By Gail Dutton
Ask a project manager what he or she does, and you’ll probably get an answer along the lines of “bring order to chaos.” And while “chaos” may be overstating the situation a bit, project managers do provide guidance and drive to keep projects moving in the right direction and, for clients, a consistent experience and single point of contact. Often, professional management is included in a customer’s project requirements. Consequently, organizations are realizing that project managers provide a strategic advantage.
To reap the benefits of professional project management, organizations succeed best when they train managers in the skills and techniques needed to oversee multiple projects and personalities simultaneously. It’s not a matter of adding the responsibility to those of existing managers. Instead, project management is emerging as a separate discipline.
Mix of Skills
“Projects need structure to come together, and the project manager is the only person with the high-level overview to make that happen. Project managers must be at the top of their games in terms of understanding the business, the customer, and the tools available,” notes Tony Kapsak, project manager for a major American telecommunications company.
They also must be adept at encouraging collaboration and cooperation across geographic and organizational boundaries. “Project teams comprise skilled people who each have different interests in, and priorities for, the project,” Kapsak points out. Leading these teams requires a mix of technical and soft skills. A project manager’s role isn’t to ensure the technical superiority of the project, but to manage it in a way that delivers the specified outcome on time, manages risk, motivates team members, and facilitates accurate and timely communication among team members and between the team and the client.
New managers may make the mistake of being all technical expert or all manager. But, Kapsak says, “alpha project managers bring the hard and soft skills together and become the go-to managers who can deliver the ultimate customer experience.”
Developing project management capability takes time. “It’s difficult to take people without leadership experience and expect them to quickly develop the project management skills they need,” Kapsak says. That said, he notes, it’s also difficult to take time for training. Project managers who once worked on one or two projects now find themselves spearheading eight to 10, he says.
As formal project management grows in value, organizations are embracing centers of excellence. According to Mary Yanocha, VP, PM Solutions, formal project management training has grown from 48 percent of the companies her organization surveyed in 2000 to 87 percent in 2012. “They have embraced a more formalized structure to increase efficiency,” she explains.
Mike Levesque, principal, Critical Solutions, and instructor for some American Management Association (AMA) courses, says some large medical, aerospace, and insurance firms are developing formal project management training, and some senior executives are providing four-hour overviews of project management to their entire organizations. “That demonstrates management commitment,” he adds.
Kapsak’s firm operates a project management center of excellence around its business units. Employees can access tools, templates, lessons learned, and an annual symposium, and gain certification. At that telecommunications company, training is available in small bites, on demand.
“We encourage employees to assess themselves using our online competency model,” Kapsak says. Supervisors also assess their employees. Those assessments are compared and a training path is developed based upon individual needs. A structure is available for beginning, intermediate, advanced, and expert project managers. Live training is available quarterly, and recorded training is always available, Kapsak notes.
Basic project management classes are perennially popular. At PM Solutions, one of the consistent favorites is “PM Essentials,” which discusses core project management elements (time, communications, quality, risk, project scope, procurement, and human resources management) and provides templates that can be tailored to specific projects.
Fundamental classes are popular at AMA, too. “People are interested in the tools and, before that, the language. We use terms that aren’t used in other professional areas,” Levesque explains. “Then we discuss such points as how to define the scope of work, develop better estimates, etc.” With that foundation, team members improve their understanding of project management and develop more accurate expectations of their roles in projects.
Awareness is a focal point for OnPoint Consulting. Rick Lepsinger, president, advises project managers to “take time, when the team is formed, to discuss shared goals and priorities and to develop an action plan that accommodates other demands on time and resources. Clarify roles and decision authority early.”
Interpersonal Skills Are Integral
Soft skills are the focus at Geneca LLC, a custom software development firm. “We assume new project managers have the technical knowledge,” says Lew Sauder, senior project manager. “Our question is whether they also have the communication skills and the ability to work effectively with people as they build credibility with clients and develop their own staff.”
Therefore, Geneca has a tailored onboarding system to identify gaps, explains Tanya Wojcik, client partner, Geneca. The process begins by shadowing an experienced project manager and continues with formal training throughout the first year. “Geneca’s project managers have weekly team meetings to discuss client options and the strategies to encourage them to embrace those options,” she adds.
Many organizations focus on specific project management methodologies, such as Agile or LEAN. “However, true professionals know these tools alone aren’t enough,” Wojcik asserts. Instead, the best project mangers emphasize outcomes, and use and blend tools appropriately.
“We ensure the business is aligned,” Sauder says. “For example, we use iterative feedback loops to learn about issues early and adapt the project accordingly.”
The most effective projects are tightly aligned with the organization’s strategic goals, notes Paul Lombard, PMP, senior instructor, PM Solutions. But “in the classroom, people think project management is about applying tools and establishing a bureaucracy. Instead, it’s about simplicity—applying the right amount of rigor based upon project complexity.”
People also assume that attaining Project Management Professional status makes better professionals. “That’s often not the case,” Kapsak says. “The credential validates knowledge, but not execution.” Training and certification can only augment experience—they can’t replace it. Instead, mastering project management skills takes practice.
Another misperception is that good project management overcomes business process shortfalls. A high-level champion who has experienced the benefits of professional project management is integral to building an effective project management organization, Kapsak says. “Many organizations view project management as an expense, rather than a strategic benefit.”
Levesque likens a project to “a table of contents, with sections for definition of work, schedule, budget, resources, risks, changes, and communications strategy.” Noting people often neglect this, he recommends conducting a needs assessment from the project experts, and then creating the project’s building blocks. “Remember to include necessary interpersonal and management skills, too,” he says.
Smaller companies often think that assigning a good manager is sufficient, but those managers have other, competing responsibilities and, therefore, conflicting objectives. And if they’re not consistently available to remove roadblocks, they lose their teams’ respect, Kapsak says. In contrast, professional project managers lack those conflicts and have the techniques and tools to work efficiently with team members. “My primary role is to ensure the team is working on the priorities we’ve identified. I just coordinate the work,” Kapsak says.
Project management truly is a separate discipline that is just gaining widespread visibility. As Sauder concludes, “today, project management is where the CIO role was 20 years ago.”
Project managers need a mix of hard/technical and soft skills, including being able to:
- Encourage collaboration and cooperation across geographic and organizational boundaries
- Manage time and risk
- Motivate team members
- Facilitate accurate and timely communication among team members and between the team and the client
- Utilize project management tools such as LEAN and Agile