The person accountable for delivery of the project is the project manager and they have a significant bearing on the likely success or failure of the project. So in these days when everyone seems to call themselves a project manager we thought we would explore some of the issues around picking the right, rather than just ‘a’ project manager for your project.

This is often a difficult and sensitive subject to address but better to do so before you start the project rather than discover you have a problem part way through.

Background

In SU1 Appointing an Executive and Project Manager the PRINCE2 manual says “Identify the most appropriate project manager for the project” but doesn’t really provide much more help than that. Sure, the Project Manager’s team role description at Appendix B5 provides a useful statement of responsibilities that we could tick off against and the Organisation component states that “different Project manager attributes are needed for different types of projects” and this is a helpful reminder but generally we are left to our own devices when trying to match projects to project managers.

So, what makes a good project manager?

Before we get all carried away with an elitist view about Project Management being different and harder than all other forms of management, this isn’t necessarily the case. Yes there are differences between project management and traditional business process management and these require additional focus but the key word here is manager and we should be looking at what makes a good manager.

This is a fiercely and frequently debated subject without any definitive answer but I would point you to the following grouped factors:

  • Skills
  • Leadership
  • Communication
  • Negotiation
  • Planning
  • Finances
  • Domain Technical (related subject area)
  • Marketing
  • Methodology
  • Traits
  • Tenacity
  • Flexability
  • Dependability
  • Enthusiasm
  • Risk awareness
  • Analytical thinking
  • Political nouse
  • Experience
  • Success
  • Failure
  • Breadth
  • Cultural
  • Key relationships

This isn’t an exhaustive list but should hopefully give you an indication of the sort of factors that you might consider for your project. Here we get towards the crux, each project is a unique set of requirements and circumstances and therefore the best mix of skills to match this is contextual (that is to say related to the circumstances).

So on some projects we might want more leadership, enthusiasm, tenacity, negotiation and a breadth of experience including failures and different business cultures to drive through something novel and complex and be able to recognise a potentially looming failure. On another more routine project which might be time and scope critical Planning, finances, Domain knowledge, dependability and experience of success might be more appropriate in the project manager.

So we come back to the project, in organisations with more mature project management cultures it is quite common to find a project grading system which looks at attributes of the project to determine the way it is managed. This sort of framework will usually ask the sort of questions needed to explore not only the process used to manage the project but also the type of manager who might be relevant. For an example of this sort of contextual approach to project methodology take a look at our P2ABC pre-scaled PRINCE2 methods.

A combination model of PM competence (mixture of skills, traits and experience) and PM method can be a powerful system for building an organisation’s project management competence around and for developing a cadre of capable project managers, but more on that in a future article.

How can I identify a good project manager?

I earlier used the skills, traits and experience groupings consciously to get you to think about where and how your prospective project managers might have acquired the capabilities they need to deliver the project. In general skills will be more taught or studied than traits and are therefore easier to identify. Many traits are part of the individual’s psychological make up, they can be taught or learned to differing degrees but can be masked from casual observation by a ‘front’ so are more difficult to identify accurately. Experience should be pretty straight forward to identify but can’t be taught so there is simply no short cut to making up for a lack of experience.

A good approach would be to treat finding a project manager like you would finding any other manager, review CVs, undertake interviews, take up references. Experience and skills should be relatively easy to identify, a qualification and a well documented track record including the ability to describe key events in previous projects should demonstrate these quickly. Unfortunately as mentioned earlier traits are very important and much more difficult to make out even face to face in interview. A better approach is to talk to people who have worked with the candidate previously or to chat with the candidate themselves in a more natural environment to see what lies behind the ‘front’ .

A technique that has gained much ground in recent years for identifying peoples traits is psychometric testing which is a relatively quick and painless way to find out about an individuals traits by getting them to undertake a series of surveys and tests. Previously a bit of a sceptic about these I have been converted since taking a number myself and being amazed how accurate the results were.

Project Manager Today has previously run articles on this subject including “well what do your know?” a review by Steve Cotterell of on-line PM knowledge assessment tools (Feb 2006 edition). Also “Recruiting for success” by Alan Bourne and Richard MacKinnon review the techniques for assessing project management candidates (September 2005).

But I have a limited (no) choice of candidates and none are ideal….

This is not uncommon especially in smaller organisations or in specialist technical areas where domain experience is essential and restricted to a few individuals.  All is not lost though, there are things you can do to improve the situation and the first is to recognise it! Don’t sleep walk into appointing the only person for the job and then automatically expect a successful project.

You might get lucky and get a good project but you might prefer to consider some of the following to improve the chances:

Focus on the team
I don’t mean ignore the PM. Make sure that the attributes the PM is lacking are made up for elsewhere in the team. This could include appointing people to the team for their negotiation or planning skills or even for their experience. If you are taking this approach make sure that the PM is involved in selecting the balancing attributes and recognises this is being done to help him otherwise when allied with poor communications this could result in internal friction. Belbin assessments are a useful (if bit simplistic tool here).

Consider Mentoring
Provide the PM with a one to one source of advice and encouragement outside of their business or project line of reporting. An experienced and respected figure who they can go to and discuss project issues, decision points etc in a confidential and supportive environment. Such arrangements can be very helpful if the PM can recognise when they need to consult the mentor. Incidentally the mentor can get a lot out of this as well and it can quickly being some expertise and multiplied experience in a small group of individuals in the organisation which can be used for project review or recovery.

Consider Training
It isn’t too late if some skills are essential and the PM doesn’t have them, put some project management training in place. If you are rushing people off on to courses because they don’t have skills they need then your training plan isn’t very well managed. Consider a training plan or competence framework for your project managers and make sure that they have skills they are expected to need, before they need them!

Careful review
Modify the method/process for this project to include more oversight and better contact with the project manager to ensure that if they get out of their depth or the project gets into difficulties they realise this and are taking appropriate recovery measures. Don’t find out when it is too late to do something about it.  You might consider a Gateway Review type of process here, getting Peers involved in reviewing the project.

Support the PM
If you run a PSO or P3O you will be able to provide the PM with a range of supporting services.  These will vary depending on the type of P3O you run but will lighten the load and improve the quality of governance and assurance around the project.

Have a fall back
Recognise that if the project manager gets out of their depth they will either swim or sink. If they are floundering pull them out before they sink and put someone else in the role. Clearly this could be difficult for all concerned but may be better for the project and the individual if tackled early before their confidence is shattered. There are many benefits to be had from failure, understanding how people react in difficult situations, helping them refine their judgement and recognise the signs next time round. In terms of a fall back have a name in mind from the start, generally in these circumstances it is good to bring someone in from outside the existing project team, if team members believe there is the possibility of promotion from within they might not be team players for long! Try to look for someone who addresses the weaker attributes of their predecessor otherwise a ‘more of the same’ reaction can be expected from the project team.

I hope you have found this useful, it has only really scratched the surface of a very interesting and complex subject and some aspects of it we may return to in the future.

Want to know a bit more?
You might like to consider:

Various articles from Project Manager Today as noted in the text
Managing Successful Projects with PRINCE2, ISBN 0113309465, (Chapters 4 and 14)
Portfolio, Programme and Project Offices, ISBN9780113311248
APM Body of Knowledge Section 7, People
Atern the Handbook, Chapter 7, Organisation, ISBN 0-9544832-2-7
Managing Knowledge work, Newell et al, ISBN 0-333-96299-0
Leading Change, Kotter, ISBN 0-87584-747-1

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