Keys to Success for Contract Project Managers

Contract project managers are in high demand according to the Dice Job Market Report, as companies increasingly turn to freelance professionals to deliver results in diverse environments.

Surveys also show that interims make more than their permanent counterparts, but before you switch sides be aware that working as a contractor presents a unique set of challenges.

Specifically, you only have days or weeks to get up-to-speed when you start a project according to project leadership coach, Susanne Madsen. Plus, you’ll need to bond with teammates and project sponsors quickly and be able to execute using a variety of methodologies from Agile to Scrum to Waterfall to Kanban.

So, how can contract PMs ensure that projects are implemented successfully? Here are five ways to get out of the gate fast and deliver exceptional results.
Eliminate Any Uncertainties

Make sure that you understand the project’s goals and your manager’s expectations before you get consumed by daily tasks. Don’t be shy: Project managers need to be direct and have a “take charge” attitude to succeed in the world of contracting Madsen noted.

“Ask why you’re being brought in and how your manager will gauge your success,” she added. “Also, clarify your level of authority and boundaries, so you know what decisions you can and can’t make.”

For instance, do you have the authority to approve staff holidays or travel expenses? Becoming familiar with the issue and escalation process prevents misunderstandings and ensures that a decision is made before a shortage of resources impacts the team and the project.

Ask to review any existing artifacts, especially if you’re coming in mid-stream, such as the project scope and charter, schedule and so forth.

“Treat it like a brand new project if you’re taking over for another PM,” advised John Williams, a P3 consultant and managing director of ProjExc PM Consulting. “Get a really clear picture of the risks, issues and assumptions by retracing the steps in the project initiation phase.”

Finally, verify the status reporting process including the frequency, level of detail and whether your boss prefers to receive written or in-person updates. When in doubt, it is always better to over-communicate than under-communicate.

Meet the Team

It’s important to identify all of the stakeholders and to secure their support each time you start a new project. Meet personally with each and every team member and user within the first two weeks to review the scope of work, requirements and their expectations.

Be prepared to ask questions to ensure that you fully understand the business case and to assess the technical strengths and weaknesses of your team. The good news is that contractors can usually get away with asking questions that regular staff can’t – so fire away.

“There’s no such thing as a ‘dumb’ question,” Madsen advised. “Feel free to go back to the basics.”

Do you have the necessary resources and staff to execute the project? Are you comfortable with the role that each member is filling? Initiate staff changes as you see fit, because once you accept an assignment, you own the results. Just make sure that you’re constantly closing that feedback loop with your manager, team and stakeholders each time you make a change.

Adapt First, Advise Later

As a contract PM, you’ll learn that there’s a fine line between being viewed as a valuable external expert and a disruptor. On the one hand, your manager may be anxious to hear your suggestions for improvement, but on the other hand, he may not see justification for implementing widespread changes to the company’s way of managing projects.

Unless you are given complete freedom to install a new methodology or process, it’s probably best to follow the company’s practices and wait until the project post-mortem to suggest major changes.

Stay Above the Fray

Don’t get sucked into ongoing debates over testing tools or volunteer to create or test code to help out in areas where the team is behind schedule or understaffed.

“Focus on managing the project and commit to using your own time productively and you’ll achieve better outcomes,” Williams said.

Find a Culture Coach

Familiarizing yourself with the organization’s PM practices, policies and internal relationships can help you navigate through the cultural nuances of getting things done. Of course, some aspects of corporate culture are easily observed while others are more difficult to discern, so to be on the safe side, identify a culture coach.

A coach can fill in the blanks and keep you from committing an embarrassing faux pas.

“You can’t really influence the culture as a contractor, so don’t waste your time.” Madsen noted. “You’ll achieve better project results by getting to know the culture and working with it.”

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