Starting in Project Management: Your Essential Guide to Thriving in Your First Role

Are you starting in Project Management? Embarking on this new journey can stir up a whirlwind of emotions. One minute, you're riding high on excitement; the next, you're grappling with those “Am I ready?” doubts. If those feelings sound familiar, you're not alone. Many of us felt the same mix of excitement and apprehension when we first started any new project. The big question on your mind might be, “Where should I even begin?” Here's my advice: take a deep breath, trust the process, and let me guide you through those pivotal first steps.

Young girl in red striped T-shirt and a bright lipstick on her lips came up with a great idea!

Project management is a bit of a behind-the-scenes powerhouse in most industries. It's all about setting the stage, rallying the team, and ensuring all the moving parts come together seamlessly to achieve those big, audacious goals. Whether you're a recent graduate or pondering a mid-career shift, venturing into project management can feel overwhelming. But that's where my experience comes in. Over the years, I've fine-tuned a foolproof process in the project management realm, and I'm eager to share it with you. So, no matter where you're starting from, you'll be set to tackle your role with confidence from day one.

Key Takeaways:

  • It's my first day; what am I expected to do? It's one thing learning about project management and quite another implementing it. In my career, I have very rarely started a project from scratch. It is more common that I come in to take over from someone who had a brilliant idea and started to execute it but has a different day job and needs help. Or another consultant has come into the organisation and got the business case signed off, and now they need someone to deliver it. So, you have limited time to learn everything before the plan kicks in. Don't worry; I have a method to see you coming up to speed in no time.
  • What are the most important skills I need as a PM? Project management is an essential skill that is required in almost every industry. It involves planning, organising, and managing resources to achieve specific goals and objectives. The most important skills are communication, time management, problem-solving, and leadership.
  • What are your top tips for each part of the project management process? In this blog post, I will outline one essential thing for people starting a project from scratch and what those taking over from someone else need to do to get started.
  • What's the career path for a PM? After you have a few projects under your belt, I'll look at what you should plan to do next.

Let's dive in!


Lay the Groundwork (Week 1 & 2)

As a complete newbie, no one expects you to hit the ground running, shooting out project management tasks everywhere.

Your first task will be to plan the next few weeks with your manager or client. Take my guide below, write it out so that it makes sense for you, show it to them and ask if they think there is anything else you need to do to get up to speed quickly. That way, you can always ensure the initial expectations are managed.

I want to point out that if you are taking on a permanent position, the HR department should provide you with a solid onboarding plan. But sadly, my experience is that this only exists in the big firms, and if you are a contractor, you would be lucky to get a “hello” at the front desk.

Even if you get an onboarding process, it might not be specific to your role but quite general about the company, employees, etc.

1. Meet the Stakeholders

Your initial days should revolve around people. Familiarise yourself with stakeholders, understand their challenges, and ensure they know you're there to bring clarity. I always ask, “What are the three biggest challenges you see with completing this project?” and “What do you need the most help with right away?”. This will also give you an idea of potential risks or issues, and you can start populating your log if there isn't one already!

Note: A stakeholder is someone with an interest or concern in the relevant project where all the members or participants are interested in its success. This is not just about meeting clients or customers. It is also about getting to know the developers and colleagues you will work with.

I would suggest that it is better to have these meetings 1:1, not a group of 3 or more people. Half of your battle as a project manager will be won with the relationships you build in these early days. And giving people a chance to meet you and for you to hear what they are passionate about or worried about will go a long way later on.

2. Setting Up Regular Meetings

Scheduling is your new best friend. Establish a rhythm for your project updates, daily check-ins or monthly round-ups. Whichever methodology you or the company you have joined follows, do that. Ensure you are invited if any meetings are already scheduled. But also put your tasks in your diary, such as weekly update emails every Thursday, be it just to your manager or a group of stakeholders.

It defines a pattern for you and sets expectations with your new colleagues.

3. Organise Your Documentation

A dedicated space for all your project documentation is paramount. Organisation early on will pay off in spades later. Review the folders set up. Are they up-to-date and current? Are there any folders or key documents missing? (your training will come in handy here). Do the document naming conventions make sense? If not, why not? Should you change them so it's easier?

4. Understand Your Projects

Dive deep. Absorb all the knowledge about the projects you'll be managing. This foundational knowledge will guide your every move. Once you start pulling together reports, the information will make much more sense, but you should at least understand the objectives and KPIs of the workstreams or projects and how they link to the company vision or mission statement.

Deep Dive into Details (Weeks 2 & 3)

1. Risk & Issue Log

A risk and issue log is one of the most essential tools for a project manager. Make sure you are reviewing it and updating it daily. It is one of the faster ways to come up to speed regarding a project and shows the people you are working with that you have everything under control and are effectively taking the helm.

For those “stepping in” from another PM, meet with the appropriate people to review it. I have sat on meetings that have taken an hour to complete, and others have taken nearly two days. But this will indeed be your compass in understanding the project. Please get familiar with it and make it a point to keep it current.

This tool will become your daily anchor for those starting from scratch, informing each decision as you start in project management.

2. Setting SMART Objectives

You need to check that all the objectives and KPIs identified for the work you will manage are SMART. It is a brilliant way to get up to speed with the projects and ensures clarity. This is essential work, whether stepping into someone else's shoes or laying the groundwork from scratch. Make sure you understand in detail how they will be measured. This critical work will help when you start to report the projects' successes.

3. Project Plans

The plans need to be up to date. A risk or issue can often throw a project out of whack, so the plan must be redone and shown to all the key people. I usually come into projects and realise that no one has updated the plans for months, so the go-live dates are all completely unachievable. Worse, no one has said anything, so expectations are immediately crushed. It's often awful, but you can steer the ship back on course with the right actions.

4. Governance Meetings

Again, I have often started or stepped into a project where the governance meetings don't exist. Setting these up ensures that any reporting you do will be looked at and heard, plus you are building a support network. Do you need more money because the customer changed their mind again? Governance meetings will tell you who the right person to go to for that extra cash is. Or they will determine that perhaps the customer is not heading in the original direction of the project.

Most importantly, Governance meetings are your opportunity to shine. To say, “This is what we said we would do by this date, and this is what we have done.” If you don't know PowerPoint, get comfortable with it for this meeting alone.

5. Regular Reporting

Clear communication is vital. Ensure a rhythm of consistent, transparent reporting. This could be once a week, once every two weeks, or once a month. But it needs to be the same consistent date, Always. If there is no template, you want a one-pager with everything on it – it might seem like a lot to put on one page, but it can be done.

  • The objective of the project.
  • What was achieved in the last cycle, and what is the goal for the next cycle? (this works for any methodology Agile/Scrum/waterfall.)
  • Key milestone dates.
  • Significant risks and issues.
  • Overall RAG status
  • Stakeholders list
  • Project team members

It keeps all stakeholders and project team members engaged and is particularly helpful when starting in project management, regardless of the scenario.

6. Stay Connected with Your Stakeholders

The biggest win. Send a weekly recap email, making it funny, entertaining, and less formal. I always title mine with a pun or a play on words about the workstreams and put “Success Fridays” at the end so it is also positive. For context, I draft it on Thursday afternoon and send it out on Friday mornings before lunch.

Invite others to connect with you if they have any questions or concerns. Whether you're “stepping in” or having a “fresh start”, highlighting the past week's achievements and setting the tone for the upcoming week is a simple act that can earn you tremendous appreciation. It is important to note that this does not replace the more formal project reporting document. It is just a friendly email between colleagues. Here is a sample of my email:

To: all stakeholders & project team

Title: Project X Success Fridays

Highlights

Whoa, what an exciting week we had. Maria was off sick all week, which meant that Muhammad very kindly stepped in to complete that task for her. he found some bugs which we thought would stop the whole project, but then, with additional senior support from team Y, we resolved those bugs and safely landed back on track. Our appreciation for that team going above and beyond is deep. Thank you so much for being our superheroes!

Next week, Fatima is on holiday for two weeks, but that doesn't stop our focus as we plan to deliver P and Q deliverables. So, Ali and Aisha, please keep your diaries free, as we discussed, so that you are ready to review the work before we go live on the 18th.

I have been working on the KPIs and will have a draft benefits plan ready for your review and input next Tuesday.

  • Deliverable X – on track, no change to the deliverable date of 22nd
  • Deliverable Y – slightly delayed but with no impact on budget or resources
  • Deliverable P – etc

As usual, here are all the links to the most critical project documents. Please review them and let me know if you have any questions or concerns.

  • Fortnightly reports
  • Risk and Issues Log
  • Business case
  • Objectives and KPIs
  • Link to Trello – jira, smart sheet, etc

Embracing Week 4 with Confidence

By the time you reach week 4, you're poised to truly make your mark. The overwhelming tide should be receding, replaced by a clearer understanding of your team and the objectives of the projects you're championing. If there's still a flutter of nerves as you read this, don't fret.

Stay with me as we explore additional insights to bolster your confidence and ensure you shine bright in your project management journey. Below, I have crafted a top tip for each area and made it clear whether you are starting from scratch or taking over from someone else.


Starting in Project Management: Understanding Your Role and Sharpening Essential Skills

Think of yourself as the captain of a ship. It's a journey filled with responsibility but also a ton of fulfilment. Your task? Navigating through diverse challenges, ensuring the well-being of your crew, and anchoring safely to your destination. Essentially, that's what you'll be doing in the projects world.

At its core, starting in project management means you'll be at the helm of a project's inception, ongoing journey, and grand finale. Holding that compass, you'll ensure every milestone is reached, budgets are kept in check, and everyone's expectations are met. Those stakeholders? They're counting on you.

Now, a wise captain knows their compass inside out. For you, it's the six core facets of a project: scope, schedule, finance, risk, quality, and resources. Feeling a tad overwhelmed? Here's my mentor's promise: give it time, and it'll soon be as familiar as the back of your hand.

But what truly sets a successful project manager apart? It's a mix of essential skills.

Communication Skills

Starting in project management means wearing your communicator hat almost all the time. You'll be the bridge connecting different islands—team members, clients, vendors. You must be clear, transparent, and attentive to ensure smooth sailing. From face-to-face chats to endless emails, your words will chart the course.

Problem-Solving Skills

The waters of project management aren't always calm. You'll face challenges, but guess what? With a keen analytical mind, you'll steer through them. Identify those looming clouds, think of strategies, and have backup plans in your arsenal.

Leadership Skills

As the captain, your team looks up to you. Your job? To inspire, guide, and occasionally celebrate the little victories. Lead by example and create that vibrant team spirit; trust me, it will pay off tenfold.

Project Management Methodologies

Starting in project management also means diving deep into methodologies. Whether Agile, Waterfall or a blend of many, being well-versed in these will be your North Star.


Project Management Success: Top Tips for Each Phase

Unveiling the Project Plan

Starting Fresh: The first step is understanding your project. Defining objectives, scope, and critical milestones is crucial. Aligning them with broader business goals ensures the project contributes value to the organisation.

Essential Question: What are the top three desired outcomes for this project?

Taking Over: Projects in motion have a history. Reviewing the current plan, understanding its foundation, and assessing necessary changes ensure the project stays on track.

Essential Question: Are there discrepancies between the project's current status and original goals?

Refining Workflow

New Beginnings: For a new project, breaking tasks into manageable units and assigning them based on team strengths ensures an efficient workflow.

Essential Question: Which team member's strengths align best with each task?

Continuing the Legacy: Respecting existing workflows is vital when taking over an ongoing project. Still, it's also essential to spot and implement necessary improvements.

Essential Question: Are there bottlenecks or inefficiencies in the current workflow?

Setting the Scope

Starting Fresh: Clearly defining the project's boundaries avoids diversions and keeps resources focused on primary goals.

Essential Question: What are the clear inclusions and exclusions of this project?

Taking Over: Bringing a fresh perspective allows the opportunity to evaluate the current scope, ensuring it aligns with project goals.

Essential Question: Is there any scope creep that needs addressing?

Determining Deliverables

Fresh Start: Clearly defined, tangible milestones aligned with SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound) criteria offer clear checkpoints for progress.

Essential Question: How will we measure the project's success, how often, and when?

Stepping In: Existing projects may have established deliverables. Assessing their relevance ensures they remain aligned with project and stakeholder expectations.

Essential Question: Do the existing deliverables still match stakeholder expectations?

Organising for Success

Starting Fresh: A comprehensive project plan rooted in the company's vision and goals lays the foundation for success. The objectives should always be matched to support the company's vision or mission statement.

Essential Question: How do the project objectives align with company goals?

Taking Over: Every project should resonate with its stakeholders. Evaluating objectives against stakeholder expectations ensures they remain aligned.

Essential Question: Are there any previously unaddressed stakeholder concerns?

Using Tools Effectively

Starting Fresh: There are hundreds of tools which are used to manage projects and are designed to simplify tasks and boost collaboration. From visual aids like Gantt charts or Kanban Boards to all-encompassing platforms like Asana, the options might seem overwhelming.

Essential Question: As a beginner, which tool aligns most closely with the project's objectives and my current skill set?

Taking Over: Inheriting a project often means familiarising yourself with pre-selected tools. While they might have worked for the initial phase, it's crucial to reassess their effectiveness in light of the project's evolving needs.

Essential Question: Is the current toolset optimised for our present requirements, or is there room for improvement and adaptation?

Risk & Issue Management

Starting Fresh: Every project has its challenges. Identifying potential risks early and assessing their impact allows for better preparation.

Essential Question: What are the most probable and impactful risks?

Taking Over: Understanding logged risks and logging issues ensures a project remains resilient and adaptable.

Essential Question: Are there any emerging risks not yet documented? Are all the current issues assigned with deadlines?

Managing Time and Resources

Starting Fresh: It's like having a blank canvas when beginning a project journey. This means you can allocate time and resources with a fresh perspective, ensuring every element is used to its utmost potential.

Essential Question: With the entire project ahead, what strategy can I implement to ensure the most effective use of time and resources from the get-go?

Taking Over: Stepping into an ongoing project brings its own set of challenges. The allocation of time and resources might already be in motion. Your task is to evaluate the current strategy, making necessary adjustments to streamline the path forward.

Essential Question: Given the project's current status and remaining milestones, how can I refine our time and resource management approach for maximum efficiency?

Budgeting and Financial Oversight

Starting Fresh: A project's financial health is pivotal. Detailing tasks with associated costs while factoring in potential risks ensures a project remains on budget.

Essential Question: Have all potential cost variances been considered?

Taking Over: Familiarising oneself with the existing budget and seeking optimisations ensures that resources are used effectively and efficiently.

Essential Question: Are there areas of the budget where cost savings can be realised?

Engaging Stakeholders

Starting Fresh: Building relationships and understanding stakeholder needs from the outset can create a harmonious project environment.

Essential Question: Who are the critical stakeholders, and what are their main concerns?

Taking Over: Building on existing relationships and understanding current dynamics ensures stakeholders remain engaged and supportive.

Essential Question: Are there any communication gaps that need bridging?

In Essence: Whether starting from scratch or picking up the reins of an ongoing project, the principles of planning, organising, and communication remain foundational to success. Embrace these principles, continuously ask the right questions, and let your projects thrive. The world of project management awaits your unique touch!


The Power of Project Management Tools: Starting Strong with Spreadsheets

Embarking on your journey starting in project management, you'll soon discover the indispensable role of tools and software. While many tools exist to aid every stage of a project, one that will be a constant companion, especially when starting in project management, is the humble spreadsheet. Whether it is Google Spreadsheets or Microsoft Excel, mastering these versatile tools is beneficial and essential.

Why Spreadsheets Matter

For those starting in project management, spreadsheets offer an accessible and flexible medium to handle data, from tracking tasks to budgeting. Its universality means no matter which organisation or project you delve into, spreadsheets will be a common language spoken.

Beyond the Spreadsheet: Exploring Project Management Tools

Apart from spreadsheets, several software applications simplify and enhance the project management process:

  • Trello: Adopting the Kanban approach, Trello's boards, lists, and cards create an intuitive environment, especially suitable for those starting in project management with small to medium-sized projects.
  • Asana: Dive deeper into project management with Asana. Create tasks, allocate them, and monitor their progress. Its robustness caters to larger, more intricate projects.
  • Basecamp: Kickstart small projects with Basecamp's straightforward interface that revolves around to-do lists, deadlines, and collaboration.

Comprehensive Project Management Software

For a more encompassing grasp, project management software includes traditional tools while integrating features like time tracking, resource allocation, and analytical reporting:

  • Microsoft Project: A behemoth in the project management realm, its comprehensive suite is tailor-made for elaborate projects demanding nuanced planning and tracking.
  • Smartsheet: A cloud-centric approach to managing projects, Smartsheet's adaptability makes it apt for projects, irrespective of their size, especially for those starting in project management.
  • Monday.com: Embrace the user-centric design of Monday.com. From task creation to collaboration, it's tailored for those in the early stages of their project management journey with small to medium-sized projects.

Which Project Management tool is the right tool?

In essence, starting in project management requires a blend of foundational tools like spreadsheets and advanced software tailored to project complexities. As you embark on this venture, remember to align your tool choices with the project's nuances, ensuring a seamless voyage towards project success. There is no tool that is the best – they all work. It's about finding the one that is right for your style – and that is the tricky bit.


Career Path: Learning and Development

Stepping into the world of project management might seem daunting at first. However, with the right learning and development pathways, it's not just about managing tasks; it's about starting an enriching journey of personal and professional growth.

For those starting in project management, beginning with entry-level roles like Project Assistant, PMO Analyst, or Project Administrator will give you the foundation and support you need to advance in your professional career. These positions lay the groundwork, allowing budding project managers to soak up the basics, from project planning and budgeting to scheduling. Moreover, working hand in hand with seasoned project managers can offer a treasure trove of insights and mentorship opportunities.

While hands-on experience is invaluable, formal training provides structured knowledge and frameworks. Many organisations champion the growth of their employees by offering internal training sessions, while external courses can provide diverse perspectives on areas like risk management and stakeholder engagement.

Starting in project management is the first step into a vibrant field bursting with opportunities. It's a realm where passionate professionals lead teams, streamline resources, and breathe life into projects. Embarking on this path, understanding the progression roadmap becomes invaluable, not just to climb the ladder but to shape your trajectory with intention and insight.

Gaining Traction: Mid-level Milestones

With the foundational experience, you can steer into mid-level roles like project manager or senior project manager positions. Here, independence is your compass. You'll orchestrate projects from start to finish, helm your project crews, and guarantee the fruition of your initiatives. Furthermore, delving into strategy creation, budget stewardship, and stakeholder negotiation becomes second nature.

Achieving Mastery: The Senior Stratum

Progressing further, the horizons expand. You could enter program manager, portfolio manager, or project director roles. These roles offer a vantage point for those who've spent significant time starting in project management and progressing. You're not just overseeing single projects but entire portfolios. Aligning projects with overarching business goals, crafting innovative project management methodologies, and mentoring the next wave of professionals starting in project management become your purview.

Certifying Your Expertise

To punctuate your dedication and to stand out, professional certifications like the Project Management Professional (PMP), Scrum, PRINCE2, and CompTIA Project+ come into play. These badges of honour showcase your understanding and give you a competitive edge in the ever-evolving marketplace.

Now, let's talk about certifications. These are your compass in the vast sea of project management:

  • Certified ScrumMaster (CSM): Ideal for those leaning towards Agile methodologies, introducing you to Scrum's core concepts and practices.
  • PRINCE2 Foundation: A process-driven approach, this certification offers beginners an understanding of PRINCE2's fundamental principles and methodologies.
  • CompTIA Project+: Renowned in the industry, this certification affirms your skills across all project management stages, from initiation to closure. It's an asset for anyone starting in project management.
  • Project Management Professional (PMP): Although more advanced, awareness of this prestigious certification can set the trajectory for future aspirations.

Becoming an adept project manager is interwoven with continuous learning and development. By amalgamating hands-on experience, dedicated training, and notable certifications, any enthusiastic individual can chart a course towards success in the dynamic world of project management.


Setting Sail: Your PM Journey Awaits

Starting in project management is more than just a job—it's a journey. From your initial steps to the pinnacles of leadership, every stage offers learning and growth. With experience, mentorship, and certifications as your allies, the project management world is yours to conquer and is diverse. Nearly every industry on the planet requires a project manager to manage a project at some stage; whether it's tech or construction, it doesn't matter. So follow your heart and interests and be part of your favourite stuff.

I once sat in on an interview where a colleague on my interview panel asked the question of an interviewee.

“You have never managed a Project in this field before; what makes you think you will successfully navigate this area of expertise?”

And his answer was the best answer I've ever heard in my life; he said

“I'm a Project Manager, give me a project, and I will manage it.”

If you loved this blog post, please sign up for my occasional newsletter, and let me know how your PM journey progresses!


Frequently Asked Questions

What are the key skills required to succeed as a project manager?

Project managers must be highly organised and have strong communication skills and leadership abilities. They must be able to manage people, resources, and budgets effectively. Project managers must also be able to think critically, problem-solve, and manage risks.

How can I gain experience in project management?

The best way to gain experience in project management is to start by taking on small projects at work, volunteering for projects in your community or becoming a virtual assistant. You can also consider pursuing a project management certification or taking courses in project management. Networking with other project managers and learning from their experiences can also be helpful.

What are the best project management certifications to have?

The Project Management Professional (PMP) certification is one of the most widely recognised certifications in project management. Other highly regarded certifications include the Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM), the PRINCE2 certification, and the Agile Certified Practitioner (ACP) certification.

What is the role of a project manager in project planning?

The project manager is responsible for creating a project plan that outlines the scope, timeline, budget, and resources required for the project. They must also identify and manage risks, establish milestones, and communicate with stakeholders to ensure everyone is on the same page.

How do you manage project risks?

Managing project risks involves identifying potential risks, assessing their likelihood and impact, and developing strategies to mitigate or avoid them. This can include creating contingency plans, establishing risk management procedures, and monitoring the project closely for any signs of trouble.

What are the best project management tools to use?

Without a doubt, mastering the spreadsheet is a skill worth having as a project manager. But there are many other tools available at little to no cost which help to manage the end-to-end process, each with its strengths and weaknesses. Trello, Asana, Basecamp, and Microsoft Project are popular tools. The best tool for your project will depend on your specific needs and preferences.

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