Program Manager Skills for Work and Life
“"You can only elevate individual performance by elevating that of the entire system.” – W. Edwards Deming
PM is short for Program Manager. At Microsoft, the Program Manager role is a fairly common role, and it can mean a lot of things, so I’ll explain a bit about what a PM does down below before we dive in.
To bottom line it, you can think of a Program Manager as a technical leader that orchestrates a product or service through the planning, the design, the execution, and the release. As you can imagine, this requires a variety of skills from communication and interpersonal skills to strategic thinking and execution. These are valuable skills for more than just executing projects and making things happen. These are skills that can help you in everyday life.
In this post, I’ll share some of the skills and how I apply them for skilled living.
What is a Program Manager
Before we begin, I’ll set some context by giving you a rough idea what a program manager is. I’ll generalize a bit, but a program manager includes basic project management responsibilities, as well as "program" responsibilities. A program can either be a group of inter-related projects or a piece of software or a system of software.
Program Manager at Microsoft
At Microsoft, a Program Manager tends to be a technical leader that creates a value prop based on customer needs, competitive landscape, technical trends, and business priorities. The Program Manager uses the value prop as a frame for key decisions about features, designs, timelines, and priorities.
The Program Manager brings the team together and drives the product or service through the planning, design, and execution. In the early stages of the project, the Program Manager gathers information, makes sense of the space, and helps get the team up to speed.
Influencing, Orchestrating, and Making Things Happen
Throughout the project, the Program Manager influences to get things done, champions the customers needs, and balances perspectives, including the user, business, and technical views.
One of the most important qualities of a PM is strong communication skills, to communicate up and down the chain effectively, as well as across cross-functional teams to make things happen.
As an example, as a PM on the patterns & practices team at Microsoft, what I do is, take on a significant problem, pitch a project, along with a business case, to stakeholders, assemble a team, and drive the project from cradle to grave, while coordinating across test, UE, and dev, and managing schedule, budget, and scope. It’s a lot of orchestration and it’s both an art and science.
Program Manager Skills for Life
Here is a quick map of some of the key Program Manager skills you can apply to life:
- Vision. A vision is simply a view of the future. As a PM, I need to be able to create and share a vision effectively. The vision has to be a compelling future that the team believes in. I also need to sell the vision to the stakeholders. In life, you can imagine the power of creating a compelling vision. The more effectively you can share your vision, the more you can get people on board to help you with that vision. You can also improve your own clarity. A simple test is, can you draw your vision? If you can’t draw it, then good luck getting other people on board. You might find when you draw your vision, it’s no longer that compelling. You can test your vision early to see what sticks. When you have clarity on your vision and it’s compelling, you’ll find ways to make it happen. It’s a catalyst for creativity.
- Make it a project. As simple as it sounds, making something a project really changes things. It implies that there is a start and a finish. It means that by putting a box around it, you can think more deeply about the investment. This includes even thinking about whether it’s even worth it. When you think of the work as a project, it means you can think in terms of budget, time, and scope. This helps you make trade-offs. In life, I turn things I work on into projects so that I have a nice wrapper around them. It helps make sure I don’t juggle too many projects at once. I can shelve projects and put them on the backburner. The real beauty though is when a project is done. It’s a clean finish.
- Teamwork. Teams are how things get done. The beauty of a well-designed team is you’re the sum of the strengths. As a PM, one of the most important things I do is find the right people for the job. Finding the right people is critical both for the success of the work, and for the success of the team. When you go on an epic adventure, you want the right collection of skills to make it back alive. In life, building teams and effective teamwork is crucial for surviving the changing landscape.
- Influence without authority. As a PM, I need to get a lot of things done through other people, that don’t report to me and I have no authority over. That means a lot of negotiation. It means understanding what people value and connecting with them at their values. It means winning their hearts and minds. People have a lot of choices and they can vote with their feet. In life, this is an extremely valuable lesson. We’re in a world where people have a lot more choices and it’s really about getting people on board and building a coalition of the willing.
- Work Breakdown Structure. A Work Breakdown Structure, or WBS, is effectively a map of the work. Imagine going to Antarctica and trying to make it back alive, without a map. Trust me, you want the map. Basically, you make a list of the jobs to be done. You keep listing the jobs, as much as you know, to help reduce ambiguity and get clarity on the actual work. You involve the people that will do the work. You review it with people that have paved the path before you. The more clarity you get on the work, the more effective you will be at getting the right people on board, knowing your risks, and having ballparks for time. I’m a fan of using Mind Maps to build Work Breakdown Structures, and I make it a team exercise. I also like to do outcome-driven Work Breakdown Structures, which simply means identify the result and break it down from there. In life, I use Work Breakdown Structures for any project, whether it’s fixing the house or writing a book. It helps me map out the work and get my head around the problem. Whether I think on paper or use a whiteboard, the most important outcome is an outline of the work.
- Budget. If the project value doesn’t match the cost, you’ve got a problem. When the project runs out of money, it stops. As a PM, managing budget really taught me to value the cost of making things happen. It really taught me to pay attention to flowing value and knowing when to cut my losses. Monthly burn rates are my friend. I try to keep it really simple and I always know the ballpark of how much each month costs, so that I can do quick math, projections, and trade-offs. In life, one of the things I keep in mind is my monthly burn. It’s sobering to know how much flows out. Just being mindful here can make a big difference. Budget can be limiting or enabling, so it’s definitely something to master as a basic skill.
- Scope. A simple way to think about scope is it’s a box. It’s a box that sets the boundaries for the work for the project, meaning what’s in and what’s out. When something is out of scope, it’s not included. In life, scoping is a key skill I use to avoid taking on too much, as well as identifying what a baseline result should look like.
- Schedule. If you schedule things, they happen. If you don’t, they won’t. As a PM, one of the most important things I learned is the value of a timeline and making time for things. Early on, I didn’t know what I didn’t know. What happened was I ended up reacting to a lot of things I didn’t anticipate or make time for. I also had a hard time imaging the impact of things in the future. It always seemed so far away. Over time, I learned to better anticipate downstream events, and I very directly see the impact of the choices I make and how I allocate time for things. I’ve also learned to treat time as a first-class citizen. I’ve found it’s way better to setup a rhythm for results and bite off manageable chunks of scope, then to be scope-driven. In life, your schedule is your friend, as well. For example, if you’re not getting enough free-time, chances are you aren’t allocating enough free time. If you’re spending too much time at work, chances are you aren’t setting limits in your schedule. If you keep missing holidays and other events, chances are you haven’t made a simple timeline to help you anticipate what’s going on your life.
- Milestones. Milestones are simply key events in your timeline. As a PM, I use milestones to help chunk down progress. In life, I use milestones to help me make progress on projects or goals. They help take something spread out over time and bite off something smaller for the immediate horizon.
- Versioning. It’s a lot easier to make something good enough for now, if you know there is a next train to catch. As a PM, I need to make trade-offs between what to ship now versus what to ship in the next version. Basically, I need to find a way to flow value. Versioning provides a way to make something available as good enough for now, while improving with each version. In life, versioning is a way to create a clean slate in your life, as well as version your work over time. You can think of this even on the personal level, as you improve yourself from version 1.0, to version 2.0 and beyond.
- Prioritization. You can’t do it all and when everything is equally important, nothing is important. As a PM, I have to be able to make trade-offs and choose some things over others, against the objectives and goals for the project. In life, there are constant trade-offs and more things than time in the day. This is where priorities help me focus on the vital few each day, to improve my results.
- Feedback. One of the most important things I do is test ideas against reality. Timely and relevant feedback helps drive real-time course-corrections. In life, you can use feedback from various experts to help you make better choices from your healthcare to your finances or just about anything. Feedback can help you continuously improve as you make your journey. The simplest approach I use is I ask for 3 things going well and 3 things to improve.
- Scorecard. A scorecard is simply a set of metrics and measures against objectives. As a PM, I need to make sure the scorecard helps evaluate the project results and impact. In life, I use a simple scorecard as a periodic checkpoint on whether I’m on track. I find that what I measure is what I get, so I’m careful about what I choose to focus on.
- Post Mortems. Post mortems (or retrospectives) are a chance to reflect on your results. It’s taking a look back on how things went, including the good, the bad, and the ugly. The key is to carry the lesson forward. In life, I use post mortems to find the lessons and improve.
- Life Cycles. A life cycle is the progression or cycle of something from start to finish. As a PM, I need to know the life cycle of both the project and the product so that I can make sure the right things happen at the right time. In life, by knowing the cycles of things, I can anticipate the ups and downs, or growth and decline. it’s a simple way to improve my anticipation skills.
- Systems. As a PM, I think of the work in the context of a system. There are inputs, outputs, and workflows. By mapping this out, I get a sense of the key levers in the system, and who does what. If I know the levers in the system, I can improve my results. The key here is knowing the system. In life, I dramatically improve my results by knowing how the system works, whether it’s dealing with customer service or dealing with healthcare or just about any system.
- Ecosystems. This is about knowing the bigger context for the project. This is about knowing the relationships of one system with another and who the key players are. By mapping out the ecosystem, I get a simple view of interdependencies, potential collaboration, and potential threats. In life, when you know the ecosystems, you can find better leverage points as well as design for more sustainable results.
- Execution. Nothing teaches execution like managing projects. The heart of execution is managing time, energy, and action. Breaking work down into manageable action items is a key skill. The key here is really about establishing a rhythm and getting the team in the habit of shipping. It’s about driving things to closure, then biting off more, rather than spinning up a bunch of open work that spirals out of control. In life, I’ve learned to reduce my open work. I bite off a manageable chunk of work and close it, before biting off the next chunk. It’s an iterative and incremental approach.
- Balancing perspectives. As a PM, I need to balance the perspectives across the team, across the stakeholders, and across the various customers. You can imagine how many people have very different ways of seeing the world. I like to think of it as a big pie and each person has a slice of the pie. One of my jobs is to show this pie and how the various pieces fit together. One of the constant challenges here is helping people see more than just their perspective, so they can understand the decisions and trade-offs. In life, the ability to see and share multiple perspectives helps me understand where different people are coming from, what they care about, and how to make the most of situations. I’m a fan of lenses and the right lenses really can be game changers.
- Status. It’s easy to get lost in the weeds. Status is simply a check on where things are at, which also helps you how things are going. Reporting status is a good forcing function to check the health of the project and look at the key indicators. This is where your really tested on whether value is flowing in a visible way that stakeholders buy into. In life, I use status checks to know the state of my various projects and whether things are on track.
- Risks. A risk is something bad that can potentially happen. An issue is when something bad has happened. Managing a project means managing risk. It’s about having fallback plans as well as mitigations for potential risks. In life, I practice risk management, by figuring out potential risks and then figuring out potential mitigations. Insurance is a simple example of risk management.
- Impact. As a PM, I’ve gradually learned to increase the scope of my impact. The biggest lesson I learned here is to be the platform. When you’re the platform, people build on you. Another key lesson here though is that improving your influence amplifies your impact. In life, you can improve your impact by improving your influence. The same effort can go a much further way.
Well, there you have it. i could add more and elaborate, but this 20 minute post, turned into a 40 minute post, so this is where I’m going to exercise my versioning skills and call this good enough for now. Hopefully, this gives you some food for thought and you can start to see how the PM discipline is incredibly interesting in terms of life skills and can really improve your effectiveness in everyday things. if you have any PM stories or lessons to share, I’d love to hear them.
Photo by pamhule.