Not Enough Good Project Managers?

Jun 14, 2004

My theory is that no firm is completely happy with how it handles project management. There are always problems. And one of the common complaints heard is, “We don’t have enough good project managers.” While I will accept that as fact— i.e., A/E/P and environmental firms DON’T have enough good project managers— it may be helpful to explore the question of WHY that’s the case. Here are my thoughts: Project manager is a very difficult job. There’s no doubt about it— being a PM is a tough role. As a PM, you may get responsibility for completing a job you didn’t start. A lot of bad decisions could have been made that you will have to live with. The fee allocated to do the work may be too low. The client could be impossible to please, yet your job is to please them. You could be stuck with a team of low performers and not have the authority to get rid of them. The job you are assigned to manage may be one of 10 jobs that you are responsible for managing. Your computer system may not support moving the work around the firm to get it completed by those best qualified to do it. There just isn’t enough time, money, or manpower to do the job properly. The fact is, project manager is probably the most difficult job in the firm to do well for any number of reasons. Project manager is a thankless job— at least internally. Not only is being a PM a tough job, but you get very little appreciation from your firm for doing it. If the budgets are routinely exceeded, deliverables late, or quality lacking for any number of reasons, it’s no wonder PMs are not universally lauded in our firms. The fact that many, if not all, of these things were not/are not under the control of the PM is not usually brought up when top management is griping about it, or when other employees who aren’t project managers are looking for someone to blame about their lack of a bonus. The good news for PMs is that they can at least get some positive feedback from the client. As the lead person handling the project from the A/E/P or environmental firm, they are also in the best position to see the firm’s successes from the client’s point of view. That’s tremendously gratifying. Project managers have to be tethered to the office. While most everyone these days in any position of responsibility in a design or consulting firm has to accept more intrusion of work time into personal time (especially if we let personal time intrude on work time occasionally!), project managers probably face more of this than anyone else. Clients expect an immediate response to every question. Team members need to be informed of changes in direction immediately. Contractors with questions in the field need an immediate response. The need for rapid-fire response requires that the cell phone be turned on and the BlackBerry be constantly checked. And this level of connectedness can create stress in your personal life. The higher education system doesn’t turn out project managers. What the system does tend to turn out are experts (if you can call anyone with a technical degree an “expert”). What I mean by “expert,” is someone with specific technical knowledge in a particular engineering/design/scientific discipline. NO amount of technical knowledge, however, is a replacement for being able to communicate, being able to work well with others, or being able to solve complex problems. These are the skills that are essential to being a good project manager, and they really are not emphasized in the typical engineering, architecture, or science education. The reasons for that are many— employers want people with certain training, accreditation boards drive higher-ed institution curriculums in certain directions, and academics often lack real-world work experience. If we want to solve the problem of not enough good project managers in our firms, we are going to have to do some things differently. That includes making the job as easy as we can for our PMs by giving them some permanently assigned staff resources, fixing accounting policies that don’t reinforce resource sharing, and building intelligent wide area networks. We need to thank our effective PMs for the amazing job they do, and we need to get those who don’t do so well into roles that they can be successful filling. We need to make sure we don’t have overly restrictive policies on work hours or absences during the day if we expect on-call response from the PMs 24/7. And we need to make sure we can tell people what the PM role is and provide some good guidance to those who want to succeed as project managers— not allowing them to go on with a dysfunctional idea that it is less important than the technical stuff they do. All of these things will help! Originally published 6/14/2004

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