3 Things I Wish I Did When I Started My Career as a Project Manager
Hey there, my name is Sonya Siderova, founder & CEO at Nave. I help managers make reliable delivery commitments and hit their targets consistently, all while growing happy, engaged and motivated teams. Today, I’d like to share the lessons I’ve learned from over a decade of experience as a project manager that will save you time, money and lots of stress!
Let’s be real… project management can be really hard, especially when you’re just getting started.
I’m here to tell you that after 13 years of figuring it all out (with many mistakes along the way), I’ve had some time to look back and reflect on what it is that I would do differently in my career if I had to start all over again.
In no way am I saying that I would take back the mistakes that I’ve made. I’ve learned so much from each and every one of them. But I am hoping that there will be something on this list that will help you move the needle.
So get comfortable, pour yourself a beverage and let’s go over the things I wish I did (and you might consider implementing) when I first started out.
Embrace the Power of Your Kanban Board
The number one lesson: I wish I had used our Kanban board as a single source of truth from the very beginning. Here is what I mean.
Initially, we treated our board as storage of our to-do list. There were random cards all over the place, even though the work had already been completed.
No one actually paid too much attention to it, let alone used it as a tool that brings visibility and transparency into our process.
As a result, we spent a tremendous amount of time in status report meetings trying to figure out what was going on with our projects. As you can imagine, the more we grew the harder it became to stay on top of the work.
The sole purpose of your Kanban board is to provide an overview of the status of the work at any given time. Take advantage of it.
All the work the team is doing should be visualized on the Kanban board. The work items need to be in their actual states; if you have to suspend the work, the cards should be marked as blocked; the urgent items need to have their own class of service so the team knows how to handle them on their own.
Everyone should be aligned around the understanding that the board is a powerful communication mechanism and should be perceived as the single source of truth.
Your decisions affect your predictability, so make sure they are as informed as possible.
Stop Saying “Yes” to Everything
The second thing I wish I would have done, or in this case not done, is say “Yes” to every single customer and stakeholder request.
Raise your hand if you’ve ever been there. I am raising both hands right now.
You’re probably thinking, “But Sonya, you have to be able to handle all business requests. That’s your job!”
No, it’s not. Neither is yours.
Let me tell you something I wish someone had told me back in the day.
Every time you say “Yes” to something, you are saying “No” to something else at the same time. Be aware of these choices!
When a new request arrives, you need to analyze whether your team is capable of handling new work at this moment.
If you don’t perform that evaluation and start the new request immediately, what you’re essentially doing is suspending another work item in progress. You borrow time and you generate flow debt. This approach could go tremendously wrong if the work item you’re suspending has a higher priority than the one you’ve just started.
Now, I’m telling you this because early on I said “Yes” to absolutely everything and my teams and I only became that much more stressed and overwhelmed. Eventually, we burnt out.
It took me a certain number of years of going down this road to realize that this is not going to be the path to long-lasting success.
If you’re a people-pleaser or a recovering people-pleaser (just like me!) or you’re someone who doesn’t like to get into confrontations and difficult conversations, I want to encourage you to take a stand.
Instead of trying to do all the things all at once, really, just say “Yes, but later”. If you need someone to give you permission to stop saying “Yes”, I’m happy to be that person. You can just stop now.
Build a Solid Delivery System
Lastly, lesson number three may not come as a surprise to you. I may be biased but I stand behind it 100%.
I’d have started optimizing our workflow for predictability at the moment I finished gathering my team. That’s all I would’ve needed to make reliable delivery commitments.
Not only would it take just a couple of minutes to come up with accurate forecasts, but also I would have enabled my team to really focus on their actual work.
Back in the day, we were struggling to deliver on our promises. We were counting hours and story points to be able to come up with accurate results. Despite all our efforts, we were always late. We were over-promising and under-delivering.
What we really needed was a data-driven approach to making decisions and I had to lift the pressure from my team to preserve the well-being of all of us.
Adopting the explicit process policies and management practices to optimize our delivery system for predictability was a game changer.
One of the biggest mistakes I’m seeing all over again is that managers expand their teams without a solid foundation for their systems.
If you don’t have a stable delivery system in place, the more you grow, the more difficult it will become to hit your targets.
Get started today, don’t wait until it becomes nearly impossible to deliver on your commitments!
The process of visualizing and optimizing your workflows is where you start. This is one of the very first steps you should take to set your career for success in the long run.
And if you need some help to get started, we are giving you complimentary access to the first module of our signature program Sustainable Predictability for one week!
It’s a step-by-step guideline to enabling a flow-based delivery system that leads to consistent delivery results.
Then, go through all the lessons and implement the workbook at the end of the module. This exercise alone will help you apply all the concepts you learned in your own business context!
It would probably take a couple of hours to complete the workbook so book the time to do the work on your calendar. If you don’t schedule it, you won’t get to it!
Then, send me your work along with any questions you may have at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’ll personally come back to you with feedback.
So that’s it, my fellow project manager. These are the three things I wish I had done early on.
To summarize, first, I wish I would have embraced the power of our Kanban board to put my finger on the pulse of the work. Second, I wish I would have the courage to say “Yes, but later” (more often than not!) to relieve stress and overburden. And third, I wish I had built a solid foundation for our delivery system that would have enabled us to hit our targets consistently from the get-go.
I was talking to a really good girlfriend of mine, who I look up to. She said, “Sonya, I want to remind you that before I had this success, I would read your blog every morning with my coffee.” And she said that it literally was the catalyst.
And when I hear that, I think, “I want this blog to get in front of as many managers as possible, who feel stuck and struggling to deliver on their commitments. I want to be there and help them take the next step!”
So if you know someone who could use a little guidance, please do share this article. I’d really appreciate it.
Alright, my friend. Thank you so much for tuning in. I’ll see you next week. Have a wonderful day!
Meet the Author
Sonya Siderova is a passionate product manager and a driving force behind Nave, a Kanban analytics suite that helps teams improve their delivery speed through data-driven decision making. When she's not catering to her two little ones, you might find Sonya absorbed in a good heavyweight boxing match or behind a screen crafting a new blog post.