When is a Project Manager not a Project Manager?

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When it's a Business Analyst, a Change Lead, a Project Director, a Business Information Manager, a Project Lead, a Programme Manager, a Change Manager, a Business Manager? The point I'm making is that what was once a clearly defined discipline is no longer.

When projects can be anything from Crossrail at £15bn or the Mersey Gateway at £2bn to a simple software upgrade, we can't very well use just one job title to describe the person that manages them - or can we? Either way, we need to be able to distinguish between someone who is capable of managing £ billions and someone who's just learning their trade. The problem is that as projects get bigger and more complex, the demands on the project manager become greater and greater.

Project managers (I'll just use the one title for the moment) have traditionally been focused on a number of core areas. These can be split into two skill types; technical skills and personal skills. Technical skills are things like Planning, Business Cases, Risk Management and Cost Control. Personal skills are things like Leadership, Negotiation, Team-building and Communication.

These capabilities are as relevant now as they were 100 years ago but what has changed is the size and complexity of the projects, and the level of skill of project managers. 25 years ago most projects were construction projects and in fact the biggest projects still are. But projects happen everywhere else too, so now project managers need to know about banking, or retail, or healthcare, or transport as well, adding a third group of skills called 'Industry skills'.

If I'm commissioning a new HR system in a bank, my project manager will need very different skills from if I were commissioning a new bridge. Both would need all the core skills but would need different industry skills and higher levels of capability in some areas than in others. Add a fourth aspect which talks about size and complexity of project and we're starting to create a rather complicated picture. It also means that PMs will exist in a smaller and smaller box, making it sometimes difficult for them to advance their careers as well as creating problems in the recruitment space - how do you find the right person for the right job?

Some recent research of job adverts for project managers showed that in about 50% of cases the skills and competences requested in the adverts bore little or no resemblance to those held by the PMO. Why? Because the job adverts were constructed by either HR or IT who (sorry folks) don't know as much about project management as the PMO does.

In one case, advertising for a senior project manager, there were no project management skills mentioned at all! Constructed and sent out by an IT Manager, all they wanted was experience in the technical platform that the project was implementing.

The adverts analysed were for a retailer and in all cases insisted on retail experience, despite the fact that some of the most successful project managers in post had come from other disciplines or at least had mixed sector experience. Professional qualifications were only mentioned in about one third of adverts.

So what happens? Project managers apply for 50 jobs knowing that, if they're careful and selective, they might get 10 telephone interviews and 4 face to face interviews. And the odds for the employers are not that dissimilar. They get 120 applicants, pick 6 for telephone interview and call in 3 for final interviews.

That all takes a great deal of time; each applicant spends at least half an hour reading the advert, researching the employer or agency, maybe making a phone call and then adjusting their CV and going through the application process. When invited for a telephone interview they then spend half an hour celebrating and another couple of hours doing further research and then being interviewed. If they're lucky again then it's half a day to travel and attend the interview, let alone time to choose the outfit, get a haircut, and so on. The employer/agency then spends an average of 5 minutes (if you're lucky!) reviewing every CV, an hour preparing for and carrying out each telephone interview and two hours preparing for and carrying out each face to face interview, and that last one often with another colleague.

If you add all that time up, it comes to about 12 days of effort, that's a lot of time and a great deal of cost, and it's based on conservative estimates too; done differently it could easily take twice as long. So, is there a better way of finding the right person for the job? Probably, but no one's come up with a viable way of doing it yet.

So here's a suggestion. We need a competency framework that has a list of all the technical and personal skills, as well as industry experience and some indicators of the seniority level and size of projects managed. Each project manager could be 'scored' against the framework allowing recruiters to advertise more precisely and reduce the amount of wasted effort. As a bonus, the framework could also be used to show candidates where their skill gaps are so that they can put together a development plan for themselves. This would help them to make sure that they fit more role requirements and develop their career.

This system would certainly help everyone concerned but wouldn't be a panacea. The final factor when deciding on which candidate to appoint is to choose the one who is going to fit in best (or, dare I say it, the one that you like the most?). You have to take into account other team members' personalities, as well as the organisation's personality, and match them with the candidates. This is a process of 'gut feel' and, a bit like when you're looking for a new house, you won't know until they're sat in front of you. And then, as we all know, what you see at interview is the best you'll ever get from a person.

And that's why it's so hard to find the right project manager, or was that a programme manager or a project lead. But help is at hand. At CITI we work with you to help you ensure lasting and valuable change is achievable by applying our tried and tested change techniques. If you think that you could do with a hand, get in touch.

Rupert Fairclough

Rupert Fairclough

I facilitate change by solving problems and coaching managers to be better at what they do
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