How do you assess project management skills and capability?

When is a project manager not a project manager? 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? My point is that what was once a clearly defined discipline (or set of project management skills) is no longer.

When projects can be anything from Crossrail at £15bn or the Mersey Gateway at £2bn to a simple TSB software upgrade that ended up costing £176m, 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 individuals. Some are capable of managing £ billions, whilst others are just learning their trade. The problem’s that as projects get bigger and more complex, the demands on project management skills become greater and greater.

Project management skills have traditionally been focused on a number of core areas. These can be split into two skill types; technical skills and personal skills.

  1. Technical skills are things like Planning, Business Cases, Risk Management and Cost Control.
  2. Personal skills are things like Leadership, Negotiation, Team-building and Communication.

These capabilities are as relevant now as they were 100 years ago. However, 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 to. So now, project management skills need to know about banking, or retail, or healthcare, or transport as well, adding a third group of skills called Industry skills.

If you are commissioning a new HR system in a bank, the project management skills would be very different from if commissioning a new bridge. Both would need all the core skills. However, they would need different industry skills and higher levels of capability in some areas than in others. Add a fourth aspect talking about size and complexity of projects and we’re starting to create a rather complicated picture.

It also means that project management skills will exist in a smaller and smaller box. This can sometimes make it difficult to advance their careers, as well as creating problems in the recruitment space.

So, 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 HR or IT who don’t know as much about project management as PMOs.

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. This was despite the fact that some of the most successful project managers in post had come from other disciplines or had mixed sector experience. Professional qualifications were only mentioned in about one third of adverts.

So, how does the recruitment process typically work?

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. They will then research the employer or agency, maybe making a phone call and then adjusting their CV. This is before then going through the application process. When invited for a telephone interview, they’ll spend half an hour celebrating and another couple of hours doing further research. Then they’ll be interviewed. If they’re lucky again, then it’s half a day to travel and attend the interview. This is without time to choose an 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, how can the process be improved?

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. This would allow 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. This is 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 can 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 consider 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 capability assessment which can benchmark candidates against industry sectors. If you think that you could do with a hand, get in touch.