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What Does It Take to Become a Good Project Manager?

What Does It Take to Become a Good Project Manager? I get a lot of questions from people along the lines of:

  • How do I become a project manager?
  • How do I get a job as a project manager?
  • How do I improve my marketability as a project manager?

So, I decided to write an article to summarize some thoughts and recommendations on this.

What Does It Take to Become a Good Project Manager?

Important Project Management Tips

First, it is important to understand that there are two areas of knowledge required to be a good project manager:

  1. Knowledge of project management principles and practices (both Agile and traditional plan-driven)
  2. Knowledge of a domain to apply it to (for example, construction, software development, etc.)

People often don’t understand or overlook the need for going beyond knowledge of project management principles and practices and also developing some domain knowledge to apply it to. Here’s a summary of important tips on this:

1. Don’t Position Yourself as a “General Purpose Project Manager”

A project manager who only knows project management principles and practices (#1 above) and doesn’t have significant knowledge of a domain to apply it to is essentially a high-level administrator. Being a good project manager in today’s world requires a lot of skill and judgement. In order to achieve the level of skill and judgment that is required, at least some knowledge of a particular domain of expertise is essential. If you specialize in a particular domain of expertise, you can tune your project management skills to fit that domain and you should have the judgement you need to make much more informed decisions within the context of that domain.

2. Don’t Be a “Cookbook” Project Manager

Some project managers are used to following well-defined project management processes even to the extent of using prescribed checklists of what to do in a given situation and perhaps also using fill-in-the-blanks document templates to complete. “Cookbook” approaches no longer work very well. A good project manager needs to understand the principles at a deeper level behind the project management approach in order to adapt the project management approach to fit the situation. In my books, I’ve often talked about the difference between a “cook” and a “chef”:

“A good cook might have the ability to create some very good meals, but those dishes might be limited to a repertoire of standard dishes, and his/her knowledge of how to prepare those meals might be primarily based on following some predefined recipes out of a cookbook.”

“A chef, on the other hand, typically has a far greater ability to prepare a much broader range of more sophisticated dishes using much more exotic ingredients in some cases. The chef’s knowledge of how to prepare those meals is not limited to predefined recipes, and in many cases, a chef will create entirely new and innovative recipes for a given situation. The best chefs are not limited to a single cuisine and are capable of combining dishes from entirely different kinds of cuisine.”

Cobb, Charles, The Project Managers Guide to Mastering Agile, Wiley, 2015

We need more project managers who are “chefs”, not “cooks”

3. Don’t Ignore the Impact of Agile and Lean

The project management profession has been somewhat slow to recognize the impact of Agile and Lean over the years:

  • Prior to 2013, Agile wasn’t really recognized as a legitimate form of project management and there was a big chasm between the Agile and project management communities. It was heresy for a project manager to even think about an Agile approach.
  • With the introduction of the PMI-ACP certification in 2013 by PMI, PMI at least recognized Agile as an important form of project management; however, Agile and traditional plan-driven project management were essentially treated as separate and independent domains of knowledge with little or no integration between the two. It’s been up to individual project managers to figure out how (and if) the two approaches could be integrated.
  • PMBOK has always been considered to be the “bible” of project management and up until PMBOK version 7 which was released in 2021:
    • PMBOK has been heavily associated with a traditional plan-driven approach with little or no mention of Agile.
    • PMBOK tried to define a fairly prescriptive approach for doing project management. Earlier versions of PMBOK have been over 500 pages long and has attempted to define a checklist of things to consider in almost every conceivable project management situation that you could be in.
  • PMBOK version 7 which was release in 2021 is the first version of PMBOK that has really attempted to develop a more integrated approach and move towards an emphasis on understanding the principles behind the project management appoach at a deeper level.

It should be no surprise that many project managers have been deeply-schooled in a traditional plan-driven approach to project management and may not know any other way to do project management. If a traditional plan-driven approach is the only project management approach that you know, you will likely have difficulty in a number of important areas such as software development that require a different approach.

What to Do Differently

Here’s a summary of some of the most important things to do differently that should have a lot of impact on improving your project management approach and enhancing your marketability as a project manager:

  1. Fit the Project Management Approach to the Nature of the Project – Rather than force-fitting all projects to a traditional plan-driven project management approach, project managers need to learn how to fit the project management approach to the nature of the project based on:
    • The level of uncertainty in the project,
    • The relationship with the customer,
    • The training and sophistication of the project team, and
    • The organizational environment and culture that the project manager is part of
  2. Use a Flexible and Adaptive Approach – A typical plan-driven project management approach doesn’t provide sufficient flexibility and adaptivity to manage projects in an uncertain environment and it can waste a lot of time in trying to develop detailed plans which only become out-dated and no longer relevant as the project is in progress. The planning approach should be adapted to fit the level of uncertainty in the project. A more flexible and adaptive approach to evolve the plan as the project is in progress is needed for projects with a higher level of uncertainty.
  3. Emphasize Creating Business Value – In the past, many projects have been regarded as successful if they delivered well-defined requirements within an approved budget and schedule. That’s a very narrow definition of success and there have been many projects that have met their cost and schedule goals but failed to deliver an acceptable level of business value. The primary emphasis in a project should be on creating business value and simply meeting cost and schedule goals may or may not be an effective measure of that. Also, an excessive emphasis on planning and control to achieve cost and schedule goals can stifle the creativity and innovation that is needed to maximize the value of solutions.
  4. Deliver Incrementally and Efficiently – A traditional plan-driven project management approach typically attempts to deliver the entire solution all at once. That can be a very inefficient approach and:
    • It delays the release of value,
    • Increases the risk in the project, and
    • Isolates the customer from the solution until it is complete when it is often too late to make significant changes.
  5. Develop a Close Partnership with the Customer – Don’t rely on a typical, “arms-length”, contractual relationship with the customer. Actively involve the customer in the project in a spirit of collaboration, trust, and partnerhsip and share information openly and transparently.
  6. Build Quality Into the Solution – Don’t rely on a typical Quality Assurance approach to find and fix defects by an independent organization after the solution is complete; make an emphasis on quality an integral part of the development effort. “Quality” should be everyone’s responsibility; it should not be only the responsibility of a separate Quality Assurance organization.

Typical Questions

Here are some typical questions I get a lot.

What’s the Role of Certifications?

Another question I get a lot is “What certification should I get?” and “How will a certification help me get a job?” I have a very strong opinion on that:

A certification should be “evidence that you can do a job”; not “a ticket to get a job

That’s why most project management certifications require actual experience in the job and are not just a matter of passing an exam. Simply getting a certification alone can be very superficial especially if you try to just cram to pass the exam without really getting a solid level of real-world expeience and the knowledge that only comes from experience. A certification is the last thing you should get after you’ve developed a solid level of knowledge and experience.

Should I Get a Master’s Degree in Project Management?

Another question I see a lot is “Should I get a master’s degree in project management?” I think a master’s degree in project management can have value under the right circumstances but in many situations, it doesn’t make sense for a couple of reasons:

  • Practical training and real-world experience is much more valuable than an academic degree in project management. A master’s degree in project management without any practical, real-world experience is not likely to get you a job as a project manager.
  • Agile has had a profound impact on the project management community and many universiities have not adapted their curriculum to reflect that. You don’t want to invest the time and money in a master’s degree that might only become obsolete in a few years.

On the other hand, a master’s degree in project management could be a good way to enhance the skills of an experienced project manager if the university curriculum is current and goes beyond the basics of traditional plan-driven project management.

How Do I Get Started in Project Management If I Have No Experience?

This is not an easy question to answer and you may not like the answer because there is no easy solution to this:

  • First, you have to get a solid level of training in both traditional plan-driven project management and Agile. Don’t underestimate the need for training and the value that it can provide. You can’t just start doing project management without any training.
  • Second, you have to get some real-world experience any way that you can get it even if it means doing “pro-bono” work for schools, churches, charities, etc. There are always people who can use project management but you may not get paid for it until you develop proven capabilities. Many organizations will not hire a project manager with zero experience to manage a mission-critical project.

Overall Summary and Resources to Help

Becoming a good project manager is not easy and it is getting more difficult all the time as the scope and complexity of projects increases but most companies realize the need for good project management and the demand for good project managers is certainly there. The challenge many project managers face today is broadening their skills beyond a traditional plan-driven project management approach to embrace and integrate Agile. I have developed a complete project management curriculum that is designed to address that challenge.

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Additional Resources

Resources for Agile Project Management Online Training.

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