Good project managers are hard to find

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Anyone who regularly reads the newspapers or IT magazines will be familiar with the shocking track record of projects that have either completely failed to deliver or delivered late and over budget. The new NHS computer system project is a case in point. Costing millions it eventually ended up in complete failure and litigation with 'poor project management' being cited as one of the prime causes of the problem. So where is it all going wrong? And why?

What we find, time and again, is that it is not the project itself that is at fault - after all, a project is only a series of sequential tasks. Nor is it the project goals or objectives, which may be very clear and explicitly understood. Instead, it usually boils down to the way a project has been managed.

Like all business tasks a project has to be well-managed if it is to succeed, regardless of shape, size, complexity or timeframe. A good project manager, therefore, is the lynchpin of any project and fundamental to the success or failure of the project. A good project manager needs to be an inspirational leader, a diplomat, a good organiser, a good communicator, a mediator and a motivator, thick-skinned, focused and goal-oriented.

In addition, project panagement is both an art and a science and therefore demands skills in both disciplines, which can be hard to find.Good project managers who meet these demanding criteria are a rare breed indeed - and perhaps it is for this reason that many would-be project managers simply don't make the grade. However, there is another crucial factor that will determine the success or failure of a project that managers get wrong time after time. It is all about some ingrained misconceptions regarding the appointment of a manager to a specific project, and it is a misconception that can have catastrophic results.

Ask senior managers within an organisation who they think should be charged with the responsibility of managing an important strategic project and many of them will usually reply without hesitation that it should be the person with the most relevant knowledge. This is because there is widespread belief that the individual with the most knowledge of the project subject area is the best candidate to manage it. In other words if someone is a perceived expert in the subject matter of the project then clearly this is the best possible person to take control. Wrong.Very wrong.  Although most experienced senior managers would know that it is the project management, not the technical skill that is required, it is amazing how many times the first requirement on a project managers' job spec is the technical knowledge they are required to have.

So the reality, which may come as a shock to many senior managers, is that in most cases the person who knows most about the project subject matter is actually the worst possible choice of project manager. This is because they are usually people who are much too close to the detail and therefore find it hard to detach themselves enough to take a more objective and higher level view of the big picture. Not only do such people find it extremely difficult to stop themselves getting drawn into specific low-level detail, which is of course their area of expertise, but they are also less likely to have the specific skills needed of an ‘independent' project manager who can take the essential higher level overview.

The perfect solution is often to let the project panager appoint the ‘expert' as a consultant so that the former is not distracted by needing to get close to any industry-specific, or technical, detail but has access to that information should they need it. Most good PMs seem to have the knack of being able to find the right people and will often inform their seniors that they don't know the answer 'but I know someone who does'.  The great ones finish the sentence with 'so I'll find out the answer and get back to you by the end of the day'.

In summary, the need for innovative, creative project panagers and thinkers has never been so critical in these competitive times. Companies need to deliver cost-effective solutions before their competitors and it is often the selection of the right project manager that can be the ‘make or break' factor. A good project manager is someone who brings experience and expertise of project management to a programme of work and is able to apply that knowledge and skill regardless of industry, sector or discipline. It might seem incongruous but it's actually quite true - the less a project manager knows about the project the better.

Andy Watts is managing director at Virtua

 

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