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

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.

Organisation Is Everything

I am a list person. I’m also a minimalist. Clutter gets me down, whether it’s physical clutter at home or on my desk in the office,  e clutter in my inbox, my phone or my tablet or mental clutter. Stuff that messes with my head. It’s important that I therefore have an organisation strategy particularly at work. For me that means focussing on the minimalist in me and making sure that everything that comes in goes into it’s own place. That ‘place’ then gets referenced to a task and I know that only when I am on that task do I need to open the particular bucket.

Organisation and Workflow is Key to Success
(Image © Ross Burton. Flickr)

At the centre of everything is my to do list. Until recently, this was a macro driven Excel file but I wanted to move to a cross platform solution. The reason for that is that the best time to organise my to do list, to re-prioritise it or to allocate new tasks was those times when I wasn’t at my laptop. Being able to do it on the iPhone or iPad was favourable. For that reason I am using OmniFocus. It’s expensive for a simple task list but it does the best job that I have found. I tried outlook but the Mac version is lacking a lot of the viewing capability that the PC version has so that was a no starter. 

As soon as a task pops into my head I will note it in Omnifocus – either on my Mac or one of my devices. I’m not worried at this stage about setting detail just getting it down. At that stage it just goes loose in the Omnifocus inbox.  I should mention that I try not to have my email inbox open all the time. If I am working on a task, I will shut it down although as part of my regular hourly break from any task, I will take 5 minutes out to scan it. Again, any email that cannot be actioned immediately (less than 30 seconds) gets a task assigned to it and either filed in its final destination or filed in my action folder. (The task then associates delivery with an email in that folder). Incidentally, I have a rule which is based on a flag which automatically moves it to the action folder. 

I regularly take time out to review tasks in Omnifocus. At least twice a day – first and last half hour and ensure that they have completed elements for due dates, completion, project and context. I find context particularly useful for meetings with people. Flagging an action as Simon for instance means that as I head off to meet Simon, I can easily identify all the issues that I need to talk to him about. I find allocating to people more effective than the way that Omnifocus advises which is to allocate by location (work, at mac etc)

I take meeting notes using Evernote. Again, this allows me to be cross platform so that I only require my iPad in meetings rather than always lugging my laptop around with me. My Evernote has notebook stacks for each client as well as notebook stacks for personal and corporate entries. Each client stack is broken down into the individual projects that I own. I am quite sparing with tags but use them for anything I am likely to search on in future. The exception to that is any action noted in a meeting is marked as #A so that I know to pick it up as an action.  I have recently become much more disciplined at setting aside a period of time after each meeting to rewrite the notes taken in the meeting and to allocate any actions straight into Omnifocus. If I subsequently want to identify which meeting an action was from I can search on #A (slightly long winded but a rare occurrence) 
In summary then, my process is to put everything immediately in it’s place. Have one tool for each part of the process. (I no longer use paper to take notes in meetings for instance). Finally, having the discipline to review the task list at least twice a day and to write up meetings after they have finished. 

Milton Keynes: A City With Heart

Milton Keynes – a city full of roundabouts, a concrete jungle, a stolen football team. The city with no history and no character. That’s the feedback I get when I say I live in Milton Keynes. And yet I love it. I moved here resignedly 12  years ago because it was a hub – it was somewhere where I could work across much of England with little time spent away.

Communications has become one of it’s main attractions, only 40 minutes from London but without the house prices. The ability to move around a large city (sic) easily due to the grid network means that services and attractions are never more than 15 minutes away.

Milton Keynes: Not Just
 Concrete and Roundabouts

(Image © John Laverick, TattyDon)

The bit that most people don’t get about Milton Keynes is the countryside. The city is built around parkland to the extent that you can cycle from one side to the other without crossing a main road.  I’m 40 minutes from London, in a major town and yet am two minutes away from open countryside, from deer, foxes and unlimited walking.

Each residential area of the city is created with parkland and is under the main road grid of the city. This means that each one has a village spirit with a local centre a school and generally a pub. The beauty of this is that you are living in a city but with the community feel of a village where you know everyone, there are support networks and it’s safe for the kids.

The football team, although hated by some because of the manner of it’s creation is great obliquely because of that very fact. The club identified early on that it needed to engage with families due to it not inheriting much of a ‘normal’ football supporter base. The result is a community oriented club that provides a safe, family focused environment and is built on a sustainable base.

Milton Keynes has only been around for forty years, which for a city is a very short time. It is still undergoing huge development and the continuing housing expansion means focus on increased service provision, new schools and new leisure facilities. For these reasons its easy to get involved in the city. It’s easy through local interaction, council posts, school governor posts to get involved and make a difference. The newness of the city means that you can really feel like you are making a difference to the future of the town. A motivating and inspirational thought.

Of all the new towns, Milton Keynes has been the most successful. It works in comparison to Telford for instance because of it’s location, it’s focus on creating a city center (and a corresponding leisure area – the theater district. The town planners have never lost sight of the principles on which it was created: Green space, mixed housing and the ability to walk and ride around the city easily and safely.

Milton Keynes, a town built for the car but offering better cycling and walking opportunities than most traditional cities.