How to Turn Your Staff Into Project Ninjas by Improving Project Management Skills

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Congratulations! You’ve been selected to lead an important project initiative at your small or midsize business (SMB). Now it’s time to assemble your project team.

You likely have in mind a handful of people with the project management skills necessary to do the job and do it well.

But what happens when Jane is already committed to another project? Or Jake’s out for the next few weeks on his honeymoon? Do you have time to get replacements up to speed? Will the budget allow you to outsource the work instead?

header image for 'How to Turn Your Staff Into Project Ninjas by Improving Project Management Skills'

If you’re feeling panic start to set in, it’s time to make a change.

It’s simply not sustainable for small businesses to rely on the project management skills of only a few staff members. Eventually, you’ll scrape the bottom of your talent pool and project performance will suffer.

To avoid having the above scenario play out on your next project, there are steps you can take to improve your organization’s collective project management (PM) skills. Or, as we like to call it: transform your staff into project ninjas.

Project ninjas are the key to high-performing teams at small businesses. They can draw on their cache of PM skills to work outside their usual wheelhouse, solve problems, collaborate across departments, and gain support for their cause.

In short, project ninjas are your SMB’s secret weapon.

These stealth project professionals can even mean the difference between project success and failure:

According to PMI’s 2018 Pulse of the Profession report, organizations that take steps to mature their project talent, PM capability, and project culture achieve significantly higher project success rates (92% versus 32% for underperformers).

We estimate that small businesses that develop PM skills in their staff, thereby growing their overall PM capability, will improve their project success rate by 20%.

In this article, we’ll review a framework of seven behavioral elements that your SMB can implement to transform staff into project ninjas. We’ll also provide specific examples of what these behaviors look like in practice to help you get started.


How to develop project ninjas at your small business

To transform staff into project ninjas, we recommend small businesses follow Gartner’s 7S framework (full report available to Gartner clients).

This framework consists of seven behavioral elements designed to help organizations set up a holistic project management structure, develop their project talent, and mature their project management capability.

Following this framework will enable SMBs to:

  • Improve staff members’ project management skills so they can participate in projects as needed and manage and deliver those projects successfully.
  • Create high-performing, ad hoc project teams that achieve project goals and deliver value, despite team members lacking PM training, certification, and/or prior project experience.
  • Tap into the intrinsic factors that motivate and engage individuals, creating project environments that encourage team members’ passions and contributions.
The Gartner 7S Framework can help organizations develop their project talent and mature their project management capability.

Gartner’s 7S framework for developing soft skills to lead project teams (Source—full report available to Gartner clients)

Note: The framework is displayed as a circle because there is no hierarchy to the elements. SMBs can enter the framework anywhere; there is no starting or ending point. Each element represents a distinct behavior, but all elements are interdependent.

1. Serendipity: Encourage cross-functional communication and reward unusual, creative, and spontaneous ideas

Now, you may be thinking “Sure, serendipity is terrific fodder for a romantic comedy, but is it really an effective tool for creating high-performing teams?”

The answer is a resounding “yes!”

Implementing this element gives people the opportunity to interact with other teams and ideas, allowing them to problem solve and draw connections between seemingly unrelated events.

Note: Embracing serendipity in PM doesn’t mean that you throw all process out the window and hope for the best. It requires deliberate action on your part as a business leader and/or project manager to create opportunities for unplanned, fortunate discoveries to occur, within the structure of your project process.

 What this looks like in practice: 

  • Break down department silos. It’s not uncommon for groups to meet about projects in isolation, or with a single spokesperson from other teams in attendance. While this keeps meetings streamlined, innovation can stagnate when collaboration becomes too routine. Instead, open up planning meetings to all relevant individuals, while giving them the option of not attending, as this will keep a constant stream of fresh ideas flowing.

To ensure meetings stay productive, share an agenda with the calendar invite so people can preview topics before deciding to attend, then have someone take down notes during the meeting. Lastly, have the meeting leader send a follow-up email to the entire invite list and share presentation materials and meeting notes. This acts as a recap for attendees and will keep those who were unable to attend in the loop as well.

2. Stimulation: Use a targeted call to action to influence and engage stakeholders

Stimulation in PM refers to using ideas and actions to gain and keep stakeholder support over the course of a project.

“Stimulation, in this context, is the ability to convey passion, to influence, to convince and to persuade.”

Gartner analysts Mbula Schoen and Jack Santos (full text available to Gartner clients)

A team’s ability to get things done hinges on its ability to stimulate and motivate others to action. And to be effective at managing stakeholders, it needs to know how different people are likely to respond to different kinds of stimuli.

For example, some people are motivated by emotion and personal connections, whereas others are motivated by facts and hard data. High-performing teams are adept at using stakeholders’ motivators to create a targeted call to action, which helps them optimize project outcomes.

Putting this element into action involves helping staff recognize that people communicate, collaborate, and respond to interactions differently and then teaching them to leverage those differences to manage stakeholder relationships more effectively.

 What this looks like in practice: 

  • Conduct a social style assessment to help staff identify what their own style is, as well as their coworkers’. Circulate the results internally and use them to help teams collaborate more effectively. For example, include employees’ primary style in their profile on the internal directory, and then share tips for interacting with different styles in the company newsletter.
  • Perform a stakeholder analysis for every project to identify stakeholders’ social style, their influence over the project, and their level of interest in it. This will help managers and teams know what information each stakeholder needs, as well as the best way to relay that information to them.

3. Spontaneity: Give teams flexibility and freedom to challenge the status quo and reward innovative problem-solving

Embracing spontaneity requires that you foster an organizational culture that is open to, and supportive of, new ideas.

Two critical components of this type of culture include:

  • Public acknowledgment/praise for individuals who identify areas for improvement and contribute original, creative solutions.
  • Recognizing that failure is inevitable and should be viewed as a learning opportunity, not a deterrent for innovation.

Giving individuals the flexibility and freedom to challenge the status quo will improve employee engagement and in so doing, positively impact their productivity.

Increasing engagement also works to create a sense of ownership, and for teams, a shared responsibility in the results of the project. The more someone participates in creating something, the more invested they will be in the finished result. This is known as the IKEA effect.

 What this looks like in practice: 

  • Use idea management tools. Gartner defines idea management as a structured process for capturing, discussing, and evaluating valuable insights or alternative thinking. Investing in idea management software give employees an organized way to collect, categorize, and prioritize ideas and feedback. Common features include brainstorming, creator tracking, and idea ranking.

4. Swarming: Facilitate multidisciplinary and cross-functional team engagement and collaboration

Swarming refers to groups working together to achieve a common goal, their collective output far exceeding their individual capability. This behavior is the backbone of high-performing teams.

We often see swarm intelligence in nature. Scott Simonsen of SingularityHub uses ants as an example of this behavior, noting that individually, ants can only do so much. But in colonies, they can solve complex challenges, build bridges, create superhighways of food and information, and much more.

“A small change by a group member causes other members to behave differently, leading to a new pattern of behavior.”

Scott Simonsen, SingularityHub

Using swarming behavior to solve business challenges isn’t a new concept. Gartner notes that the “all-hands-on-deck” mentality and the system failure “war room” are common occurrences.

However, your SMB doesn’t have to wait for disaster to implement swarming. These behaviors center around collaboration—bringing individuals together to brainstorm, interact with and build on each other’s ideas, and work collectively to innovate and solve challenges.

 What this looks like in practice: 

  • Use small breakout groups to ideate solutions to key challenges. Rather than having breakout groups self-organize, drive cross-functional collaboration by having attendees count off and then group them by number. So all “ones” gather together, all “twos” are in a separate breakout group, and so on. Keep groups small, five people at most.

Organizing participants in this way allows people from different work areas to interact and learn from each other, while ensuring everyone has the opportunity to express opinions, ask questions, and build on each others ideas.

5. Simulation: Support consumerization and adoption/acceptance of new technologies and processes

Simulation can be a powerful tool in framing project objectives, in thinking about the process used to achieve those objectives, and in gaining support for the project cause.

High-performing teams use simulation in a variety of ways, including:

  • Understanding the customer experience. Start from the perspective of the end user. Identify with their challenges and perspective and evaluate if the project outcome/deliverable solves that particular issue.
  • Testing a plan before executing. Work through an issue in theory before executing the plans to identify unplanned casual impacts and discover new approaches.
  • Building relationships with stakeholders. Put stakeholders in the customer or end user’s shoes. Establish personal connections through storytelling and gain support for the project.

 What this looks like in practice: 

  • Start a lunch-and-learn program to provide training on using simulation in the above scenarios. This should be an interactive activity where attendees work through hypothetical case studies, apply “what-if” analysis, and improve decision-making skills . Role-playing exercises give trainees practice dealing with situations and problems that occur in projects, allowing them to make mistakes and learn from them, without real-world consequences.

6. Skillfulness: Leverage experience, context, and social awareness in addition to technical skill

According to Gartner, project management roles are changing. While technical skills are still important, soft skills and interpersonal skills are becoming more valuable.

“Project management roles are becoming less like skilled craftspeople and more like skillful professionals who draw upon their broad knowledge, transfer techniques from other disciplines, and use context and social awareness to do the job successfully.”

Gartner analysts Mbula Schoen and Jack Santos (full text available to Gartner clients)

To be clear: Soft skills and interpersonal skills are still project management skills. They simply speak more to the “people” management aspect of PM, whereas technical skills align more with the “project” management aspect.

If you consider all the elements in the 7S framework, the increasing value of nontechnical skills in project management is very apparent. The framework reflects a greater emphasis on collaboration, the importance of motivating team members and increasing engagement, and on improving team dynamics.

Improving the “skillfulness” of your staff means tapping into their individual strengths to achieve successful project outcomes, rather than focusing only on process adherence and task status.

 What this looks like in practice: 

  • Establish a mentorship program where more experienced employees help guide less experienced staff. Mentors can serve a variety of functions, from teaching mentees about the responsibilities specific to a job role, to helping them leverage networking opportunities, to being a role model for the soft skills and interpersonal skills they need to develop to excel in their professional career.

Consider using the results of the social style assessment to pair mentors and mentees based on their shared social style. This can help the mentee learn to better navigate stakeholder relationships using their social style strengths, and overcome their social style weaknesses as well.

7. Social: Build connections and peer network support to meet commitments, solve problems, and discover innovative new solutions

“Social” encompasses in-person social connections as well as the virtual connections we make on social media: Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. These connections influence how we work and interact with our peers.

“Resources can come as easily from across the globe as from the next workstation; new answers and solutions can as well,” Gartner analysts Mbula Schoen and Jack Santos note.

This element is fairly straightforward: Ensure staff are capable (and comfortable) leaning on internal connections as well as external connections for problem-solving, networking, and other types of collaboration.

 What this looks like in practice: 

  • Foster a community mindset as part of the company culture. Create opportunities for employees to connect and interact outside their job-specific roles. This can be as simple as celebrating birthdays in the break room or hosting company happy hours, up to conducting an all-company offsite. It’s critical that you create a company culture that embodies a “team-first” mentality, so employees feel comfortable reaching out to each other, especially higher-ups.

Additional resources for project ninjas

Implementing the Gartner 7S framework will help you lift the collective project management skills of your staff, transforming them into project ninjas.

They will become your SMB’s secret weapon—high-performing teams that maximize their effectiveness and achieve higher project success rates than ever before.

And the best part about this framework? There is no hierarchy to the elements. Your SMB can enter at any point depending on your existing culture and the project management maturity of your staff.

Looking for Project Management software? Check out Capterra's list of the best Project Management software solutions.

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About the Author

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Eileen O'Loughlin

Eileen O’Loughlin is a Senior Project Management Analyst for Capterra. Her research helps small businesses leverage the latest technology and trends to solve key business challenges and achieve strategic goals. Her work has been cited in various publications, including CIO.com, ProjectManagement.com, ProjectsAtWork and DevOps Digest.

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Awesome blog post! Very useful soft skills and workplace communication tips for project managers and employees in general. Thanks!

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