Five Key Skills for Managing Electrical Engineering Projects
Every electrical engineer can benefit from skills in project management. Project management is a data-driven, interdisciplinary approach to planning for a project and executing according to that plan. The overarching objectives of project management are delivering the expected results on time and under budget.
Project management has roots in the construction industry. However, it has been adapted to many industries, including manufacturing, computing, and supply chain management. It should come as no surprise, then, that there are important tools in project management for engineers to make use of.
A Closer Look: Exactly What is a Project?
What is a project? A project is characterized by a set of goals or deliverables that must be completed in a certain timeframe by personnel equipped with particular resources. Project goals must be quantifiable – it must be possible to demonstrate that one has reached them. Milestones are sub-goals leading up to these final goals.
A project is different from, but related to, a program. A program has goals, but they may be recurring – or they might be of such a nature that they can never be completely met. A program usually contains several projects which interact in various ways.
Most electrical engineers will find their career is made of projects. They will work on a portfolio of multiple projects at any one time. The most successful engineers are those who understand the concepts behind project success; they can effectively plan projects by knowing what resources are needed, how to reach a complex goal, and how to adapt to contingencies.
What Makes a Project Manager Stand Out?
According to the Project Management Institute (PMI), one of the largest organizations dedicated to project management best practices, about 17,000 people study for PMI-recognized project management credentials at any given time. Those who hold project management credentials or the title of a “project manager” are found worldwide.
However, not all project managers are effective. A PM can be knowledgeable about his or her field and still have difficulty leading a project to success. In most cases, project management is strongly influenced by “soft skills” and the ability to harness stakeholders at multiple levels to a single vision.
Five personal characteristics that can help with project management are:
- Credibility: A project only becomes a “project” when it requires multiple team members. The project manager must command the respect of others to motivate performance. Project management often involves making a “business case” for decisions that might require documentation, presentations, and persuasive discussions. All these activities benefit from credibility, which arises from a reputation of honesty, integrity, and proven past results.
- Creativity:Electrical engineers are constantly called upon to exercise their creativity within the bounds of available technology and techniques. It should come as no surprise that creativity is a core trait, but it is important not to “let one’s guard down” even after a long record of project success. Each project will bring with it unique challenges, circumstances, and constraints. A project manager must be able to develop solutions that are resourceful and germane to the issue at hand.
- Tolerance for Ambiguity: A project is a long-term undertaking and often involves “jumping in head first” without complete knowledge of the situation. Because projects are time-sensitive, project managers must know when enough is enough and understand that perfect knowledge is unattainable. As a corollary, a good project manager will quickly develop a sense for information gaps that must be filled immediately and know how to prioritize the tasks in a project to leverage incoming data.
- Flexibility: Projects are often under-resourced, and success may involve pooling the efforts of experts who do not typically work together. The project manager’s role has profound impact on the morale and success of other team members, so he or she must work to synthesize the team’s talents into a cohesive whole. This is vital for foreseeing, mitigating, and adapting to situations where the “obvious solution” does not work or is not attainable for unforeseeable reasons.
- Communication: Communication might be the single most important aspect of project management. A project manager is a highly visible figure whose duty is to ensure that expectations are clear and each stakeholder is engaged with appropriate contributions to the team. Likewise, the PM must start the project by doing whatever is needed to open the lines of communication between team members, ensuring each person has an understanding of the “big picture” as the project advances toward conclusion.
Project Leadership Characteristics as a Triad
Project management, by its nature, is never a solitary activity – so it might be helpful to look at it from a higher-level perspective. Research into successful training for project management roles has yielded insight in three complementary areas that all aspiring PMs should be adept in:
- Interpersonal Skills: Not only must a project manager be able to provide direction to his or her team, but most projects present situations where it is necessary to persuade others over whom one has no authority. To achieve the needed results, a project manager must be able to see things from others’ perspectives, understand their own motivations and constraints, and develop mutually beneficial responses to shared concerns.
- Technical Expertise: Technical expertise is, of course, vital for any electrical engineer. From a project management perspective, this expertise is exceedingly valuable for two reasons. First, it provides the ability to architect an overall vision for how the technical challenges inherent to a project should be addressed. Second, it facilitates the delivery of “hands on” problem-solving and guidance that can help teams overcome engineering roadblocks.
- Administrative Skills: Administrative skills provide the impetus behind the planning and organization of a project. In many ways, these can be the most difficult skills to attain and sharpen. All projects provide important “lessons learned” electrical engineers should be attentive to – not only for their own benefit, but as a source of enterprise knowledge that can help organizations secure more predictable, repeatable, positive project results in the future.
The Importance of Soft Skills for a Career in Electrical Engineering
“Soft skills” are interpersonal traits and habits in action that make it easier to get positive results in the workplace. Of all soft skills, communication is probably the most important for electrical engineers in a project management role. This is true not only because of the inevitable “negotiations” that take place during a project, but also for other reasons:
- Documentation: Many projects will require some degree of documentation. Documentation helps the intended end user successfully operate the “product” while adhering to appropriate safety protocols.
- Reporting: It often falls to the project manager to report a project’s progress to high-level stakeholders, which may even include a company’s board of directors. Such reporting must be clear, concise, and typically, as non-technical as possible.
- Mentoring: Junior team members are often in a position to develop new skills and perspectives when working on a challenging project. It falls to project managers to anticipate and respond to “teachable moments.”
Electrical engineers should remain aware of opportunities to enhance soft skills at every phase of their career. Although technical skills form the foundation of any electrical engineer’s lasting success, soft skills are often required to ensure that good ideas are heard and implemented.
Project Management for Instructional Designers — Key Skills of the Project Manager http://pm4id.org/1/3/
Soft Skills in the Workplace http://www.saddleback.edu/book/export/html/4405
Project Management Institute — 2014 Annual Report http://www.pmi.org/~/media/PDF/Publications/pmi-annual-report-2014.ashx
An Introduction to Project Management http://www.usbr.gov/excellence/Finals/FinalIntroPM.pdf