What on Earth Happened to all the Good Project Managers?

By Adrian Stalham 21/6/2017


Where are they? I mean, they seem to have disappeared!

OK, I’m exaggerating a little- I may even know a few. But they seem to be slowly diminishing, like a rare species that we have neglected for years and suddenly find they are on the endangered list, close to extinction. Only to be replaced by an ‘invasive’ species - Prince 2 (or APM or PMI) certified automatons.

I have been in the world of project/ programme delivery for 30 years. I have some baggage in this area. Great Project Managers used to be more commonplace, but I struggle to identify the good ones now. These days I see lots of escalation, poor stakeholder skills, lack of ability to build or motivate a team and focus on the process rather than the value. I see custodians of linear methodologies in a non-linear world. What on earth happened?

I have some ill thought out theories:

Certification. Before certified PMs, we used to have people who were great at delivering projects. They had the soft skills, leadership and drive to make things happen. Let’s call them – Doers. Humour me. Then came Project Manager certification. The Doers were now ignored for new roles, irrespective of experience, in preference for new certified Project Managers. Certification confirms knowledge and ability, right? So we recruit for certification.

The Doers see the problem and decide to get certified. They are now experienced certified project managers.  But that just makes them appear as expensive against a recently certified project manager – so again they lose out to the overly ‘efficient’ recruitment agencies. So the Doers end up doing something else and leave the market highly certified, but poorly experienced.

The trouble with Prince2 is that it’s like the Highway Code. You need to know it to be able to drive – but it doesn’t make you a good driver.  And when we start driving, we find out that everyone really follows a different (pragmatic) version of Highway Code anyway.

The Doers were people who understood business. They had done the corporate shuffle, worked in different departments and different industries. They were experts on getting things done in business before they started running projects. They were the peerless scarred. They had gained their skills (scars) through business experience, trying things and working with people in the school of hard knocks. I don’t remember those sections in the Prince 2 manual.

Project Managers today seem to focus far too much on the tools and the process. They have forgotten that to be successful in delivery you need to be a leader, psychologist, coach and politician – BEFORE you ever touch a PID, RAID, GANTT etc.  I see lots of career Project Managers these days. They seem to have been a PM since leaving University.  That’s not good. I want someone who has experienced life and scars outside of a WBS.

I have seen great people, with determination and leadership, deliver very tough projects with very basic tools. I have also seen people with the best tools and methodology in the world, fail abysmally due to a lack of awareness and wisdom. It’s really not about the tools and the process, and yet that’s what we teach.

So if it’s all about the skillset, where do people get that from? It’s certainly not from a 5-day Prince2 course. I always look for a varied experience (outside projects). I look for scars, for a growth mindset, for an anxiety with the status quo (they were a terrible band anyway). I’m interested in self-awareness, chameleon qualities and the boldness of a Conquistador. You may have guessed that my job adverts aren’t what you’d call, standard.

Some of the good PMs have, of course, become great Programme Managers. But this isn’t a natural career path, despite some people thinking otherwise. The two roles are fundamentally different. Many Project Managers make really poor Programme Managers – the focus is so fundamentally different. It’s chalk and cheese. We could delve into the differences, but maybe that's for another day. But some do make the jump.  Like the occasional salmon, dodging hungry bears and leaping its way up a deluging waterfall, eventually finding the spawning grounds. But there are many casualties along the way. 

I remember, a long time ago, during my MSP course (yes I have certification too) I observed an exceptional Snr. Project Manager struggling through the course, frustrated that he couldn’t determine the exact next step of the process. During the exam, he left half way through, obviously bailing out. It reminded me of my ‘O’ level French exam when the class rebel, Brian McGuire, stood up, threw his paper in the air, muttered some expletive and marched out, much to the enjoyment and sniggering of the rest of us.

Of course, the world of Agile allows us to do away with Project Managers. It challenges the traditional Magic Fairy Dust practices expected of project management; Crystal Ball predictions of the future, the illusion of certainty, the internal contract game. Agile accepts change, embraces emergent practices and servant leadership – qualities very alien to the command and control world of project management. Again the switch to Agile is difficult for many Project Managers – too different in so many ways.  And don’t be fooled by Prince2 Agile – an oxymoron if I ever did see one.

So to those truly great Project Managers -  the go-to people when difficult delivery is needed - maybe you are one, or know of one - I salute you. We need to cherish and revere them – they appear to be a dying breed – a rare example amongst a growing crowd of mediocrity. Like so many things in this life that we take for granted, we will miss them when they are gone.