The project manager enters the room and the conversation slowly dies down to nothing, silence, all heads turned to look at this man who is tasked with turning round this failing mega rail project. There is a pause before, spotting the man who by his description is most likely to be the site foreman the project manager approaches and holding out his hand introduces himself to a huge man, a whole head taller than himself. ‘Good afternoon, my name is Adrian Pagdin and I am the new project manager.’ The foreman pauses, turns fully to face the project manager, looks him up and down, takes his hand and smiles. ‘There’s no way that you can be the project manager,’ the foreman says in a deep Texas drawl, ‘your just not big enough.’
Super project manager is much like superman, he has hugely developed muscles to carry all in the pursuit of delivery. He has x ray vision to see to the heart of problems. His brain is so immense it is able to calculate and resolve issues before they even begin. His ears are finely tuned to hear even murmurs of problems, his nose can sniff out opportunities and his mouth and tongue are so gifted that he inspires and motivates all around him.
Have you seen super project manager? I’m afraid that I have not either but if you do find one please tell me, I could use one, in fact the industry could use fifty of them.
’You probably already know this, if not from the published statistics but from your own experiences as a project professional; 64% of large scale projects report as being over budget and 73% as being over schedule. Ernst and Young published these statistics in 2014.
Project management has some problems, not withstanding the rapidly developing professional standards the sheer scale and rate of change development is putting new demands on our profession like never before.
The multinational nature of projects, the speed of technological change, the competitor activity, enhanced end user and customer education and sophistication all of these things are combining to make it more difficult to consistently meet predefined objectives and expectations.
I want to write a little about one of these challenges that I believe is most pressing and if addressed could contribute asymmetrically to the success of projects. I am talking about the skills, capability and education of project managers in leadership and stakeholder management.
I have met some outstanding project and programme managers. They have grace, they have wisdom but above all they have experience and battle scars. They have made mistakes, learned from them and become a safe pair of hands. The problem is that they are rare, they are getting old and they are possessed of a skill set that our profession is not embracing anywhere near as much as is needed to develop the next generation.
If you meet one of these mega project or programme managers, the first thing that will strike you will be their approachability and normality. Despite holding a budget in the hundreds of millions of dollars or sterling these people have the ability to relate to people at different levels. Of course they do, how could they possibly manage complexity and people without having a broad skill set that incorporates engineering and relational. I imagine that this makes sense to a lot of this readership but I wonder if you realize how exceptional this is. You see, most of our project professionals come from an engineering background. In fact many industries will not even interview a prospective project manager if they do not possess an engineering degree.
I’m not about to start bashing engineers, not at all but for a moment let’s look at the required skills for an engineer, these are taken from the curriculum for a civil engineer:
- Applied computing
- Data analysis
- Environmental practices
Impressive right? Valuable and totally relevant for the development of sound and safe structures. I could point out to you that communication, leadership, stakeholder management, team building are missing from the curriculum but that’s to miss an important point; people who study to become engineers are a breed. They are attracted to the rigor, the standards, the practice of building and exploring and developing and fixing and problem solving.
There are no rules that training to be an engineer is exclusive and that they will never develop the social and emotional intelligence required to become a mega project manager. Of course people are different but to assume that they will is dangerous, cavalier and costly.
So back to leadership and empathy and stakeholder management and my conclusions.
Engineers are not always the best project managers having a deep grounding in science does not prepare someone for having meaningful conversations with an increasingly diverse range of stakeholders.
Mega project managers often learn through mistakes but are possessed of a people skill set that enables them to enfranchise stakeholders.
Projects are failing at an unacceptably high level.
So what to do about it? Here are my recommendations.
- Develop and impose a broader education on all project managers to equip them with the skills necessary to deliver complexity and manage stakeholders.
- Recognise that subject matter experts and PM qualified project managers are actually not automatically the most suitable, widen the net to recruit and train people managers into project management.
- Implement apprenticeships in project management so that the hard won skills, wisdom and grace from mega project managers can be learned by more junior colleagues thereby breaking the cycle of ‘learning by mistakes’
If you are a man reading this, you might be an engineer and you might feel a little offended, if you are a woman reading this, you might also be an engineer but this will make total sense and you would relish it. The fourth recommendation from me is that we need more women involved in project management and fast.
Adrian Pagdin is a project management evangelist at tailwind project solutions (www.tailwindps.com) and the author of “it’s the people: practical lessons in leadership and stakeholder management”