a necessary ingredient to project success.


2. It is about LEADERSHIP, not just management

The name ‘Project Management’ is misleading if you want to be a winner. Take charge and lead, do not just manage. Inspire and motivate your team. Establish a vision and goals upfront for your project and keep these goals in front of your team often. Proactively drive your team towards action. Anticipate the needs of your team and customer.  At times, you may even need to help lead your customer through a tough spot in order to avoid unnecessary grief for all.


3. Know the project details

The best project managers know the key details at any given time. Be able to recite, at any time, the following details of your project:

1. Key dates on the Critical Path

2. The top three issues and what your plan is to resolve them

3. Key product design details

4. Key manufacturing and process requirements

5. Key commercial targets and current performance to those targets


DISHER team meeting on a project


4. Follow up, follow up, follow up

In real estate where you will often hear the top three most important things to look for in a house are location, location and location, likewise the top three most important tasks in project management are follow up, follow up and follow up. If someone else owes you something critical on a certain date, put appropriate follow updates in your calendar to call them and assure they are staying on track.  Follow up with a voicemail to your customer after you email them a key document letting them know it is in their inbox and to call if they have issues opening it. Follow up on the twinges in your gut that something just isn’t right. Follow up on everything critical and ‘know’, do not just ‘hope’, that things will be executed as planned.


5. Contingency plan on critical high risk items

Good project managers have back up plans ready for higher risk items when plan A doesn’t work. Think about what could go wrong on critical tasks and put contingency plans in place for them. The higher the risk and more critical the task, the more important it is to have some other options ready.  Whether trying to pass a difficult validation test or assuring a key deliverable is made on time, you will save your team, your customer and yourself a lot of grief.


6. Keep communications clear and concise

I heard someone once justify that poor communication is the root cause of all issues. Although that statement may seem extreme, poor communication does create way too much havoc. Work hard to develop good communication skills. Keep your emails as short and clear as possible. Use pictures and screen shots to show what you mean. Use lists and bullets to help organize your message. Don’t beat around the bush and get to the point quickly to make it easier for your recipient to read and respond.


7. Encourage your team along the way

So often, the members of a project team can feel like machines and not people. Tough situations on projects can drive stress levels up and morale down.  Encouraging your team and building in some fun along the way will help keep everyone motivated.  Spend one-on-one time with each team member to get to know each one better.  Make it a point to ask them what they are most worried about on the project and offer up some ways you can help them.  Creatively celebrate milestones along the way making the daily grind as fun as you can. In the end, your team will be grateful you did.

From the level of ownership you feel for project results to caring for and encouraging your team along the way, your performance as a project manager is as much about your mindset and approach as it is the tools you’ve learned.  Work on these seven tips and you’ll soon be on top of your game.


OS-174 resizedWritten By: Jeff Disher, Founder & President | Jeff is a 26 year veteran of new product development.  He has held roles in program management, product design, manufacturing, quality and training & development.  He has a BS from Hope College and an MS in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Michigan.  He also is a certified Professional Engineer in the State of Michigan.  Jeff and his family enjoy many outdoor activities.