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3 Ways Project Managers Can Build a Competitive Advantage

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Categories: Best Practices


by Dave Wakeman

Something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is the art of strategy. I did some research to rebuild my website during 2021 because I decided the pandemic was a good opportunity to create a new version of my business—and what I found was that around 40% of businesses have no clear, stated strategy. And, of the 60% that say they have a strategy, around 80% of those strategies don’t pass the test of actually being a strategy.

Ask yourself:

  1. Do you know your ambition?
  2. Are you focused in your targeting?
  3. Do you know why someone picks you over someone else?
  4. Have you identified the resources you need to be successful?
  5. What will (and what should) your action list look like?

In a lot of ways, this looks like the role of a project manager as well. But where I really want to turn your attention to this time is to the third question about knowing why folks will pick you over someone else. Because I want to talk with you about having a competitive advantage in your role as a PM.

Let’s begin by defining a competitive advantage for our purposes as the skills, attitudes and competencies that you have that help you stand out and get your projects completed successfully even in very challenging environments.

Now, let’s look at some of the key competitive advantages that I see missing pretty regularly—ones that can change everything because you can work on improving them. Here are my top three:

1. Leadership skills: It can feel like we live in a world without leaders. Managers, yes. But real leaders feel few and far between.

In fact, I’ve seen a sharp reduction in the amount of “thought leaders” preaching leadership principles or highlighting the way that folks can be better leaders in their organizations. A leader is someone that uses persuasion, not just positional authority, to get their team to achieve the results they want.

It can also be improved by focusing on the right actions and attitudes. The first attitude is one of team over individuals. On projects, it can be easy to fall into the trap of looking at the task list and thinking of the individuals and the individual tasks independently. That’s often the road to trouble, since success doesn’t happen alone or in a vacuum. Helping your team see this is a strong start to success—and one you can work on as a PM.

Start here and master this attitude. This alone will help your leadership skills.

2. Vision: I understand how crazy this one can seem to a lot of you, but bear with me. Vision is often missing because we can all fail to see the big picture from time to time.

For PMs, it might not even always feel like an important skill—but it is, because having a feeling for the vision of what success will look like can be the difference between success and failure. This is due to the reality that in most instances, our projects are part of a larger ambition—one that might have many stakeholders and many smaller tasks or projects that lock into ours.

We need to know this, recognize what the entire scope of the environment will look like, and be able to share this with our teams. That’s vision.

You get better at vision by being willing to take a step back from the task at hand, connecting with key stakeholders and working to see the 50,000-foot view of the project. In my strategy work, the first thing we focus on is setting the “ambition” for the organization. This is simply figuring out what success will look like.

That’s vision, and if you put your organization’s overall thinking into the framework around ambition, you’ll have an easier time with it.

3. Communication skills: Since I started writing these pieces, I’ve spent a lot of time talking about communications skills because your ability to communicate effectively has arguably the most impact on the success or failure of your projects.

Why? Effective communications can help propel people to action, shortcut potential challenges, and draw people toward a successful conclusion of your project.

Where does communication fall short for most people?

  1. Too much jargon or complicated language: You have to speak to the level of your audience and their understanding, not just yours.
  2. A failure to listen: We are all guilty of waiting to talk at one time or another. But being an effective communicator requires a willingness to listen to the other person.
  3. A lack of ensuring the message got across. I have an affinity for making sure I got my message across by making myself the point of ineffective communication. I do this through offering up that I may not have shared everything, or that I may have been too technical. By making yourself the butt of the joke, you can lower people’s resistance to saying they didn’t understand something.

These three skills are competitive advantages—and are unfortunately often missing. But like a good strategy, you can focus your energy to give yourself a chance to be more successful. Give these skils a try, and let me know what happens.

Posted by David Wakeman on: May 03, 2022 01:02 PM | Permalink

Comments (5)

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Dear David
The topic that you brought to our reflection and debate was very interesting.

Thanks for sharing and for the 3 Ways Project Managers Can Build a Competitive Advantage

We need new skills, approaches and behaviors to manage in the face of the four VUCA threats

Thanks, Dave. It's interesting that you chose to put vision and communication at the same level of leadership. Like Toastmaster, I see vision and communication as part of leadership. Check this leadership skills assessment tool which is based on Toastmasters' High Performance Leadership project.

Dear David, I am starting a new project and it looks that your article will be the starting point, thanks.

Stephane Parent, glad to see a fellow Toastmaster under PMI, keep it up

Dave, Thanks for the great thoughts and insights. Excellent outline for the new and experienced PM's to follow.

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