Stop looking for a superhero project manager

I have a memory passed down via family members. As a 9-year old when I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I responded that I wanted to be an expert! I’m sure my parents find it a very irritating response and would’ve preferred an answer like doctor, engineer or lawyer!

Whatever I meant at that time, I am pretty clear now, that this is just not possible. Today there is so much information. So many insights and experiences that we need access to as project managers. This cannot possibly dwell in the body and spirit of one person. Karen Stephenson captures it perfectly in her phrase, “I store my [know-how] knowledge in my friends”.

Networks matter

Much research over the last twenty years has attempted to identify the characteristics of successful project managers. However, more recently this has been questioned and replaced with a more interesting debate. What makes for successful project management? The argument goes that even the ‘best’ project manager acting alone without support from the organisation or appropriate collaboration with peers and other stakeholders is unlikely to be successful.

In our own research on the characteristics of high performing project managers, we found that the high performing group was much more likely to have extended personal and professional relationships within and outside their organisations. It wasn’t just that they had more expertise to draw upon. It was also that when they needed to interact with stakeholders, to further the goals of their projects; they were more likely to have pre-existing relationships to draw upon. They build up and valued ‘social capital’ in ways that less experienced project managers were unlikely to do.

Successful management

Project management, as a concept is important. First of all it acknowledges that management is not the domain of the project manager alone. It is a bringing together of leadership, coordination and drive from several different sources. Leadership and direction from sponsors and business owners must overlap and integrate with the leadership and coordination driven through the project manager. In complex project and programs, there may be several roles involved in this ‘management’ process.

Project management also captures the idea that management goes beyond the roles, capabilities and skills of individuals. It includes organisational, individual and group competencies which contribute to overall project capability within project-based organisation:

  • Individual capability. The critical competencies which contribute to the success of individuals roles within a project (e.g. the project manager, the sponsor etc.).
  • Organisational capability. The ability of the organization to develop and support processes, procedures and cultural acceptance of project management. The rising popularity of project offices is an attempt to address the projectisation of organisations–the development of the so-called project-based-organisation (PBO).
  • Collective capability. The ability to create and exploit collective approaches to the achievement of project goals. The idea is that a project’s strength lies in the ability to combine competencies in order to produce outcomes that can achieve an outcome that could not have been achieved by any one of the deployed in isolation.

There appear to be parallels here with approaches taken within the Agile framework which emphasises the importance of collaborative structures to allow developers and the business to work together in delivering projects goals.