The Accidental Project Managers

The Accidental Project Managers

“Hello, please come in. Take a seat. How are you today?” It often starts like this. “I wanted to thank you for all of your hard work, especially your contributions on the legislative burden, as you know, we are pretty stretched and the FCA keep piling on new regulation.” Pause, do you know what is coming next? ” There’s a new requirement from the FCA, something to do with key decision makers being qualified and their decisions audited and traced. The leadership team have discussed it and your name came up. You have been doing good things and we think it’s time you had an opportunity to shine. We need you to take a lead on this project.”

There is it, the word project. It’s done and on you in a flash, you will be managing a project. Why? Well because you have shown some competence in a technical area and you are willing and because you have not yet said no. It’s too late to say no and in any case, you are still vaguely flattered. They did say shine, right?

I have a statistic for you. In the past ten years, I estimate that I have taught, coached and worked with 2,500 people working in project management. Of that 2,500 I estimate that 80% became project managers by accident and of that 80% over 50% have no idea what they are doing other than working extremely hard. We have an epidemic of unqualified and inexperienced accidental project managers responsible for delivery and we are suffering. An Ernst and Young survey in 2014 pointed out that over 60% of mega projects are over cost and 70% over schedule. We can assume that these statistics apply roughly down the project value ladder and relate to every industry. Projects are on the increase, change is on the increase and the business response is to ‘promote’ a subject matter expert.

We have all been thrown in at the deep end, made mistakes, we all have some battle scars to show and tales to tell but surely that’s not the best way to conduct business. I mean, would you send an unqualified lawyer in to negotiate a position, an unqualified, inexperienced accountant to audit, a graduate engineer to consult on a skyscraper. Of course not but this project management stuff, well it’s common sense, right? The problem is it is common sense, up to a point and common sense can get you a long way because you are a subject matter expert right? What happens when common sense runs out and budgets need drawing up, schedules developing, communications scheduled, stakeholders persuaded, user acceptance tests conducted. Risks, issues, failure, cost, delay, incrimination, insecurity, the Peter principle. At best the project manager escapes with a sense of humor in tact and some valuable lessons. At worst we have damaged a perfectly good subject matter expert who may never again hold up their hand.

I have three things to say, three recommendations but before I do I wanted to talk at the problem from the business perspective, to clarify that there is no simple pill or remedy for this problem. The business is there to make profit and doing so requires ever faster evolution and competitive advantage. That means speed to market and cost management. The business want this problem to go away quickly snd at a minimal cost, they want this opportunity to be leveraged and in the marketplace yesterday, at minimal cost. When the operations start saying, “wait, slow down we don’t have qualified resources, we need to triage or buy in experience or take our time, we are speaking two totally different languages. Operations have suddenly become the business prevention department and it’s the business that brings in the revenue so get on with it! It’s a situation that requires understanding on both sides to avoid conflict and ensure that the best opportunities and the worst problems are being given the best project resources and that there is a succession plan for new project professionals.

Three considerations for avoiding project failure due to inexperienced project managers.

1. Ensure a broad education and support is available to all project managers at all levels in ways that work for them. Training, coaching, mentoring, apprenticeships.

2. Be realistic about risk. If there is little or no risk then get on and deliver the project but if there is moderate to high risk, consider the ability of the resource to safely deliver success.

3. Not everyone is cut out to be a project manager. Review role competencies and plan for succession not resignation.

I was fortunate enough to view this first hand while working with a big Scottish Bank. The change department had two superb programme managers who not only took ownership for delivery they also brought all the up and coming project professionals with them, including in some cases, helping individuals to realise that project management was not for them.

 

By Adrian Pagdin, Project Management Evangelist for Tailwind Project Solutions