Keeping a project on task from start to finish involves a lot of spinning plates. Juggling everything from timelines to team members can be daunting, but for the right kind of person, it can be incredibly rewarding. 

There’s no secret formula for successful project managers. Instead, it's all about good habits, visualizing the full scale of a project, and understanding the potential roadblocks.

Seems simple, right?

We're not going to lie—successful project managers often run into frustrating challenges, and even if a project runs flawlessly, there's no guarantee the next one will. It might seem like you have to own a certain personality to succeed, but the truth is there’s no set of strict criteria.

Instead, the best project managers have a skill set that complements the demanding process of managing projects. Today’s project managers also have the added responsibility of managing their team from afar. The pandemic has forced teams to work remotely, some of whom are scattered all around the world. 

If you’re wondering what it takes, we've got you covered. Here are the six habits of successful project managers:

1. Project managers have outstanding communication skills 

Communication is crucial in the smooth running of a project.

Research shows 57% of projects that fail do so because of a breakdown in communication. It’s up to the project manager to facilitate concerns and collaboration, as well as create easy ways to chat and share ideas between team members and external stakeholders. 

When you consider that the success of a project is hanging on communication, it’s easy to see why this is such an important trait. Successful project managers are comfortable asking questions, hunting down information, and providing clear and open communication for everyone involved. 

PMI research graphic on communication

According to a PricewaterhouseCoopers survey, organizations with poor-to-minimal communications said only 37% of projects finished on time. What's even more telling is that only 48% of that same group stayed on budget.

Outstanding communication is an essential quality of successful project managers because they effectively connect team members around a common strategy. This means every stakeholder is on the same page in terms of goals, tasks, and actions.

How to improve project communication

Looking to improve your communication skills? Simply follow a few of these steps to start seeing improvements in how you communicate between stakeholders and team members on your next project:

  • Create a project communication plan: A set plan means stakeholders or clients know how and where to communicate with you.

  • Play to everyone's strengths: Each team member likely has their own set of strengths and weaknesses, so why not ask how they prefer to receive feedback? 

  • Have a dedicated platform: Make it easy for everyone involved in the project to communicate with each other by implementing a trusted and easy-to-use project management software.

2. Project managers have a firm grasp of processes

There are plenty of processes involved in running a project from start to finish. 

Planning, execution, and delivery are just the big-picture items. But there are several other workflows like providing feedback, edits, assigning team members to the right roles, and delegating tasks. 

Whether it's a Kanban vs. Scrum method, successful project managers have a deep understanding of what process needs to happen and when. Instead of trying to figure it out as they go, they draw from a procedure that has been honed by past projects to make sure they’re constantly optimizing their processes. 

However, the most successful project managers also know that things don’t always go to plan. If a process isn’t working for a certain project, they pivot and alter it, so it fits better.

For example, on smaller projects with fewer touchpoints, the project manager might remove several feedback points and get rid of daily meetings so that their team can get on with carrying out the work.

How to better understand processes

To fully grasp your entire project, it's important to know every twist and turn that could arise. That's why you need to follow these tips to better understand processes:

  • Draw from past project experience: Learn from wins and mistakes to finetune each process.

  • Map out each process: Team members need to access all important documents and project files—and in a place, they can access at any time.

  • Remain flexible to changes: It's rare for projects to go without any changes, so be ready to adapt and make room for project scope so you're prepared for any updates.

3. The best project managers set expectations and say 'no'

Saying “no” is a surprisingly underrated skill. However, it’s absolutely vital for project managers to say that all-important word. 

Keeping team members on track and ensuring clients are happy requires firm boundaries that are communicated with respect. There’s an art to managing the expectations of everyone involved, but a successful project manager knows the capacity of their team at any given time.

You should have no problem saying no to stakeholders who want more. You eventually will find it easy to do this because you'll quickly understand that limitations actually help the project move forward.

Saying “no” is essentially a project manager putting the well-being of their team first and laying out realistic expectations to avoid disappointment and expensive delays.

How to manage expectations and say no

Set expectations with your stakeholders as early in the project planning as possible. If it's possible, discuss the reasons why you said no in your retrospective meetings, or try a few of these tips:

  • Understand your team's limits: Know what everyone is capable of and pay attention to them to avoid burnout.

  • Communicate responsibilities: It's pretty common for some stakeholders to forget what they were supposed to do. Take charge, communicate responsibilities, and ensure all parties have been assigned to the right tasks.

  • Create a clear project outline: Make sure you outline boundaries with clients and stakeholders before the project starts so you have something to go to when you do say no.

4. Project managers make data-driven decisions

Managing a project is a bit like solving a math equation. Project managers are tasked with making decisions, and they are often evaluated on the amount of “right” decisions they make. 

The goal is to maximize the number of good decisions and back them with data so everyone involved understands why you’re making your choices. Successful project managers tap into the analytics of each task to keep track of delivery times, determine how long something will take, and eliminate bottlenecks.

teamwork dashboards editing gif

Project managers rely on Teamwork features like Dashboards and Project Portfolio to get instant overviews of projects, understand how they're progressing, and faster status updates to make data-driven decisions. Customization within Teamwork makes it easy for project managers to track, organize, and share exactly what they want.

How to make data-driven decisions

There are plenty of ways to pull analytics into your project management process. Follow a couple of these quick how-tos to get started:

  • Know your analytics really well: It might sound simple, but it's important to understand how the data from your project management efforts translate into real-life activities.

  • Back up decisions with data: Still getting pushback on a request or new addition to a project? Use project time tracking features to show stakeholders or clients the numbers of the project.  

  • Learn from past projects: Did a previous project allocate too much time to the design team? Or did your content team complete all its tasks on the final day of the project? Learn from previous projects and make necessary changes with data from your project management tool.

5. Project managers are proactive

Passive project managers rarely succeed. Team members and stakeholders need someone who is willing to make decisions in the best interests of the project at heart. 

Simply reacting to situations can make a project messy and lead to delays and bottlenecks. Instead, successful project managers are proactive from the get-go, mapping out what needs to be done and when. 

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Planning is key. Project managers need to use project planning features to see each task, key touchpoints, and any potential problems that could derail the overall project.

How to be more proactive

Being more proactive doesn't mean doing more work. Successful project managers simply work in a dynamic fashion to spot trends, areas of concern, and ways to improve the workflow.

To be more proactive, follow some of these tips:

  • Plan well in advance: Map out a project before you ever meet with team members to help visualize any issues that might arise.

  • Identify potential crisis points: Once you've mapped out the project and found any potential issues, develop an approach that tackles them before they become a serious roadblock.

  • Learn from previous situations: This seems to be a common tip, huh? Well, it's true. You need to learn from past projects to make sure you're proactive with backup plans in place for all eventualities. 

6. Project managers prioritize tasks and focus on solutions 

Prioritizing tasks is one of the most important parts of being a successful project manager. 

Making the right decision at the right time is necessary, but knowing which tasks should go before others and which ones take higher priority is what keeps projects running smoothly. 

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed with the number of activities needed to complete a project. However, creating a hierarchy lets you quickly see which task takes precedence.

This is also a great tactic to help avoid multitasking. Prioritizing tasks makes it easier for teams to focus on one problem at a time. 

wellingtone project management challenges graph

In fact, a Wellingtone State of Project Management report found that the second-most cited project challenge was trying to complete too many projects at once. You have to be aware of the actual work you're assigning and truly know who is doing what.

Problems will inevitably crop up throughout a project, but the best project managers divert their energy into finding quick solutions rather than pointing fingers at other team members and slowing down the process. You have to find a solution before you find out what went wrong.

How to prioritize tasks

Multitasking different project needs and managing several teams throughout an organization is why project management is needed in the first place. But to see success, project managers have to know what takes priority and what can wait.

Here are some tips to help you prioritize tasks faster:

  • List tasks in a hierarchy: Before the project starts, make sure tasks at the top get completed first. Additionally, ensure everyone knows what takes priority.

  • Always find the solution first: Like we just mentioned, problems inevitably crop up on a project, but you must focus on solving the issue instead of finding who or what caused it.

  • Map out procedures: Have a set of procedures mapped out for tricky situations to make sure you stay focused on the solution. 

Using a project management tool to become a better project manager

The most successful project managers know that they can’t do everything themselves. As well as the help of their trusted team, they know when to lean on tools and software to help them succeed. 

Research from Workzone showed that project management software saves the average employee 498 hours per year, while 61% of companies using a project management tool, completed projects on time compared to 41% that didn’t. 

Finding a project management tool that can bolster team communication, manage stakeholder expectations, and encourage a hierarchy of important tasks is crucial to the success of a project. 

Teamwork provides project managers with an ecosystem their teams can thrive in. Through central dashboards, in-built communication threads, and a Kanban approach, project managers can keep track of tasks and manage their team without headache.