The search for a supermanager

Short of being able to leap over tall buildings and save the world, what qualities should we look for in a project manager?

Short of being able to leap over tall buildings and save the world, what qualities should we look for in a project manager?

While IT vacancies generally are in the doldrums, demand for good project managers remains high.

The combination of experience, qualifications and personal qualities required to manage projects successfully is rare enough to ensure that those who have it are unlikely to find themselves out of work for long.

"Successful project managers have to wear a big S on their fronts and leap over buildings," says Gerry Dodd, the managing director of training company PMProfessional Learning and a director of the UK chapter of the Project Management Institute (PMI).

He adds: "They need business sense to be able to understand the strategy behind the project. They have to be good at planning and estimating. They have to be able to communicate the goal clearly so that everyone buys into it. They have to remain in control: the project mustn't manage them, they must manage the project.

"And they need softer skills too. Even if they understand all the processes, if they can't motivate their team members the project will still fail."

John Eary, head of the National Computing Centre Skills Source, adds that project managers need "helicopter ability", which means being able to zoom down and deal with smaller issues then fly back up to a higher level.

"The ability to operate on those two levels is crucial, and that's why good project managers can usually command good rates of pay if they also have a track record in delivering successful projects," says Eary.

A growing need for qualifications
As well as a strong track record, employers are also looking for recognised qualifications as an indication of professional skills.

"There is a growing need for qualifications," says Miles Shepherd, chairman of the Association for Project Management (APM), associate lecturer in project management with the Open University.

"In the early days there was a bit of a Wild West attitude to project management, and a lot of lessons were learned that way," he says.

"But as time has gone on, people's expectations have increased, and they're less tolerant of project failures. But the problem is, what is valuable training, and is it any kind of guarantee of success?"

Technical project management skills include planning and estimating techniques such as critical path analysis which, in turn, fit within broader project management methodologies. Within the UK, knowledge of Prince 2 - the latest version of the Prince methodology, established in 1989 by the CCTA for government projects - is a common requirement.

A number of universities and business schools offer postgraduate project management courses, and as well as these generic skills, the various project management bodies - such as the APM, the British Computer Society project management interest group (Proms-G), and the PMI - also offer qualifications of their own.

The right one, according to Shepherd, "depends on what you want and where you're going".

Employers in the US or in international organisations will probably be looking for the PMI's PMP (Project Management Professional) qualification, awarded on the basis of both industry experience and an online test.

The UK APM offers a broad-based qualification - the APMP - aimed primarily at traditional sectors such as construction and manufacturing, and is course-based with a formal exam at the end.

The BCS qualification, as you might expect, focuses on IT project management and involves a fairly detailed exam to test specific sector knowledge.

Shepherd believes that from an employer's point of view, the problem with these qualifications is they do little to test actual competency against theoretical knowledge.

"We need to find good predictors of project management competency, but we don't have any very good ones yet," he says.

Giving extra responsibilities is irresponsible
Project managers are often taken from a functional group within the business, and are expected to carry on with their existing responsibilities while managing the project. Experts agree that this is a bad idea.

Bill Cleary, from training company Global Knowledge, says that it can lead to a clash of interests.

"If project managers want to run a successful project, on time, to budget and meeting requirements, then the project must come first," he says.

"Ask yourself the question: if the project manager isn't looking after the project, then who is?"

As well as the issue of divided loyalties, line managers who are comfortable dealing with familiar situations will not necessarily have the ability or disposition to deal with one-off situations where they are constantly operating at the limits of their ability.

Looking at it from the other point of view, can someone with project management ability and experience in a particular sector transfer that experience to another industry?

"At a more senior level you can get away with less technical knowledge, because you can rely on other people for technical advice," says Eary.

"But for smaller-scale projects, you need sector expertise or a lot of confidence that there are people who can give you good advice. You can't afford to learn as you go along."

Shepherd believes that sector experience may be more important in the IT environment, where a large number of variables can affect the project.

"The engineering disciplines involved in building bridges and so on have been known for hundreds or thousands of years, but we've only been building computer systems for a few decades," he says.

"So it's a very imprecise science. One of the biggest challenges for IT project managers is understanding the specification."
This was last published in May 2003

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