“You Are Not Like A Project Manager, You Have Common Sense.”

I recently overheard a senior manager saying to one of the new project managers “I like you. You are not like a project manager, you have common sense.” I have long thought that the key differentiator between a standard project manager and a great project manager is just that. Being confident about when to call something, when to use one of the tools and techniques and when, dare I say it, to take a short cut.

Project Management is really 
just about common sense
(Image © Scott Marshall www.lumaxart.com/)

When I started contracting, I was determined not to just fall straight back into one of the clients that I had had in my consultancy days. I was confident that those relationships would always be there to fall back on but that I needed to prove myself as being able to source new clients first. A tough few weeks followed where I learnt a great deal about the way that agents seek to find and place clients and the dramatic difference between that process and delivering what the client needed.

One of the most telling things though was the obsession with qualifications. To a certain extent, that in itself didn’t worry me. It was the focus on qualifications that ensured that you understood a process rather than understood project or indeed programme management. At that point, I had a thorough grounding in various in house corporate methodologies, was PMP trained (in the era when passing the PMP qualification was backed by an audit of experience rather than the more diluted version that exists now) but didn’t have the Prince 2 qualification.


I had worked on P2 projects, indeed had two elapsed years experience of this gathered over eight years. However I didn’t have the qualification itself. £1000 pounds lighter after a four day course, I was the proud owner of a Prince 2 practitioner certificate and just four days later  landed my first freelance role with full responsibility for managing a multiple million pound public sector project.


I was aware even then that that qualification had got me the role. Or at the very least had got me the interview. My problem with this is that I had obtained the certificate in four days, could probably have gained it in one and it didn’t make me a better project manager. Indeed as the trainer repeatedly said, the easiest way to pass the exam was to park all your knowledge and experience at the door, learn the process and the products and recite it parrot fashion in the exam.  Nothing then that made me, or demonstrated that I was a better project manager than the next cv. In fact entirely the opposite.


My difficulty with this approach is that it creates robots. It creates project managers that merely follow process. Of more concern is that it creates project managers who cannot cope with any situation which falls outside if this process. Any decision that may need to be made quickly to avoid massive potential cost impact for instance gets shoe horned into the best available model. If the robot follows the model, they won’t get into trouble. Chances are they won’t get the project delivered either of course. Organisations are desperately keen to jump on the bandwagon of the process based approach. It enables them to create low cost project managers who can follow an easily assured, easily monitored process. It also kills dynamism, kills and tenacity or desire to drive projects through aggressively and above all it kills common sense.


I am not advocating that we aim to deliver projects without process. The project management products that Prince, PMP and the internal corporate methodologies are built around are the backbone of good project management. The stages of projects by which organisations manage their programmes and projects are powerful from a decision making point of view, an assurance ability and for communication. Every project needs a project plan, every project should be driven by risks and issue registers. Every project needs clear success criteria and scope.


However these are merely the toolkit to project management. Every project manager should have this toolkit to deliver their projects. There are too many project managers, too many organisations that believe that that toolset provides the ability to make decisions, to prioritise, to judge and manage the risks and issues and to ultimately deliver the project. One wouldn’t employ a carpenter to craft a high end piece by merely looking into his van, noting his tools and assuming he was good. Yet this is how many companies choose their project managers. A graduate entrant is sent on a Prince course and is given the in house tailoring of that methodologies and is then a Project Manager.


The real skill of successful project management is knowing how light or deep to go into the processes. Knowing which particular tool to use and to what degree in any given circumstance. It’s in using that common sense for every issue, thinking outside the box, outside the regimented discipline of the methodologies in order to get things delivered that the true skills lie. Too often I find ‘project managers’ who are keen to hide behind the process, indeed feel safe in not looking for the quick way to work through an issue because they are protected by the internal process.

The Influx Of Project Managers Into Project Management

With the current economic climate which has resulted in high level professionals suddenly finding themselves unemployed, it’s not surprising that the number of ‘project managers’ offering themselves for work on a contract basis has gone through the roof. I differentiate here between IT/ Business Project Managers and Project Management within the construction sector which I see as a very different role – and one that I don’t think has suffered the same dramatic increase in supply. The increase in supply has led to a decrease in average project management rates but also a decrease in quality delivered to clients. Ironically, as I will expand on later, this has led to an increase in the rate card for those at the top end of the spectrum.

Taking the courses won’t make you a Project Manager
(Image © Anne Davis
Flickr)

So why the decrease in quality? To enter the contract world, the majority of professionals are fairly confident of their ability to deliver and are probably joining the lifestyle from a position of some seniority. I have indeed come across several who have been former clients, formerly managing groups of contractors on behalf of their organisation. So these are often senior management calibre. They enter the contract market and pick on the rather generic title of project manager as it seems like a pseudonym for someone who just gets stuff done. How difficult can it be? Find the end objective and work out how to get there. Simple. 


There are two main reasons why this type of contractor finds it tricky to succeed. The first is the corporate model, the second is that project management isn’t merely another term for senior manager. It takes a certain type of person and takes a certain group of skills which cannot be learnt by taking the standard Project Management courses of PRINCE2 and PMP. 

I strongly believe that project managers within organisations need to be contractors. As soon as one gets to any senior level within an organisation, the corporate mentality takes over. Each individual is incentivised by their career prospects (either in that company or their next step). As a result, almost every move they make, every decision that they take has to be run through a decision tree which says how will this affect my career. How will this affect the corporate relationships that I need to develop to progress my career? For that reason, the decision making process is immediately flawed. A good project manager will be focussed on delivering the scope agreed to the cost agreed in the required timescale. Simple as that. The corporate manager knows too much. At every turn, their are opportunities to flex the scope, decisions which need to be taken in the projects best interests but are taken as a way of advancing the career. Or worse – not taken at all. The contractor doesn’t have these ties. He or she is purely incentivised on the delivery of a single (or a group of) projects. They are measured on their ability to control and deliver to the original project constraints (Scope, time, cost). The ex corporate manager would be much better suited to a portfolio management role where they are tasked with balancing the delivery of project with the wider corporate objectives. Two things stop the recently redundant manager doing this though. Firstly, there are few contract roles of this type and to achieve a contract role as a Portfolio manager, ironically the client will generally look for proven experience of delivery as a contractor. Secondly, the very reason that that role suits them is because it should be a corporate role. Therefore they are rarely on the contractor market. Vicious circle.

The best end up establishing themselves in the interim sector of the market, that is performing permanent corporate roles on a temporary basis. The rest try mistakenly to rebrand themselves as project managers, pitch at low rates and then come unstuck once it becomes clear that the difference between the corporate mindset and the contractor mindset is marked.  

Let me be clear here. I am in no way playing down the skill sets of  corporate professionals. To operate for years in the same global corporation, to manage the relationships, the politics to create strategic direction is a much sought after skill set. All I am saying is that it is not one necessarily suited to project management which is where many are repositioning themselves
The flip side of  the massive increase in supply into the project management sphere is the increase in the reliance of clients on recommendation and previous contact. Agencies are swamped by CVs, are targeted by procurement departments to deliver low cost resource but Client Delivery Managers are aware that this low cost approach does not necessarily deliver results. This results in the route to contract changing – agents are now administrative billing functions rather than recruiters but also in the rewards increasing as clients target individuals rather than generic skillsets.