The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Project Managers
Develop | Posted December 21, 2009

Published in 1989, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, written by Stephen R. Covey has helped millions establish great habits for achieving true interdependent effectiveness in their life and their jobs. This article discusses the 7 habits, framing the habits for highly effective project managers. Below are the 7 habits:

  1. Be Proactive
  2. Begin with the End in Mind
  3. Put First Things First
  4. Think Win/Win
  5. Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood
  6. Synergize
  7. Sharpen the Saw

Habit 1 - Be Proactive
A project manager's goal in any software project is to ensure that the software is shipped on time, within budget, with high quality while satisfying the software requirements. Below are some ideas for being proactive on software projects:

  • Understand Your History - When planning projects, you should know what your variances have been on past projects (how many hours were estimated vs. how many hours were actually spent).
  • Best Foot Forward - A key way to reduce cost and time overruns is to prevent them during design. When collecting requirements, have your team review them for completeness and testability. Back the requirements with a detailed design and prototypes, as this allows you to better understand (and agree on) the solution and provides more detail for better estimates. Some Agile evangelists might argue that doing user stories (which normally do not contain detailed requirements, prototypes or designs) is the best approach. Although our team has been using Agile for years, we found that user stories are not detailed enough, as they tend to cause too much rework and have a tendency to reduce the accuracy of estimates. Agile is designed to be flexible and tweaked for your specific needs so by deploying a more structured requirements gathering, we enjoy the flexibility of Agile and the reduction of rework, providing us with the best of both worlds.
  • Communicate Effectively - During development, it is imperative that everyone knows the status of the development effort and to allow people to ask questions and get answers regarding specific requirements. To do this, communicate daily status and requirement questions via email or a discussion forum. Have developers discuss (briefly) what code modules they worked on for the day -- this allows others to know what areas they are working in and can proactively alert them if they are also working in an area that might causes issues based on the work they are doing. Have developers and testers ask questions about requirements and have subject matter experts respond to those questions with answers. This can dramatically reduce QA time.
  • Meet Daily - No matter if you are using Waterfall or Agile development, it is important to meet daily with your development and testing team to know the status of where things stand. This provide full transparency - if you review progress, status and impediments daily, you should never be surprised if tasks begin to slip and you can proactively resolve those to reduce slippage. When meeting daily, hold the meeting first thing in the morning and try to keep the meeting to 30 minutes or less. Here would be a typical agenda for the meeting:

    Review progress
    - Do this by analyzing a project
    burn down chart. This shows how well you are progressing towards completion of the project.

    Identify slippage
    - After reviewing progress, identify if anyone is slipping in their tasks and brain storm on helping them catch up.

    Remove Roadblocks - Ask if anyone is experiencing impediments and roadblocks. Help clear those roadblocks.

Habit 2 - Begin with the End in Mind
Your end goal for a software project should be to deliver high quality software that meets the needs of the client using reusable and maintainable code. Before coding begins, you should make a list of success criteria that you judge the project on.

For example, your success criteria may be that the software produces specific results, has no known defects (or a small number of low severity defects), is reusable, is maintainable, is well documented, is easy to use, etc. By defining the success criteria up front, you can objectively evaluate whether the project met the criteria or not.

Solicit help from all team members (project managers, product managers, testers, automation engineers, other developers, documentation specialists, etc.) when defining the success criteria. By getting a team perspective of the success criteria, you will have better and more measurable criteria and you will get much better buy-in from the team. Below are some tips for ensuring your meet your success criteria at the end:

  1. Identify success criteria - Make sure your success criteria is published and agreed upon by the team members.
  2. Review success criteria - At least weekly (in one of your daily team meetings), review the success criteria. This can include reviewing your defect statistics, test case run history, etc. to allow you to determine if you are progressing towards the success criteria as the project continues.
  3. Retrospective - Once your project is complete, do a "post mortem" or "retrospective" to determine if you met your success criteria.

Habit 3 - Put First Things First
Prioritizing work effort is critical. You must apply effort to the most important things first, followed by less important things. Many times a project can introduce cost and time overruns by small decisions that are made each day. The project manager must keep a close eye on these things to ensure that the project has the best chance of completing on time and on budget. Here are some examples of innocent "small" changes that could impact your project deliverables:

  • Feature Changes - Many times the team is tempted to make "small changes" to a requirement during the coding or testing phase under the guise of making the feature more attractive or usable. If the proper thought is put into the requirements, use cases, prototyping and design, the probability of this happening during coding or testing is less. A "small change" can impact many things. For example, imagine that a developer presents the case for enhancing a particular screen to have a bit different design than was originally set. Although making the coding changes might be minimal (a few hours), it is important to see that it might also trigger a change to the requirements document, the test cases, automated test cases, the help system and other documentation. So this "small" 4 hour coding change could turn into a 3 day impact on the overall project plan.
  • Enhancements Disguised as Defects - Sometimes testers will disguise an enhancement as a defect. If the developer is not familiar with how it was originally implemented (or why it was implemented this way), they may assume it is a defect and make a change that impacts existing clients. Although the tester saw this as a great change for their clients, it may impact clients that do not see it as a good change. To mitigate this, the project management and/or product owner should triage defects to ensure that they are true defects, not enhancement requests.

Habit 4 - Think Win/Win
When dealing with projects, you want to foster a win/win relationship between your team and the client. The alternative to that is:

  • Win/Loss - In this scenario, your team wins but the client loses. This can cause loss of future business with the client.
  • Lost/Win - In this scenario, your team loses but the client wins. This can cause team burnout, financial distress and other issues.
  • Win/Win - This is the scenario you want to foster. In this scenario, both your team and the client wins. How is it done? Normally this centers around the project management pyramid (Features, Time, Cost). To foster a win/win relationship, one of those variables must be flexible. Once your team and client agree to that, it is much easier to make objective decisions about how to plan the project.

Here are examples:

  1. More Features / Less Time - The flexible variable is cost, so your client agrees to absorb more costs (you can hire more people).
  2. Cost Savings / Less Time - The flexible variable is features, so less features will be delivered but costs and time will be less.
  3. More Features / More Costs - The flexible variable is time, allowing you to extend the timeline.

Habit 5 - Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood
Many of us have a bad habit of blocking out a conversation and not listening because we so desperately want our opinion to be heard. Every team member (project manager, developer, tester, etc.) has different experiences, different perspectives and motivations. Before you can solve any problem, it is important to first listen intently and diligently to fully understand the problem.

Once you feel you have all the facts, solicit ideas for multiple solutions. Having several options can provide better discussions and allows team members to tweak initial solutions into solutions that are more far reaching and solve the problem in a more direct way. If you disagree with an approach, don't attack the person that offered the approach. Instead, explain based on your past experiences why you think there might be a better approach.

Habit 6 - Synergize
Team collaboration is the key to a synergized team. A synergized team is made up of divergent team members that have different strengths, different backgrounds and different perspectives. Encourage these differences but provide your team with
tools that allow you maximize their effectiveness.

Highly collaborative teams communicate with each other by sharing their calendars, posting their statuses into discussion forums so that everyone is aware of what the other is doing and accomplishing. These teams keep track of all tasks they work on each day, the number of hours worked, the number of hours remaining and variances to plan. They also share documents that illustrate best practices and produce white papers that teach others what they have learned.

Habit 7 - Sharpen the Saw
Productive project managers see the need to continue honing their skills and love learning new techniques, best practices and approaches. They proactively learn about different ways to manage projects, including PMI, ITL, CMMI, and Agile. Below are some links that might be of interest to you:

Learning Agile - These newsletters explain the basics of Agile Scrum:

  1. Agile Overview -
  2. Team Composition -
  3. Understanding Scrum Rules -
  4. Scrum Kickoff and Product Backlog -
  5. The 30 Day Sprint and Daily Scrum Meeting -
  6. Agile Reporting and Metrics -
  7. Retrospectives -
  8. Tailoring Scrum to your Needs -

Helpful Resources
Below are some helpful resources and templates to aid you in developing software solutions: