What makes some project leaders succeed effortlessly in the job while others flounder in a sea of irrelevant detail? If you’re already working in the industry – or considering a career in project management, get ahead now with an expert's insider tips on how to make light work of complex projects.

1. Clear communication

"Great leaders use their emotional intelligence and communication skills to build alignment and energise their teams and stakeholders in the pursuit of excellence," says Jeremy Cotton, Senior Program Manager in the Project Management Office at Victoria University (VU).

All great project leaders know that consistent communication is the key to success when working with a range of different stakeholders, internal teams and external vendors. Communication can be facilitated through emails, daily stand-ups, team meetings, status reports, project plans and more.

The role of the project manager or scrum master is to choose the most effective method of communication and make sure those channels stay open for effective engagement with team members, stakeholders and executives. Project leaders must use the same language as their stakeholders to ensure communication is consistent, builds rapport and captures the expected project benefits in clear and compelling terms.

Choosing the most effective method and angle for communicating is key.

2. Acceptable expectations

"Success is determined by your ability to satisfy (or exceed) the expectations of those around you," says Cotton.

The successful outcome of a project is measured against the initial delivery expectations. When it comes to being a top project leader, setting and managing stakeholder expectations is paramount. Manage expectations by proactively assessing challenges based on prior experience in similar projects and use this knowledge to warn stakeholders of possible issues – at the same time being sure to present your plan to address potential problems. Realistic expectations on delivery timelines can also avoid project delays, so be sure to have built-in buffer time and a plan B to counter the unexpected.

Remember that evidence-based data is your friend to counter a stakeholder's unrealistic expectations. If they want to deliver sooner than possible, use your concrete data from prior projects to support your forecast.

Carefully manage your client's expectations to avoid disappointment.

3. Prioritise problem-solving

Don't put your head in the sand about potential challenges. Assess all possible problems at the outset of the project and tackle them early, before they get out of control, to ensure a realistic delivery schedule. Make sure that potential risks to the project stay front of mind for your whole project team by having regular team meetings or stand-ups in which blockers to project progression are discussed and resolved. This doesn't mean you have to solve every problem alone – a good project leader knows that the key is empowering others to fix issues themselves. You can offer support, advice and the environment that enables your team members and vendors to be creative and find the best solutions.

"I always encourage project leaders to reflect each morning, as they write their task list, to capture any project blockers, their top three issues and risks, and what they will actively do that day to help their teams address them," confirms Cotton.

Maintain a confident outlook by tackling problems head-on.

4. Empower your team

"No matter how much individual talent you have, a team will always outperform. The challenge as a project leader is to harness that human energy and potential," says Cotton.

It's a no-brainer that a good project leader needs to track their team's performance for a realistic estimate of the time needed to complete the relevant tasks. But once again, use your experience and data from past projects to finely determine the speed and working style of each member of your project team for a deeper insight. It's an old adage that 'teamwork makes the dream work' but that's never truer than in project management. Establishing a system of shared team values, beliefs and methodology to approaching projects can make for a streamlined and successful process. And don't let your networking end with your immediate team – reach out to industry networks and associations for support and training as well. Research new project management tips and techniques from around the world through blogs, podcasts, handbooks, workshops, conferences, webinars, LinkedIn and more.

"Professional associations, such as the Project Management Institute (PMI) offer excellent resources for professional development. And for insights and advice on improving your leadership style, I've found articles from Neal Whitten to be particularly helpful," says Cotton.

Harness the potential of the whole team.

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