Project management: a proper profession

Written by: David Burrows Posted: 24/01/2019

BL60_project managementProject management is frequently seen as a bolt-on to the day job – but as these projects often drive business strategy, it makes little sense to manage them part-time

All too often a project manager is seen as a costly expense – an option rather than a necessity. Some companies fail to understand that project management work is a distinct role requiring specialist skills.

Scott Crittell, Projects Director at Guernsey-based accountancy firm Offshore, says: “A manager who’s overseeing a team of staff and has day-to-day responsibilities is often unable to add to their daily activities and properly engage with a project. The result is that both daily activities and the project’s needs suffer.” 

Kate Gosson, a consultant at business change specialist BDO Greenlight in Jersey, agrees. She argues that foisting a project management role onto someone is not only a false economy, but potentially damaging to the business. “It’s important to engage qualified and experienced project managers that have the expertise in the area of change required,” she says. 

“You wouldn’t recruit a dentist to change your car tyres, so the same principle applies when it comes to implementing a new project. Adding it as a bolt-on to someone’s daily routine could lead to lack of project focus, critical risks being missed and costly delays – all of which could have a direct impact on the business.”

Witnessing the benefits

Some sectors are more receptive than others when it comes to recognising the merits of the project manager. As Crittell points out, it would be unthinkable for a large-scale construction or infrastructure project not to have a team of project managers from the outset. 

He cites the Crossrail project in London. From the start, in 2007, Crossrail had a large team of project managers. The initial report they put together noted that the project would employ 14,000 workers, create 1,000 jobs to maintain the new network, and enable 1.5 million people to be within a 45-minute commute of the economic centre of the UK. There was clarity on project goals, the vision behind Crossrail and how it could add to the overall GDP of the country. 

Seen in this light, the professionalisation of project management can contribute to wider economic success. 

In other sectors and on smaller scale projects, the benefits, whether short or longer term, are not always as easy to identify, as Leonie McCrann, CEO, at international change consultancy Marbral Advisory, explains. “With construction and engineering, you can see tangible changes in a project and how all the different elements interact. But with financial services, an area like regulation is far less tangible in terms of recognising change.” 

McCrann also believes that the financial limitations of smaller and fledgling companies, as well as a lack of experience, mean that staff end up wearing multiple hats rather than focusing solely on project management. 

“If a business isn’t mature, perhaps they haven’t been burnt,” she says. “They don’t know what it feels like to get something wrong. They don’t identify a need for a dedicated project manager and learn the hard way when things don’t work out.”

BDO Greenlight’s Gosson agrees that with the benefit of hindsight, smaller companies frequently realise that saving a salary expense by not hiring an experienced project manager is a false economy. Without a project manager, budgets can overrun and deadlines can be missed.   

What good looks like 

According to Crittell, good project management comes from establishing what the project goals are at the start and what success will look like. These questions need to be asked by the project manager and answered by all the stakeholders. 

“Understanding the timeline is another important factor,” he says. “Is the project in phases or in one transition at the project end? The idea that delivery is the conclusion of a project’s life is bad project management. Any project will require training that often intensifies once live operation starts. And refinements that are sometimes termed a ‘sweep up’ may continue for some while after a project is considered as delivered.”

Communication skills 

Effective project management also relies on good communication and teamwork. Not all the responsibility should rest on an isolated project manager. McCrann points out that, too often, project managers are expected to design, develop, implement and even test a product.

“Project managers need the feedback of other people – for instance, with product development the project manager will often be a couple of steps removed from the customer. They need the input from those with a direct relationship with the client.” 

Listening and understanding the needs of the business from the outset and engaging all stakeholders at this point is a must. As Gosson emphasises, clear lines of communication and continual risk management help project managers deliver an outcome aligned with business goals.

While clearly defined objectives are important, there’s also need for flexibility in good project management. Crittell insists that any project plan is a living document that will continually change and evolve during the project’s lifecycle. It requires a dedicated project manager to make sure that this development of the project continues during its life.

In some instances, using third-party specialists to project manage might prove to be the preferred option. As Peter Stoten, Head of Strategy and Change at consultancy Prosperity 24/7, explains, a project manager should be politically neutral and be able to communicate openly to the project organisation without fear of negative consequences. 
 
This can be challenging for an internal member of staff left to deliver project management off the side of their desk. It can also threaten their position within the organisation long after the project has closed, and more so if the project is deemed to have failed. 

Paul Marshall, Director of Strategy and Change at Prosperity 24/7, adds: “Change consultants are external to political inferences and so are able to ensure focus, openness and honesty. More often than not, a project will at some point in its lifecycle encounter difficulties that may require sensitive interventions. Change consultants are capable of having the difficult conversation.”

Accountants and solicitors have long been viewed as ‘professionals’ with chartered certificates and a string of letters after their name to stress the point. This has not traditionally been the case with project management – arguably one of the reasons companies might see it as a bolt-on rather than a skill set in its own right. 

But this is beginning to change.  The Association for Project Management (APM) now has 27,000 members – mainly in the UK and Europe – from a range of sectors. Significantly, chartered status was introduced back in 2016 and the number of APM members taking qualifications has nearly tripled since then, from 1,300 in 2016 to 3,700 in 2017. 

A combination of APM chartered exams and universities increasingly offering project management courses should help to change perceptions among employers and among students who are looking for challenging and respected career paths.  

APM has worked hard to build the profile of project management as a profession in recent years, as its CEO Debbie Dore explains: “Five years ago, it wasn’t possible to study degrees in project management and you couldn’t take chartered exams. School-leavers are now looking at project management as a career path. 

“Parents, too, are aware of the high level of investment that degree courses require. Consequently, apprenticeship degrees in project management, which allow students to earn and learn, have much appeal.”

Dore is also keen to point to the breadth of opportunities open to those who identify project management as a career choice. “The core skills (aligning key players, assessing risk, identifying opportunity) are transferable across sectors,” she says.

Job satisfaction is another factor for those building a career. Dore suggests that what millennials typically want from a job is a feeling that they are getting something back, that there’s a benefit attached to what they do. From this perspective, she says, project management fits the bill. 

Support from the top

Over the long term, will professionalising project management contribute to wider economic success? “Yes,” is Gosson’s considered response. “Having a professional benchmark in place will improve the standard and quality of project managers and the output that they provide. In turn, this should have a positive impact on the wider economy.” 

McCrann is equally positive: “I think the APM is very significant – a body such as this can make a big impact, especially when it comes to gauging the professionalism of those you’re bringing in.” 

In terms of more companies treating project management as a profession in its own right, much depends on those at boardroom level being more enlightened, according to  Crittell. “As more senior managers start to realise that a project manager is a cost that enables you to succeed in your strategy – or to stay on the right side of legislation or helps your business to function smoothly – then more businesses will consider having project managers in the same manner as having any other qualified role in their organisation.”

Dore agrees that awareness among senior management is often a sticking point. “The project management role is not always clearly presented at board level. It’s often hidden within ‘operations’.”  

Supply and demand 

But is there a strong enough demand for project managers? Gosson believes there is. She cites Jersey’s stringent rules for non-locals qualifying to work on the island. As an experienced project manager from Australia, Gosson was told that demand for her skills would be high, so getting a green light to work on the island would not be a problem. That proved to be the case. 

But it’s not just Jersey that’s crying out for high-calibre project managers; the same can be said for the whole of the UK. “Demand at this level certainly plays into our favour when it comes to recruitment to the profession,” Dore enthuses. 

She points out that many large firms are willing to invest sizeable sums in existing staff to develop their skills and ultimately reach chartered status. In some instances, companies are planning to put 200 people through training each year. 

For APM, on a mission to professionalise project management, that’s reassuring progress.

Women in project management

Does project management attract a higher proportion of women and are they particularly suited to the profession?  Despite the common perception that women are better at multi-tasking, Debbie Dore, CEO at the Association for Project Management (APM), believes gender has little influence on whether someone makes a good project manager or not. 
   The real issue currently is encouraging more women to enter the profession. “The first batch of candidates to sit the chartered exam were 75% men to 25% women,” says Dore. While a significant proportion of candidates were in sectors such as construction, which traditionally attracts more men, the imbalance is still a concern. 
   Events such as APM’s annual Women in Project Management conference play an important part in promoting the profession to women, but female recruitment is still a challenge. 
Kate Gosson, a consultant at BDO Greenlight, is hopeful that the imbalance of men to women in the profession will start to change as project management is embraced more enthusiastically by different sectors. 
   “In time, I think there will be a lot more opportunity across a broader range of industries, such as, banking, IT, development and event management, which women may find themselves more suited to than the traditional construction project management roles,” she says.
   As for what women have to offer, Leonie McCrann, CEO at Marbral Advisory, believes the skill sets are largely the same between the sexes, but that women tend to be more empathetic, which has its advantages. 
   “With something like change management, when you could be dealing with someone who’s been at a company for more than 30 years, women are typically more attuned to the situation and able to handle things sensitively,” she believes.

 


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