8 Practices of Great Project Managers

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working-together.gifAt my organization, we pride ourselves on doing what we say we are going to do. A big part of living up to that value is to be great at setting an ambitious vision for impact and then doing the day-to-day work to realize that vision. Below are practices I have seen our best project managers bring to their work on a consistent basis.

  1. Define success. Before you start building out action items and timelines, clarify and communicate what you are trying to accomplish (and why it matters). True success with many projects often includes multiple parts (for an example, an event might be successful because it achieves a certain number of attendees, has smooth logistics, and secures action commitments from a certain percentage of people). Success can often be defined quantitatively, but not always – work to establish a bar for expectations so that reasonable people would agree on whether or not the goal was met. Ask those who have done this type of project well in the past for their suggestions.
  2. Clarify roles. Who is the “quarterback” (owner) of the project? Who approves major decisions within the project? What role do others play, and at what times? How will you work together, and how often will be check in on progress? Clarify these roles up front – one framework I’ve found helpful is the MOCHA framework. For larger projects, it can be useful to define owners of different goals or areas of the project.
  3. Get a written plan in place. I love Asana, and there are so many other great options for organizing a project from very simple to incredibly complex. At a minimum, your project plan needs to include action items, who is responsible, and deadlines. It might also include a place to keep track of sets of project-related information (lists of materials, guest lists, agendas, open questions that need discussion, etc.).
  4. Be realistic about timing. Once you’ve clarified the steps that need to happen, build them into a real calendar. Start with the end in mind and work backward from there, with your best understanding of how long various parts of the work will take. Watch out for things that could impact your timeline – a major event that will take your attention away, a key project stakeholder being on vacation, etc. Build in time to get input on drafts and ideas along the way, keeping in mind that others are not likely to prioritize your project quite as much as you are given competing priorities on their own plates.
  5. Keep stakeholders updated. Provide updates along the way to those that are involved or need to be kept updated. This might look like a weekly email during the project, for example, with updates on what we accomplished last week, progress towards project goals, and what is coming up in the week ahead. This is especially important as things change – they always do – and you need to update your plan or approach and bring others along with you.
  6. Consider templates. Many projects happen over and over again (board meetings, house parties, employee onboarding, phone bank nights, etc.). In those cases, build a template project plan that you can then modify with specific dates and owners each time the project happens. As you learn best practices for that project over time, improve your template so that you are benefiting from your good ideas over and over again.
  7. Appreciate, and then appreciate again. Appreciate those that are supporting the work – shout them out publicly, drop them a nice email, share with their manager how helpful they have been, get them a small token of your appreciation as the project wraps up. These efforts take minimal time and resources from you and go a long way in building strong working relationships which result in greater impact over time.
  8. Debrief and Preserve. At the beginning of the project, put a debrief conversation on the calendar for key stakeholders after you anticipate the project will finish, and then use that time together to identify what went well, what you want to do better next time, and any next steps in the immediate. Consider putting out a survey to a broader group of constituents (event attendees, staff members, fellowship participants, etc.) to get their input to inform your debrief (and add the survey creation and sending to your project plan!). Finally, capture the artifacts (documents, plans, pictures) from the project into a shared place where that institutional knowledge can be preserved.

So, to recap, here are 8 practices of great project managers:

  1. Define success.
    • Create a written vision and goals for the project.
    • Communicate these with stakeholders.
  2. Clarify roles.
    • Decide on project roles and owners.
    • Decide how you will work together.
  3. Get a written plan in place.
    • Create and share a written project plan.
  4. Be realistic about timing.
    • Working backward, put your plan into time to set deadlines.
  5. Keep stakeholders updated.
    • Consider weekly emails and/or regular meetings.
  6. Consider templates.
    • If this project will be replicated, consider creating a template.
  7. Appreciate, and then appreciate again.
    • At multiple points, appreciate the contributions of team members.
  8. Debrief and Preserve.
    • Schedule a debrief conversation.
    • Make time to archive your documents.

What else have you found is helpful in managing projects?


Want to be great at your job? Structure opportunities to give and get feedback.


As you might have seen in our list of 40 things to do before we turn 40, one of the things I’m trying is blogging about professional topics. I set my measure of success for “trying this out” as writing at least 10 blogs. I’m going to see if I can manage one per month for a period of time. Are there particular topics you’re interested in? Let me know in the comments or via email/FB message/carrier pigeon.

For context on me professionally for those of you who aren’t my colleagues, I got the opportunity to engage in leadership development in high school and college via various student organizations and then started my career as a teacher for four years in Oakland. I then transitioned into a staff role at Teach For America Bay Area as the Director of Teaching and Learning. I then transitioned to my current role of Managing Director at GO Public Schools Leadership Center.

The workstreams and areas of responsibility of my current role have changed quite a bit over time. When I joined the organization, there were just a few of us. We are now a team of nearly 20 full-time employees – in short, we provide information, help develop and organize leaders at the grassroots and grasstops levels, and do policy and political advocacy (the politics is done with our associated 501(c)(4) org).

One of My Favorite Structures for Giving Professional Feedback
noahs_ark_photosculpturFor this first topic, I’m cheating just a little bit. I was asked to write some tips for the Tip of the Day blog at New Organizing Institute a few years back, and a version of what you see below was  one of them. I figured it couldn’t hurt to share with you all!

We all know that getting and giving good feedback to our colleagues and volunteers is a critical part of running successful organizations and winning our campaigns. It’s important to offer feedback regularly in our work – sometimes daily and weekly – to our colleagues. But we all know that structures can support us to be better than we might be without them.

One of these structures that helps me prioritize giving feedback is one I’ve learned over the years from those wiser than myself — it’s called a “2×2 conversation.”

In brief, it’s a conversation in which each person shares:

  • Two things that they think they are doing well in their own work
  • Two things they want to improve upon in their own work
  • Two things their colleague is doing well in their work
  • Two things they think their colleague could improve upon in their own work

Before the conversation, we’ve found it’s best if the two people engaging send each other an email with their thoughts. Then schedule a lunch, coffee, or walk and discuss your thoughts and ideas about how the two of you can take your work together to the next level.

At this point in my career, I’ve probably had more than thirty 2×2 conversations. And regardless of the situation, I can honestly share that every one of these conversations has been helpful. I’ve gotten excellent feedback from managers, those I manage, and lateral peers, and gotten to share thoughts with others that I might not have otherwise made time to share given a busy schedule.

We have in the past done organization-wide 2×2 conversations at least once a year where teammates have these conversations with several staff with whom they work closely, and we also schedule one for 6 weeks into someone new joining the team (with that person’s manager).

There’s little that’s more important to your work than how you interact with your teammates. Those working relationships are worth the investment, and this is one tested strategy that you’ll love.

Have another tip on giving feedback? Share in the comments!