Sunday, 09 January 2011 00:00

Tomorrow's Project Manager

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With the coming of 2011, it is time to reflect on our past and contemplate the future. We think about our families, our friends, our successes and failures; we think about our jobs, our professions, and the world of possibilities. We must reaffirm our ship's direction, stay the course, make corrections, or find a new destination. As project managers, we must look at the recent changes in the discipline and translate those into a plan for our professional development—a plan that meets our needs and the needs of the discipline.


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Projects take more than managers, they need leaders. Leading is a special set of skills that one needs to hone and develop. We have numerous white papers on the topic. One, Transforming Project Managers Into Project Leaders talks specifically about what a PM must do to become a leader.

The Evolution of Project Management

As project managers, we have seen significant change. Over the last decade, the field has grown to be recognized as a professional discipline and many have benefited from the changing views for how projects are run. We have witnessed or implemented processes and procedures and have seen project management offices spring up to help prioritize enterprise portfolios and manage resource loading. It has been an exciting time.

In the last couple of years, many have seen project management become a commodity. Various organizations push their certificates as the end all of employment requirements and companies have created checklists to qualify good project managers just as one might look at the functions required from a personal accounting program. Employment firms relying on high-volume placements capitalize on this attitude, realizing how cost effective the screening process can be. Mean while, thousands of people clamor for their project management certification so they can jump into the resource pool.

It takes more than a certification to make a good project manager. Attaining expertise requires the ability to work with others and coordinate people to achieve a common goal. These traits are difficult, if not impossible, to acquire in a class, let alone grade on a test. Process is a vital component; however, project managers must step beyond the role of processes and aspire to be leaders. This will manifest itself with three grades of project managers.

Tier One: The Coordinator

Today's certifications equip project managers to be coordinators. The expectation is that they herd cats. They work reactively at the rear and the flanks keeping the cats all going the same general direction.

The Coordinator

The expectation is that they herd cats.

This is a comfortable non-confrontational roll where a majority of project managers feel comfortable and most companies require the trait. The Coordinator implements processes and procedures, monitors timelines, reacts to problems, and escalates out-of-control issues. This is the area where project management has become a commodity—if you can get projects to be proceduralized anyone can manage them.

Hopefully, this notion has run its course as companies realize that this only works with highly repeatable projects, the paradigm must change to cover projects requiring innovation.

Tier Two: The Negotiator

The negotiator has a different set of skills—they have learned to run with the cats and apply reason getting them to head the correct direction. This requires that the project manager understand the stakeholder's needs and values and can mediate a compromise.

The Negotiator

They have learned to run with the cats and apply reason getting them to head the correct direction.

Once the portfolio develops past the point of repeatable projects, there is no longer a single possible goal a project. The project manager has to coax people to compromise and develop a mutual endpoint that provides value to all stakeholders. This is the first level of leadership.

All negotiators understand there is a process to follow—planning how to approach the negotiation, exploring options, proposing and bartering a solution, and executing the plan. However, few question that a majority of a negotiation is art. The way people support their viewpoint, handle their demeanor, show confidence in their beliefs, and deal with rebuttals make or break a successful negotiation.

By managing a team in this manner, they begin to self-correct and adjust their course realizing the power of the team and ineffectiveness of running off on a tangent.

Tier Three: The Leader

The project manager that walks in front of the herd, the cats following, is at the highest level of aspiration. Leaders understand their mission, mold and maintain a vision aligned with the strategic goals of the organization, communicate the direction to the team, and inspire people to achieve that vision. The team becomes self-directing.

The Leader

They walk in front of the herd, the cats following.

Leadership can be learned, but not from a book or class. It is acquired from understanding the tools and applying them. It requires experience and an open mind.

The opportunity to enter into a leadership role presents itself to nearly everyone. We need to recognize that situation and know how to step in and lead the team to success. Our biggest obstacle is the courage and confidence to move in that direction—to know when the cats will follow. The first few attempts often lack the polish and finesse of the accomplished leader, but experience brings it rewards.

How to Get There

The key to the future is acquiring the soft skills to aspire to new levels of management. Minimally this requires education in organization development, sociology, business management, and leadership. However, the cornerstone is real-world experience. As with any discipline, education pales in the shadow of experience. Moving from a reactive to a proactive approach where identifying and addressing problems prior to them becoming issues is critical. This requires a calm, methodical approach and open communication channels with all stakeholders. The result is a high-performance, self-directing team that can drive any project to its appropriate goal.

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