Project Manager Wanted…

I have long believed that project management is a generalist skill more than it is a specialist one. In other words, project management is a way of thinking and doing that is applicable broadly, and it is expertise in the process—rather than the subject of the project—that is most important.

The logical outcome of this is that a project manager should be able to take on a range of different project types, for a variety of different industries, and still be successful.

To a large extent, this belief has sustained me throughout my career. I don’t have a core industry that I serve, and have enjoyed customers from a wide spectrum of backgrounds and contexts, each of whom have valued my services, expertise and insight.

And yet, I found myself challenged by the content of a posting on a social network, seeking the services of a project manager. The specific wording of the posting, in its entirety, was:

“I need to hire a PM with a PMP. Please forward to anyone you know who may be interested in being a PM in the HealthCare Software Development industry.”

Theoretically, if one takes my generalist bias at face value, I should have no issues with the wording or intent of the post. In fact, in theory, I should embrace it. There was no expectation that the project manager should have health care experience, or software development experience. All that was required was a PMP. Truly, then, the most generalist of criteria.

And yet, that gave me significant pause. I immediately raised a number of questions in my head: “What kind of project manager?” “How big a team will they manage?” “How complex or uncertain is the project they will be responsible for?” “How political is the organization?” “What development practices does the organization employ, and how formal are they?” While the posting is agnostic in terms of industry expertise, it was also silent on every other question I raised.

Which raises an interesting question about my own biases, and also raises significant considerations that should ideally be factored in when selecting a project manager but are often overlooked. A PMP, in my view, is not sufficient qualifications to be a project manager. In actual fact, it may not even be necessary. That may be a controversial perspective, but it is one that I hold to with unwavering conviction.

There are, of course, organizations that use it as a criteria; it is a simple thing to screen for when weeding out resumes. But the resumes that get weeded out may in fact be from experienced, capable and knowledgeable managers with profound and significant experience, who simply haven’t been certified. I know many capable project managers who don’t hold their certification; I also know many who hold the PMP and call themselves project managers, whose lack the experience and insight to effectively manage large, complex uncertain projects.

Organizations—and hiring managers—should be clear about what they get when they look for someone with PMP certification. They know that person has received 35 hours of project management training. That person has also spent part of their time in a project leadership role, although that experience can be varied in depth, breadth and complexity. That person has demonstrated understanding of a common terminology, set of processes and knowledge areas, at least for the duration of a four hour exam. Whether that knowledge has been retained afterwards or was simply crammed in for the purposes of writing is unclear. Nowhere is there any evidence of the quality, effectiveness or ability of the individual to actually manage projects well.

So what should we be locking for? And when is a PMP appropriate or inappropriate as a qualification? In my view, these are two separate questions; in a Venn diagram, they wouldn’t have a lot of overlap. We should be looking for skills that are appropriate for the projects that individuals will be responsible for managing. Those may be simple or complex, familiar or uncertain, repetitive or highly original. They may require high level of politics and significant stakeholder challenges, or may be straightforward and involve little controversy. They may rely on well understood processes, or require practitioners to creatively explore new techniques and approaches. They may require tolerance for significant risk and uncertainty, or have high probabilities of success. These are the dimensions of expertise that my beliefs, and supporting research, indicate make the most difference.

I have long held that good candidates are precluded when we get too hung up on whether or not someone has expertise in a particular industry, or familiarity with a specific technology. At the same time, good candidates will also be precluded when we get too hung up on a specific certification.

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