Project Management Skills for Engineer Managers

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An engineering project manager consults with a project team member on a drone project.Engineering projects can last months to years, which means that engineering managers should possess strong competencies to manage projects and their many aspects throughout their entire lifecycles. By developing project management skills, engineering managers can ensure that both the disparate and interconnected parts of an engineering project work together.

Engineering managers use their project management skills to complete many key activities in engineering initiatives.

  • Drive the execution of tasks, encompassing scheduling, time management, and organization
  • Facilitate the smooth transition from one phase to the next — for example, from the planning and design stages to the building, development, and testing stages
  • Interact with various people who have different responsibilities throughout a project, including engineers, technology professionals, and business leaders
  • Ensure that product, client, time, and customer requirements are met throughout the project and upon its completion

Among the many skills for engineers who are looking to take on leadership in project management roles, the ability to see projects through to successful completion is vital. Project management skills are also essential for addressing roadblocks or unexpected issues that arise in engineering projects, improving team collaboration, and minimizing ambiguity.

What Are Project Management Skills in Engineering?

Engineering managers have the science, technology, and math background to design, develop, and engineer solutions that solve problems or address civil or business needs. However, the engineering manager’s role is mostly focused on leading others in executing activities throughout a project, from production and quality assurance to testing and maintenance.

Successful engineering managers have the following characteristics:

  • Attention to detail
  • Teamwork focus
  • Flexibility and agility
  • Big-picture view

Engineering managers are ultimately responsible for the success of a project, so what are project management skills that are essential for successful projects? Key project management competencies include communication, decision-making, planning, risk mitigation, scheduling, task management, and time management. Additionally, knowing what stakeholders need, leveraging the expertise of others, developing contingency strategies, and continually adapting and revising to changing project dynamics are key activities that help drive success.

What other key project management skills can help engineering managers succeed? Some of the top competencies include the following.

  • Organizational skills. Engineering managers play an essential role in keeping a project on track. They do this by using their organizational skills to break out a project into phases and delegate responsibilities to team members according to each individual’s skills.
  • Analytical skills. Engineering managers must sift through information about a project to understand what it means, determine the best course of action, and identify the resources to accomplish the tasks.
  • Problem-solving skills. Issues often arise in complex projects. Since they have a firm grasp of the vision, aims, and expected outcomes of the project they are overseeing, engineering managers are typically the go-to person to help solve problems. They also help answer questions along the way to make sure all project requirements are being met.
  • Team leadership. Effective project management means taking the proper steps to motivate teams. Through their leadership, engineering managers help everyone in a team work toward achieving goals and overcoming barriers.

When these core project management competencies are not present in a project, opportunities for failure arise. On a large scale, failed projects can lead to devastating disaster. Famous examples of failed engineering projects include the Hindenburg disaster, the collapse of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, and the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion that resulted in the deaths of seven astronauts.

In business, project goals such as timelines, budgets, and product functionality can be missed due to ill-conceived planning, lackluster performance, and lack of attention to detail. Here are some key statistics highlighting this point.

  • According to the Project Management Institute “Around $1 million is wasted every 20 seconds collectively by organizations around the globe” thanks to ineffective project management, resulting in approximately $2 trillion of waste every year.
  • A KPMG report finds that organizations often fail to deliver projects that meet “time, cost, and scope” requirements and fall short of satisfying stakeholders, with only 19% producing “successful projects, at least most of the time.”
  • As more organizations undergo digital transformations, data science projects will take center stage. Yet, according to the tech website VentureBeat, “only 13% of data science projects, or just one out of every 10, actually make it into production.” Some of the reasons cited for this failure include highly siloed engineering project organizations and lack of collaboration.

Other Project Management Skills for Engineers

Whether innovating an existing retail product, developing new technology, or improving large infrastructures such as roads and bridges, the engineering process involves a complex series of activities, phases, and transitions.

Engineering managers can benefit from various leadership tactics and styles. Additionally, project management tools can help cultivate and maintain strong project management skills and drive project success.

Project Management Tools

Using software programs and other tools can help engineering managers maintain, organize, track, and manage different elements within a specific project. For example, project management tools enable engineering managers to see who’s doing what, and when and how they’re doing it.

This type of project visibility is essential, because a task that one group is working on may impact another team’s activity. For example, a project may consist of programmers in Beijing and a group of engineers in the U.S. A collaborative project management tool can help everyone see assigned tasks and know when to start working. Every time someone completes a task, they mark it off as complete. Engineering managers can get a full view of what tasks remain from the project management software dashboard, allowing them to determine the next steps.

Project management tools can also help engineering managers with the following responsibilities.

  • Addressing common issues, such as fast-approaching or missed deadlines, by setting automatic alerts to team members and rescheduling tasks as needed
  • Generating reports that provide insight into resources — for example, seeing which team members have too much on their plates and who’s available to help
  • Keeping track of project budgets, including reviewing billable hours to charge clients properly
  • Managing more than one project at a time involving many employees, and hundreds and even thousands of concurrent tasks

Leadership in Project Management

Successful project management in engineering requires strong leadership skills. These skills for engineers encompass abilities or traits that an engineering manager should possess to execute tasks, solve problems, and prevent projects from getting off track. Engineering managers can acquire and develop their management skills typically through experience, practice, and tools.

Leadership in project management also involves competencies that enable engineering managers to perform the following tasks:

  • Planning, setting goals, and creating strategies to achieve project objectives
  • Encouraging and empowering others to meet their goals
  • Building a sense of common purpose in teams
  • Driving productive change
  • Delivering improvements

These project management leadership qualities enable engineering managers to effectively and efficiently guide projects to completion.

Leadership Styles in Project Management

There is no template for project leadership. Every manager will lead in different ways, depending on their preferences and personality, team members, and type of engineering projects.

Engineering managers have different leadership styles in project management to choose from. They can select one that aligns with their unique personality traits or works best with their particular project team. One project management leadership style can also be combined with others to accommodate the needs of a project.

It is important to determine a specific style to use to optimize a project’s efficiency and effectiveness. Here are three common leadership styles in project management: agile leadership, laissez-faire leadership, and task-oriented leadership.

Agile Leadership

Engineering projects often rely on agile project management methodology. This project management style breaks away from more traditional project management processes, such as waterfall methodology. In a waterfall model, a project works through a linear process. Activities follow each other in sequential phases. When one phase is completed, it is evaluated before the team moves on to the next step.

In contrast, an agile project methodology offers fluidity. It does this by breaking down a project into smaller pieces, and priorities are placed on each goal according to importance. However, instead of working through a project in a straight line, engineering managers can regularly evaluate progress and status at any time. This allows them to identify areas where more resources are needed to complete a task. A phase does not have to be completed before being evaluated.

In an agile environment, projects are viewed as living systems that evolve. Agile leadership allows managers to guide teams in transforming and adjusting to meet the changing needs and requirements of a project or task.

Characteristics of agile leaders include their ability to:

  • Thrive in unpredictable environments
  • Lead others by including them in key decisions
  • Prepare a path to mitigate uncertainty
  • Offer clarity amid ambiguity

Laissez-faire Leadership

Laissez-faire leadership focuses on letting individuals and teams do their jobs without detailed intervention from an authoritative figure, such as a project manager. This hands-off approach is the opposite of autocratic or authoritarian leadership styles, which often involve micromanagement of individuals and teams and little flexibility in executing tasks.

Engineering managers who use a laissez-faire leadership approach encourage individuals to take the reins of their own tasks. They delegate responsibilities and demonstrate complete confidence in their employees to execute and deliver their work and solve problems using their own skills. Individuals who thrive in a laissez-faire-style work environment are typically self-motivated, independent, and creative problem solvers.

Laissez-faire leadership can help encourage personal growth by giving individuals an opportunity to be more hands-on in a project. This independence can promote innovation, creativity, and faster decision-making. However, while this type of work setting may offer a sense of freedom, managers may sometimes be perceived as detached from the rest of the team. Without offering much direction or guidance, an engineering manager may actually be creating an environment where team members are unclear about their roles, which can lead projects to go off-track and miss critical deadlines.

Characteristics of a laissez-faire leader include their ability to:

  • Motivate teams to solve problems independently
  • Consult or mentor teams when roadblocks are faced
  • Accept mistakes as learning opportunities
  • Empower employees with tools, resources, and training to succeed

Task-oriented Leadership

Typically, an engineering manager with this approach is primarily focused on ensuring timely completion of tasks and meeting each task’s requirements. How individuals and teams execute the task is less of a priority, as long as the work is done. This approach gives an engineering manager a good measure of control over a project.

A key benefit of task-oriented leadership is that it focuses on meeting deadlines. This approach helps ensure project requirements are met and that customers are happy. However, as with any project, a task may be delayed. This can impact other tasks and interfere with the success of the project. An effective task-oriented leader steps in to identify the problem, offers guidance on resolving the issue, and adjusts the project to get it back on track.

Complex engineering projects have multiple moving parts. Task-oriented leadership can be used effectively in this setting because it allows an engineering manager full visibility into project tasks and activities. Before starting on a project, a task-oriented leader typically defines individual roles and delegates tasks. A task-oriented leader also implements processes that allow them to keep track of all the activity taking place and monitor progress.

Characteristics of a task-oriented leader include their ability to:

  • Clearly outline and communicate project goals and roles
  • Provide straightforward direction
  • Set easy-to-follow guidelines
  • Empower employees with the structure to achieve results

How to Improve Project Management Skills

How can engineering managers improve their project management skills? The first step is understanding that project management requires a diverse set of skills for engineers. Among the most important competencies of an engineering manager is providing leadership to teams and individuals, empowering them to do their jobs effectively and efficiently.

Other critical project management skills include:

  • Developing technical plans and schedules
  • Setting and managing budgets
  • Monitoring project progress
  • Solving problems and resolving conflicts
  • Measuring results through analysis and reporting
  • Communicating and collaborating with teams and individuals

Individuals seeking how to improve project management skills can look for opportunities within their own organizations. For example, participating in a mentorship program can help them gain work experience, understand business goals and long-term project vision, and identify their strengths and weaknesses. This type of learning also enables engineers to:

  • Explore the different leadership styles in project management and determine which one works best within the culture of a team
  • Spend time soliciting feedback from more experienced individuals in the organization, which requires an aptitude for learning from others and taking constructive criticism
  • Review project debriefs to learn from the mistakes of others and discover solutions that help remediate problems in projects

Another way to develop project management skills is through formal education — for example, by pursuing a graduate engineering management program that includes a curriculum focused on leadership development.

Additionally, it is important to keep abreast of project management best practices and stay current with what’s happening in the industry. For example, an individual can explore new and emerging trends, innovations, and strategies by subscribing to relevant publications such as the Project Management Journal from the Project Management Institute, or Engineering Management Journal from the American Society for Engineering Management.

Develop Essential Project Management Skills

Engineering managers who develop essential project management skills can improve their ability to successfully guide projects to completion. Gaining a foundation of project management principles, for example, can enable engineering managers to get a clear picture of stakeholders’ needs. With a full view of requirements, they can determine the resources, timelines, and budget necessary to build a successful project.

Engineering managers who develop their project management skills must also seek to improve their communication and relationship-building skills. These competencies play a critical role in delegating responsibilities, and in encouraging and motivating individuals and teams. Additionally, strong analytical and problem-solving skills are essential to help identify potential setbacks before they occur, develop contingency plans, and resolve issues as they arise.

For engineering managers who are seeking to develop their project management expertise, Ohio University offers an online Master of Engineering Management (MEM) degree. The curriculum includes courses in Project Management, Finance, Lean Thinking Methods, and beyond.

Explore the Ohio University Master of Engineering Management degree program today — and discover how it prepares professionals with skills for engineers that can help them advance their careers. 

Recommended Readings

How to Create a Project Budget for an Engineering Project

Engineering Communication Guide: Skills, Tips, and Tools

Ultimate Guide to Lean Thinking: Strategies, Tips and Resources for Optimizing Processes


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