Top Ten Reasons Why Projects Fail – Reason #8
Reason #8 – The accidental project manager
I talked in my last post about the fact that so many projects fail because the concept of project management is not well understood and so therefore, is not supported in some organizations. And so I mentioned that people who are asked to manage projects are often not trained. And very often these people are secretaries or coordinators without a lot of experience in anything outside their realm, much less project management. This phenomenon is what we call the accidental project manager. So, someone is promoted to the position, or has it added as a “side job”, consequently failing because either they don’t understand the process or have no aptitude for it.
As it happens, it is not always the low-level people who are promoted to these positions. As often as not, it is more senior people who get these roles. Now I have spent most of my career working in and consulting to two industries, high tech and pharmaceutical. In high tech, I was largely responsible for new technology rollouts. So we would roll out, for example, the latest Microsoft desktop operating system or the latest Novell network. I also worked on rollouts for a virtual private network as well as some Lotus Notes endeavors. And since I was successful at these projects, there came a time when I was asked to manage these and not just be the hands-on guy. And so if I had just gone directly from hands-on technical guru to project manager, it’s likely I would have failed. But instead, someone wiser than me insisted I get trained. I can still remember my first class and my first introduction to a Gantt chart. Subsequent to that was an introduction to Microsoft Project. And as part of my apprenticeship, if you will, I worked on small projects at first, gradually building up to $20 and $30 million dollar projects.
Makes sense, right? And by all accounts, this is the way you should do it. But what I’ve discovered over the years is that this is not necessarily what happens. What happens very often in fact is that someone becomes successful in a technical endeavor, be it engineer or chemist. And so someone in charge says, “He’s a great technician. Therefore (by some logic) he’ll probably be a great project manager.” And so they promote this person to PM where, all too often, he flounders. Not because he’s not smart. Quite the opposite. But he often flounders because he has either not been trained in project management or, just as bad, someone throws a project book at him and says, “Read this.” And further, as a technician, his only concern was to provide some sort of technical solution. And now as a PM, that may still be his goal. But he is no longer directly in charge of the hands-on part. Somebody else on his team is. And so his job is not to produce the technical thing. Rather his job is to MANAGE the person doing the technical thing and navigate the political waters.
And of course, that’s a whole different skill set. And speaking as someone who was originally a technician, I can say that I think I related to people pretty well. But I related to computers better. And so interpersonal relationships within a project were a whole new level of skill set I had to attain. So I had to learn how to play politics, motivate and develop the team, work with different cultures, and meet the needs of various stakeholders. Which is wholly different from, say, installing a file server and attaching a couple of PC’s to it.
So I think that in order to avoid the accidental project manager phenomenon, you really need to first assess people. Can you tell if they’ll be adept at project management? Do they even WANT to manage projects or is this something someone wants for them? Once you’ve ascertained that they are in fact ready and willing, then you absolutely must train them. So they must learn project management 101 (at least), be trained on a scheduler like Microsoft Project (preferably in a hands-on class) and then get a chance to use these skills, perhaps on a smaller or less visible project. As they learn to wield these sets of tools, they can progressively be given more and more responsibility. Note – I am talking here specifically about the basics of performing project management. There is that whole set of interpersonal skills that they either have or will have to acquire. And so you will have to determine where they’re falling short in those areas and figure out how to fill in those gaps. I’d argue that this is an even harder set of skills to transmit/learn. But it must happen either through training or by apprenticeship. Because no project manager can succeed today by just being a project coordinator and running around asking if tasks are done. Without that combination of interpersonal and project management skills, he will succeed only in a very limited way.
(Next reason – little or no planning, especially team planning)