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Bring Back the Guild for Project Managers

Over the years one of the concerns I’ve heard most often from senior managers is, “How do I know who is a good project manager?”

It’s a sincere question and a subject that has been debated from many different perspectives. Several associations have argued that project management should be considered a career choice and, for many, it has become one. There are now courses in project management. Some universities offer masters degrees in project management. There are shorter, less stringent certification programs. There are also association certifications such as the Project Management Institute’s Project Management Professional (PMP) certification. And yet, there remains an uncertainty among senior executives over whether they’ve found the right person to manage their mission critical project.

It’s easy to understand why. Thousands of people have passed PMI’s PMP standards for example, but if we were to do a survey of them all we’d find a wide range of capabilities. Some of those people have 20 years or more of managing projects that are very industry specific. Others have only a couple of years of specific project experience. The PMP designation at least requires that you have not only passed a test but have acquired other “points” (known as PDUs) which reflect levels of education and levels of experience in the project management realm. People who write articles (such as this one) in a project management publication receive a certain number of PDUs for that effort. There are PDUs for years of scholarity, for working on a project in a project manager capacity or somewhere in the project management structure of an organization.

That sounds pretty good so far until you see that there are organizations that offer a five-day intensive training specifically designed to help you pass the PMP exam and successfully complete the PMP certification. If you’re a senior executive and you see that this designation can be accomplished so quickly, it is certain to make you discerning as you begin your new project.

Now, I am not saying that the PMP designation is not useful. Far from it. It is rapidly becoming one of the most recognized designations in project management and that can only be a good thing for those of us who have been in the industry for a long time. At the very minimum, you can be sure that people who carry the PMP designation have a common understanding of the terms and concepts of project management that ensures they can be integrated into a common project management environment. In reality it is not what the PMP is; it is what people assume it represents that makes room for mischief!

The same problem occurs if we think of a Masters Degree in Project Management. Someone may have spent two years working through course after course and have successfully defended a thesis on project management theory. However, just like the PMP, this does not ensure that this person is capable of managing any project at any time.

Even experienced project managers who have managed dozens of projects may find themselves out of their element if they are no longer in the same industry.

A few years ago I met someone whose formative project management years had been spent in the defense industry on multi-billion dollar programs. This individual was well respected in that environment, but had decided to leave to join a high-tech startup firm during the Dot-Com era. Suddenly projects with multi-month procurement cycles, where contract management was absolutely key, were displaced by projects that only lasted a few weeks at a time where schedule and time to market was the difference between survival and failure. Needless to say, they found themselves completely overwhelmed by this very different world and felt like they had to relearn everything they knew about project management.

Having thought about this for some time, I had the good fortune to sit down with some people who’ve been around the project management industry for years and someone brought up an idea that is so blindingly obvious that I can’t imagine how I haven’t heard about it elsewhere.

I say let’s bring back the Guild System. This ancient but revered structure uses the apprentice, journeyman and master hierarchy to gradually make sure a professional is of sufficient quality and skill to be unleashed on mankind.

The more I think of this, the better I think it fits. First of all, project managers consider themselves professionals and as a professional, the guild system is highly relevant. Secondly, there is a definite hierarchy of experience that makes a difference. I’ve often heard it said that a project manager isn’t really worthy until he or she has at least one failed project under their belt. In the guild system, a project manager apprentice could struggle, yet the overall success of the project would be guaranteed by the master.

We have many organizations that have adopted the “mentoring” model to make available a more skilled manager to coach a newer manager but there’s a big difference in most of these programs from what was always so in the guild system. In the guild system, it is the master who is responsible for the apprentice’s work. It is their reputation that is on the line for any output from the apprentice person. Here in the western world, we are often uncomfortable with this concept. We like the notion of empowerment and trusting our new employees. But, I can tell you from the perspective of many first time project managers, who feel they’ve been thrown in the deep end of the pool without a lifejacket, that they would welcome being an apprentice and having guidance.

The other thing that the guild system offers us is a career path. The master carries the responsibility to nurture the new entries to the guild, and to ultimately replace him or herself with another master who can function equally as well. The journeyman (or woman) project manager is considered independent – but even here, the master continues to exert influence, operating as a quality control for journeymen they have trained. Also, joining the guild would become a career decision.

This model of operation isn’t completely abandoned in today’s society. If we look at the medical profession, it’s very much alive. Here is a profession that understands that if people aren’t capable of bringing their education to effective practical use, they will be a danger to society so we see the world of Intern, Resident and Attending Physicians. Only after serving as an intern will you be considered for approval as a doctor.

While the requirements for project managers don’t need to be quite so stringent as those for physicians, I think there’s something of value there to learn.

While my idea of a Project Management Guild may be only a dream at the moment, there is nothing stopping mid to large sized organizations from adopting this kind of structure. All that would be required to get started would be to set up the Project Management Office as a center of excellence and have project managers go through an apprenticeship program before they’re given unsupervised responsibility for projects.

So I say, turn back the clock… Bring back the Guild!

Chris Vandersluis is the founder and president of HMS Software based in Montreal, Canada. He has an economics degree from Montreal’s McGill University and over 22 years experience in the automation of project control systems. He is a long-standing member of both the Project Management Institute (PMI) and the American Association of Cost Engineers (AACE) and is the founder of the Montreal Chapter of the Microsoft Project Association. Mr. Vandersluis has been published in numerous publications including Fortune Magazine, Heavy Construction News, the Ivey Business Journal, PMI’s PMNetwork and Computing Canada. Mr. Vandersluis has been part of the Microsoft Enterprise Project Management Partner Advisory Council since 2003. He teaches Advanced Project Management at McGill University’s Executive Institute. He can be reached at [email protected].

Mike Morton

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