Skip to main content

OUTSIDE THE BOX Forum: Another View of Project Manager Competency

The Project Manager’s mastery of the phases of any project management methodology is necessary but are usually not sufficient for successful performance in complex project environments.

Where much is expected in terms of meeting schedule, budget, and scope for a complex project; much is demanded from the Project Manager to manage effectively. In the complex project management landscape, new and unique situations are common so that new and focused competencies will be required. Not all situations that could occur in a complex project can be planned or even known. Let me explain the implications.

Too Many Unknown Unknowns

Lack of clarity in the goal and/or solution results in a discovery process that cannot be predicted. In such situations, the Critical Success Factor (CSF) is that the Co-Managers and their teams have the skills to creatively adapt to probable but unexpected situations for project success and risk management.

Staffing for Unknown Unknowns

Is this even possible? To a certain extent, it is. If the team includes creative thinkers and problem solvers, it is aligned to handle the most challenging and unexpected of situations. These are the generalists. The team must also include the specialists in predefined knowledge areas. The Co-Managers must encourage an open environment between the generalists and specialists.

Complex Projects Have Specialist and Generalist Project Managers

I’m a firm believer in complex projects having a team comprised of both specialists and generalists. The argument in support of the generalist is that they have the ability and skills to keep options open and may see solution details that would otherwise be missed. The specialist is constrained to their span of knowledge and experiences and can easily miss a clue about the undiscovered parts of the solution. The argument in support of the specialist is that only they can know if a suggested approach will work in the environment they represent. The generalist would not be able to make that call.

We know that the Project Manager (PM) takes the lead in managing the process of defining and solving the problem and the Business Analyst (BA) takes the lead in solving the problem and defining the deliverables. If you hold to this, then it is obvious that both the PM and the BA are involved in the project from beginning to end. This brings up a discussion of the role of generalists and/or specialists on the project. Calling the PM a generalist and the BA the specialist is too simplistic and usually not correct. A detailed discussion of generalists versus specialists is beyond the scope of this brief article, but a few observations with respect to their roles on a project are within scope.

Let’s look under the covers and see what the staffing strategy might be.

The Role of the Generalist on the Project Team

Both the PM and the BA have roles as generalists on the project team. In general (pardon the pun), the generalist’s role is to view the project in the context of the organization. At the strategic level, they should make sure that the direction of the project is in alignment with the direction the organization has defined in its strategic plans.

At the tactical level their role includes:

  • Assuring that the problem has been framed correctly and that its scope is not unnecessarily too limiting
  • Viewing the problem and its solution in the context of other problems and their solutions
  • Looking for any learning from prior projects that they can leverage to the advantage of the current project?
  • Every complex project must have at least one team member with this generalist perspective.

The PM Generalist on the Project Team will have broader experiences in the organization they will be aware of related projects, client behaviors, management strategies and solution approaches that may be of value to their current project assignment. The BA will generally (there goes another pun) not have this breadth of exposure and organizational experiences. The PM must assure that in meeting the client’s needs, the solution does not compromise enterprise-wide processes.

The PM is also responsible for choosing the management process that will be used to find that solution.

The BA Generalist on the Project Team as a consultant should be able to adapt across every business unit and every process. The broader and deeper their cumulative experiences the more they will add value to their consulting engagements.

The Role of The Specialist on the Project Team

Here again, the PM and the BA have roles as specialists on the project team.

The PM Specialist is always the SME for project management on the project team. They can keep the organizational context and impact front and center with the business unit they propose solutions. In that sense, they are a specialist. But they can also be a specialist in the business or process served by the project.

The BA Specialist brings the deepest understanding of a specific business process involved in the project and can be the most effective linkage between the PM and the client. If more than one business process is within the scope of the project, more than one BA specialist may be needed. As a generalist, the BA does not have SME capabilities for any particular business process rather they have a toolkit of templates and processes that can be applied to any business function. There are roles for both types of BAs. The type of project will dictate whether a BA specialist or generalist or both are needed.

In Summary

First of all, I am honored to have this opportunity to comment as it strikes close to home for a topic that has occupied me for several years. There are lots of reasons for this, but most reduce to the inability of our thought leaders to make inroads into reducing the historically unacceptable project failure rates. My fundamental premise is that the complex project is unique and that the project management approach will therefore also be unique. That uniqueness follows from the characteristics of the project, the internal organizational environment, organizational culture, and prevailing market conditions. These conditions are continually changing, and so the project management approach will also be subject to revision throughout the project life span. That may be heretical to many thought leaders, but it is the reality one faces in the complex project landscape.

One further observation on the role of the executive in establishing a continuous learning environment should be mentioned. It is a critical success factor. That is, to vest as much decision-making authority in the PM. In my experiences organizations that take this approach have shown increases in morale and have instilled ownership and commitment in the PM and the team members too. This will motivate the PM and the team to strive for maximal performance — hence continuous learning.

As for the project management approach, it must be flexible and draw upon the PM’s creativity and problem-solving competencies for maximal benefit. As discussed above the complex project landscape is dynamic, and that requires a flexible approach that allows for the continual and adaptive best fit alignment of the project management approach to the changing situation.

Comments (2)