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How to Manage Projects for the First Time (Without Losing Your Mind)

Aidan HornsbyLast Updated: August 22, 2018
How To Manage Projects 01

Becoming a project manager for the first time and figuring how to manage projects for the first time is, for most people, a completely overwhelming experience. After spending their entire career worrying about their own work, our first time project manager now suddenly has to shoulder an entire team’s worth of anxiety and responsibility as well.

“How do I deal with this new level of responsibility?” the first time project manager might ask themselves. “Should I be an asshole, like project managers I’ve worked with in the past? Or should I focus on collaboration and consensus? Should I set really high expectations for myself so that everyone else follows suite? Or should I set expectations low, because that’s the realistic thing to do?”

When first time project managers look for project management tools and advice (online, in project management literature) they inevitably find that most of the available advice is either too specific, too vague, or completely ignores the specific challenges faced by first time project managers.

This is because the problem faced by first-time project managers is a very specific one: knowing full well that you don’t know what you’re doing, that you cannot learn everything there is to know about project management software, methodologies and practices during your first go at it, that you can probably only really work on one or two good habits at a time, and that at the end of the day you need to deliver a project on time and on budget, what should you focus on?

Here are a some ideas:

Find someone who has done this before and talk to them

The first rule of doing project or resource management for the first time applies to doing anything for the first time: find someone who has done it before and get them to help you as much as they can.

Finding someone around you—at your company, in your industry, in your university’s alumni network—who has done this before and asking them for advice can usually be more valuable than reading an entire book on the subject.

“Write down the people you know and respect,” suggests Duke University’s Dorie Clark, if you’re having trouble coming up with leads. “Think broadly — they could be peers, senior leaders, or even interns or junior employees.”

Finding a full-time mentor is no small feat, so don’t be discouraged if you can’t immediately find and make contact with someone who is willing to take you under their wing. Keep an open mind and think of developing relationships with mentors as a long-term project.

“The truth is, if you’re open to new experiences and new contacts, you could potentially meet a mentor anywhere,” writes entrepreneur Jayson Demers. “Talk to strangers. Get to know your acquaintances better.”

“Seek them out, be respectful of their time, and you’ll be surprised how much people are willing to share with you,” says designer Ross Floate.

Avoid jargon

Your job as a project manager is to deliver a project within a certain budget and timeframe. Having worked on projects under other project managers, you’ve probably seen most of the basic tools of project management—project plans, schedules, Gantt charts, Kanban boards, budgets—in action before. If you’ve forgotten how they work, those tools are easily Googlable.

What is less hard to Google, and what you might not have seen before are the decisions and tradeoffs that a project manager must make in their heads to make sure that a project keeps moving forward.

For many ambitious first time project managers, it can be tempting to prepare for this kind of decision making by diving into the world of project management tools, methodology and jargon.

Don’t fool yourself: beyond basic project tools and definitions, first time project managers should avoid advanced project management systems and jargon at all costs. These methodologies and frameworks are created for very specific kinds of teams and problems—usually for much larger teams at at much larger companies—and it takes an experienced project manager to make sense of and apply them properly.

First-time project managers should focus on the basics of project management instead, drawing on tools and skills that they’re already familiar working with.

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Use skills that you already have

This might seem like unusual advice for someone who has never done project management before. But just because you’ve never officially been called a ‘project manager’ before doesn’t mean you’ve never managed a project.

If you’ve ever gotten a university degree, managed your personal finances, taken on any amount of responsibility at work, or managed any aspect of your life in any way, then congratulations: you’ve managed a project before.

Instead of tackling your first ‘official’ project with a completely new set of tools and skills, draw on your existing tools and habits. If you have a particular way of budgeting out your time and resources—a particular method of resource planning, a particular piece of planning software, or a specific method of task management that you’re comfortable with—try using it for this project.

If the project requires that you use a new set of tools, then by all means, adopt those new tools. But be realistic about how many new habits you can take on and develop over the course of a single project.

“Too often, we let our motivations and desires drive us into a frenzy as we try to solve our entire problem at once instead of starting a small, new routine,” writes author James Clear.

The fact is that most people can only work on changing one thing about themselves—one habit, skill, whatever—at a time.

Manage your expectations

First time project managers often see their first project as a major career opportunity—as a chance to impress a senior figure, perhaps, or add an impressive line to their resume. Some people take this as permission to expect a lot—and sometimes too much—of themselves and the people around them.

By all means, set high expectations for yourself. But keep in mind that setting expectations that are too high can strain your relationships with your peers and be just as dangerous as—and sometimes even more dangerous than—setting your expectations too low.

Setting your expectations too high can do more than just cause you to fall into a perfectionism trap or create tension between you an your team members. Setting expectations too high and then under-delivering can saddle you with a reputation for being unreliable and unrealistic.

Don’t deny that you are a project manager

Many people who transition from specialized roles to more general project management roles in their company approach the transition with a sense of denial. They’re uncomfortable with the amount of power they now have with other people. They realize that they suddenly have more influence over a project and realize that project managing might distract them from what they’re actually good at.

The solution, in some of these peoples’ minds, is to deny the fact that they were made project manager in the first place. They obsess over distributing responsibility and power. They over-rely on ‘collaboration’ to get things done. Meetings take on a loose, meandering quality, and projects lose any sense of story or definition.

There is no project manager that is harder or more annoying to work with than the project manager that pretends they are not a project manager. Avoid falling into this trap at all costs.

Learn as much as you can

Your goal as a first-time project manager is very simple: it is to try your best to deliver your first project on time and on-budget.

If you must set yourself any expectations beyond and above this, they should be to learn as much as you can about project management.

Anything that gets in the way of this goal—whether it’s pride, perfectionism, fear or feedback, fear of making mistakes—must go. Your job as a first-time project manager is to master the basic tasks and responsibilities of the project manager.

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