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POV: Selecting Project Managers

Oct 1, 2007 12:00 PM, By Bradley A. Malone, PMP


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Business environments beginning to mature their business management practices and procedures go through a cycle of selecting project managers — deciding how best to grow their competence and capabilities. Oftentimes companies attempt to undergo such process improvement efforts using their internal resources to manage and staff the project.

Unconsciously, companies typically begin to grow their future project managers through a trial-by-fire approach of crisis management. They give an intelligent, highly motivated technical or functional employee an opportunity to fix a problem within very constrained timeframes and with limited resources. This opportunity is viewed as an emergency, and the company (or manager) is depending on the employee to give 110 percent and do whatever it takes to get the crisis contained.

There are difficulties with this approach, which attempts to transform their star problem solver into a project manager. Many of the complications stem from the chosen problem solver having the mindset of a technical specialist. Let's take a look at the general differences between the framework of a technical specialist versus one of a true project manager.

Technical specialist seeks optimal solutions. There is a best answer, and they usually make every effort to attain it, often getting demoralized when they are unable to realize that optimum solution. They strive for precision, looking for exactness. When they can't give an exact answer, they tend to feel as if their competence or knowledge is being judged, thus estimates tend to be presented as very exact, and they are often based on optimistic or perfect-world conditions.

Technical specialists also tend to deal directly with tangible things — machines, speakers, equipment, wiring, racks, etc. If an individual understands the inner workings of something, they can then fix it. Tangible things tend to not have the ability to talk back or form an opinion — both of which may cause conflict, which they see as a condition to be avoided or minimized.

A worker with this mindset also tends to focus on processes. To them, there is a prescribed way of getting things done, often using a very systematic and linear process, following the steps they believe will lead to the optimal solution. However, they also possess a tendency for reactionary problem solving. Putting out fires is a challenge, or an opportunity to show one's expertise and knowledge. Therefore, the bigger the crisis, the more indispensable the person — only choosing to raise awareness once the problem has grown to insurmountable proportions.

Another trait of the technical specialist is that they work with immutable laws. There are certain laws of nature, which make sense and must be applied. Therefore, it is seen that problems can be solved using scientific principles — physics, electrical, mechanical, and so on. Additionally, they specialize in order to improve themselves — feeling they can get better by becoming more knowledgeable about specific interest areas. To them, being the expert in a field is the highest compliment.

Technical specialists look to succeed as an individual — mostly focusing on diving individually into a challenge or opportunity and removing oneself from their surroundings, thus focusing all their effort on the specific problem. Additionally, they tend to be answer-based, meaning they see worth as being measured by how well, how quickly, and how precisely they can answer a question. They feel asking a question only shows others that one doesn't know or can't determine the answer.

In contrast, a mature project manager looks outside of themselves for resources and asks probing questions of others in order to achieve the desired outcome. A project manager seeks pragmatic solutions, defining what is probable and realistic given the circumstances, assumptions, and constraints. They communicate realistic, not optimal, results.

A project manager strives for accuracy, believing an accurate estimate always has a confidence range, or a probability factor. A precise estimate is typically completely inaccurate, making them uncomfortable with the unknowns and variances of a project. They focus on outcomes and are able to envision the desired results, looking across multiple ways to achieve that result — more of a deliverable versus process focus.

Those with a project-manager mindset deal with people. They realize that most projects impact a range of people — all of whom may have conflicting opinions, needs, wants, and expectations. A project manager learns to address conflict early and understands that conflict is a natural part of a project.

Project managers tend to use proactive planning and strive to minimize the occurrence of risks and fires. When problems do occur, they notify others while the problem is being worked on — heightening awareness early via options. They also work with situational rules, understanding that the world is not perfect, and are thus willing to adapt to the current situation and make changes due to fluctuating conditions — communicating what is occurring versus what is hoped for.

Workers with this mindset also generalize in order to improve. They attempt to understand the bigger picture and the inter-relationships between the various pieces and people involved in (and being affected by) the project. Project managers focus on the integration of different specialties and the handoffs between them.

They also look to succeed through others. A project manager relies on the expertise of others instead of personally having to know all of the answers — understanding that projects are successful through the combined efforts of many people working together.

Finally, project managers tend to be question-based. They realize the value of asking questions — especially those that may seem too simple to ask. By involving many different stakeholders, a project manager is willing to not know the answers in order to find the correct solution.

Both of these types of employees are incredibly important to the successful completion of a project and the satisfaction of a client. The challenge is in determining which of your resources are predisposed to staying technical specialists and which are more inclined to become project managers. The biggest challenge is in breaking the habit of trying to have all people be all things — ultimately diminishing their strengths and reducing their value.


Bradley A. Malone, PMP, is president and principal consultant of Twin Star Consulting Company, a project management and corporate transformation training and consulting firm. He is a faculty member of the InfoComm Academy, teaching classes in the Project Management Track.



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