What Makes A Great Project Manager? Insights & Opportunities

For most of us, and most of our bosses, the importance of project management is no longer in question. Without question, project management has taken hold within the IT community as a core competency. Yet for all of the recognition of the importance of project management, the reality is that most organizations still struggle with developing consistent project performance. While policies, processes and software tools are all parts of the project management solution for most organizations, the greatest challenge by far that organizations face today is attracting, developing and training project management talent.

But what makes a great project manager? What are the attributes that define project management excellence, and what should we need to look for in hiring project managers or – more importantly – recognizing and developing our internal staff capabilities?

While the initial attributes of project managers – a process focus, a strong attention to detail and the ability to define and rigorously work towards a clearly defined objective – certainly respect a key part of the role. The reality, however, is that process only gets us so far – while it is certainly indispensable, it is still only one dimension of what is becoming an increasingly diverse leadership role within the organization. The ability to manage and track the details of schedules, budgets and issues will never go away, but truly great project managers are rarely defined by their ability to produce a mean Gantt chart.

The reality is that great project managers have never been defined just by their process focus and attention to detail, but our conscious recognition of those additional attributes has often been more elusive. For most of us who have had the good fortune to work alongside truly great project managers, what stand out for us are often the same attributes that define great leaders in general: vision, confidence, reason, empathy, comfort with ambiguity and a genuine ability to connect with others. While technical skills certainly underlie these other attributes, they are necessary but on their own they are insufficient.

For most of us, we are not born with these leadership skills – we learn and develop them over time and through hard-won experience. Many of these lessons are painful – and expensive. Based upon recent research, more than 75% of project managers today learned their skills on the job rather than through formal education. These skills weren’t developed through just-in-time training or a form of apprenticeship, however – they were realized through trying, failing, evaluating the failure and trying something new. As the role of project management becomes increasingly critical to the realization of organizational success, however, how much failure can your organization afford in the quest to build your PM skills?

The reality is that we can ill afford learning on a trial-by-error basis. Yet for the majority this is the model of learning that is most effective style for adults. A proven model, the Kolb learning model, defines four steps to that define the process of adult learning:

  • Experience. The first step is having an experience. This is the ‘What?’ of adult learning. Often, the experience we learn from is a failure or challenge – an event that makes us sit up, take notice and evaluate what happened. In a project environment, this may be the realization of a risk, failure to meet a schedule, inaccuracy of an estimate or a major disagreement with a sponsor or key stakeholder. In all instance, however, it must start as an experience that we want to understand and ultimately learn from.
  • Reflection. For the experience to be a meaningful one for us, it must have sufficient impact for us to want to understand better why it happened and what we might have done differently. Reflection is the ‘So what?’ of adult learning – why did this experience result in the outcome it did, and why were we not able to be more successful? What were the attributes that led to the challenge or failure, and how did we respond to the circumstances and challenge?
  • Generalization. With input as to why we believe that circumstances played out the way they did, we begin to develop theories of what we can do differently in future situations. We being to answer the question ‘Now what?’, defining strategies and approaches to adopt should a similar issue present itself to us.
  • Application. Each of the aforementioned steps, however, are useless without application. Application represents the trying out of our new theory, leading to a new experience, a subsequent stage of reflection and further generalization, until we have internalized and developed a new skill.

While the adult learning experience is primarily driven by experience, not theory, on-the-job trial-and-error is an expensive way to build project managers. If we accept that the adult learning cycle best reflects how adults learn, then becoming more effective as project managers means creating different experiences – experiences that allow us to try and fail without consequence. We need to be able to practically encounter situations, evaluate them, and develop and internalize approaches that allow us to learn through experience what will work most effectively.

It is this approach to learning that is best embodied in programs like the Graduate Certificate in Project Management being conducted by the Executive Education program of the University of Alberta’s School of business, in partnership with Interthink Consulting. The program offers an integrated fusion of advanced topics in project management, from the application of leading edge tools and techniques to better understanding of personal styles, communications and managing group dynamics.

As well as making extensive use of case studies, exercises and interactive discussions, the certificate program also creates a comprehensive opportunity for hands-on application and learning through the use of an integrated project simulation. The simulation is what truly embodies the adult learning experience, providing a practical, hands-on yet safe environment by which to experience and learn from experiences without risk of real project failure. Participants are able to not just learn advanced theories, but truly experience and develop their own frameworks through application of these skills in a simulation of a real-world project environment. The result is a personalized development experience that supports development of truly great project managers – at a fraction of the cost of a failed project.

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