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Grow as a Project Manager by Adding to Your Toolbox

concepts philosophy May 03, 2024

The more I write about project management, the more I find myself talking about the “tools I have in my toolbox.” When I use this metaphor, I’m essentially talking about the possible responses I know about and feel prepared to use to various scenarios that arise in the course of managing projects. A “tool” is a way I can respond to a situation that will move the project forward.

I’m certainly not the first person to describe project management in this way, but today I want to talk about how thinking about your own project management abilities in terms of “tools in your toolbox” can help you understand what level of skill you have, and more importantly, what practical next steps you can take to keep growing and leveling up your skills.

Scenarios and Tools: Examples

To clarify what I mean by “tools,” here are some scenarios I face as a project manager and some tools I can choose from to respond to them.

Scenario #1

I notice that a task on one of my projects is about a week overdue.

A few of the tools (responses) I could choose from:

  • Send the person a direct message asking for an update.
  • Walk by the person’s desk to ask about status or ask them about it at the end of a meeting I’m already in with them about another topic.
  • Let the project sponsor know about the delay and let them address it.
  • Don’t talk to the task owner; instead just condense the rest of the tasks on the project so the delay no longer causes a violation of any major project milestones.
  • Reassign the task to another team member with availability.

Scenario #2

The project sponsor and a knowledgeable team member disagree on whether a certain feature should be included in a deliverable.

A few of the tools (responses) I could choose from:

  • Enforce the sponsor’s preference with the team since the sponsor holds the most decision-making power.
  • Elevate the knowledgeable team member’s opinion to the sponsor since their expertise is important.
  • Facilitate a discussion between the sponsor and the team member, giving them a chance to build shared understanding and hopefully consensus.
  • Delay the decision until later in the project when heated feelings have cooled off.

Project management largely entails facing many little scenarios like this in the course of projects and responding with the best tool you have to address each scenario based on what best serves project and company goals. Some tools are objectively more or less effective than others, but often it is more about fit, or choosing the best tool for the specific occurrence given all the contextual factors around it.

The Disciplined Agile Browser from PMI also provides a great illustration of the concept of scenarios and tools you can use to address them. It is meant to give new agile project leaders an advantage with a written collection of tools they can consider using in various scenarios when they haven’t yet developed all these tools via experience.

For even more examples of how to think about scenarios and tools, check out my previous two blog posts, "5 Practical Tools for Getting Decisions Made" and "5 Practical Tools for Protecting Your Time."

Overall Skill Levels, Measured by Tools

How does this help you understand your skill level? You could literally try to count how many tools you’ve accumulated in your project career so far, and this could be an insight-producing exercise but would likely be challenging and time-consuming. Here’s how I think of a few major levels of project management skill; you can probably identify which level you’re in with a gut-check.

Level 1: I have at least one tool for some scenarios.

This is where everybody starts. Nobody has no tools as a new project manager, because life gives all of us at least some tools to bring into managing projects. You have some communication skills. You can understand goals to some extent and how to break them down into smaller steps that will help you achieve them. You can form basic working relationships with team members.

Level one looks like having the ability to make progress on your projects, but regularly running into scenarios you don’t know how to handle and needing to stop and do research or ask for help.

Level 2: I have at least one tool for most scenarios.

You reach Level 2 when it becomes rare that you encounter a scenario you can’t address at all. You have a response ready to go for most situations you regularly encounter on your projects.

However, while your responses to scenarios create progress for your project, they don’t always create as much progress or work as well as you hoped. Your projects are moving forward, but sometimes they are stumbling forward and sometimes there are hiccups.

Level 3: I have multiple tools for most scenarios.

This is the level where a project manager tends to feel confident, like they know what they are doing, and like they can face almost anything. It’s the level where, for any given scenario, you have more than one tool to choose from in your response. You’re ready not just to solve problems, but to solve them in ways that fit well for the project and company. It’s like the difference between having one wrench or a whole set of wrenches.

The other day I realized a new way I could handle a certain type of project situation, and in the process, I also realized I’d only had one tool for that type of situation before. It’s a great feeling when you move even just from one tool to two, because now you can do more than just respond to the situation: you have the opportunity to decide how to respond well among the options you have.

Growth looks like adding tools, one scenario at a time.

The levels above are all good and normal parts of a project manager growth journey. They are not meant to disparage or even to celebrate where you are; they are simply a means to help you describe where you are now so that you see where you can go next.

If you are at level 1, your next priority is to add tools for scenarios you don’t currently know how to handle at all. At level 2, growth looks like adding a second and a third tool for common scenarios where you currently only have one option. At level 3, when you feel confident with your multiple tools in your common scenarios, you can either work on adding even more tools for common scenarios to really fine-tune your responses, or you can work on adding tools for scenarios you don’t encounter as often. Asking to work on larger or new types of projects can be a catalyst for this.

What does it mean to “add” a tool to your toolbox? There are basically two steps:

  1. Learn about the tool.
  2. Try/practice using the tool.

A tool can be something you “have” to some extent when you are simply aware of it, just like you “own” a hammer when you first purchase it, but it is quite a different thing to have the experience and confidence that you can hit a nail on the head every time without much thought. There’s a similar confidence built over time as you use project management tools more and more. But the good thing is, since we’re mostly talking about micro-situations and responding with straightforward actions, many project management tools will still get the job done even if you’re using the tool for the first time.

Regardless, at any experience level, every project manager is regularly picking up new tools and practicing using them. Be proud the next time you notice yourself acquiring one: what may feel like an ordinary insight is really an essential building block to the value you bring to your projects and your company.

 

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