The Accidental Project Manager – Part 1

Did you hear the one about Jim? It seems that the boss called the project team together and asked a volunteer to step forward to manage the project. Instantly, everyone but Jim (because they knew the drill) stepped back. Congratulations Jim, you are now a project manager.

I am appalled when I encounter the attitude toward project management reflected in the above anecdote.  In the minds of some managers and executives, a project manager is just the person who could not do anything else useful. That attitude is so wrong and so damaging to the project, the organization, and the profession. Poorly managed projects lead to cost over-runs, failures to deliver what the client wanted on time (or even at all), and often is a valid reason that developers look for alternate employers. It also undermines the value that good and professional project managers bring to a project.

The Basics
So, thinking of Jim, who became a manager by accident, here are some resources to help get your management feet on the ground. I want you to see project management as an opportunity not a penalty. Project management can be fun. Effective project management makes a difference, period. In addition, being a good project manager can become a career path.

Being a project manager requires knowledge, skills, attitude, and tools. It all may seem a bit overwhelming, so here are some resource suggestions that may help. First, step back and reflect on the project managers who know, have worked with, wish you had worked with, or glad you didn’t. Can you summarize character traits and behaviors that distinguished the good project managers from the bad ones? Try to emulate what you respected.

Learn what being a project manager is about from professionals. One place to start is the Project Management Institute which is a non-profit organization dedicated to the profession of project management (Most of the time – I will cover that one in another post). Membership offers guidance and resources including PM Network, Project Management Journal, and PMI Today. But mostly it is the PM Body of Knowledge that they have nurtured that gives the practitioners something to guide the profession.  There are many other valuable resources available and I have listed some of my favorite project management blogs and websites in a past post – Bruce’s Favorites.

Scott Berkun, one of my favorite bloggers, posted an interesting take on this conundrum of project management as a profession and not just a glorified administrator in his thought piece, Why Project Managers Get No Respect. Scott suggests that to gain respect for project management, PMs should focus on achieving and communicating outcomes. The process minutiae are what you know has to be done to achieve the desired outcome. However, the ability to predictably produce desired outcomes is what differentiates a professional project manager from an accidental one.  

What about project management tools?
Professional project managers know the status of their project, they create schedules and assignments that make sense, they know when trouble is on the horizon, they solve problems, and they keep stakeholders informed. Your basic PM tools must cover scheduling, budgeting, communication.  Looking back over previous posts at Fear No Project, here are three that focus on the tools and techniques professional project managers use.

Predictive Scheduling

Collaboration Tools for Virtual Project Teams

Why Projects Fail

Next week, I will look at how to make project management and project managers valued positions in your organization. Meanwhile, any comments or suggestions are encouraged.

5 Responses to “The Accidental Project Manager – Part 1”

  1. Pawel Brodzinski Says:

    Actually project management job can be very rewarding and unwinding. The problem is still many people make their way to project management by accident and pretty often they aren’t best candidates to do the job. They just haven’t taken a step back when they should.

    This is however more a problem of organizations which choose their PMs randomly than just people themselves. After all we can always ultimately take a step back and change a job.

    Attitude toward project management is no surprise to me. This has two sources – one is rather poor quality of project management especially among accidental-PMs another is general disregard for non-developers in IT (quality engineers know exactly what I’m talking about). It is a role of management to work on people to change their approach but unfortunately management also often neglects that.

    If the situation is your concern there are two ways to change it: either show your worth or change a job. The former tastes damn good if you ask me.

  2. Brian Mossing Says:

    Bruce, great post. Good resources, and it made me think (again) about why companies even rely on accidental PMs instead of a professional PM. One conclusion I’ve come to is that project management gets a bad rap sometimes because some things are easier to quantify than others.

    For example, it seems easy to quantify the cost of creating documentation. The time it takes to create the document and the actual physical output are readily quantifiable. Then people say, “Project management is just creating documentation that never gets read.” (Sometimes a valid complaint, btw.)

    Or here’s another one. “Why do we have to pay for this person (the PM) when we could get a couple of us together and knock this thing out?” Also sometimes valid since it’s easy to see the PM and quantify their time but not always so easy to see and quantify their value.

    Of course project management is a deep and complex profession, but it’s not so easy to quantify the less visible things a PM does like

    – Focusing communication on the right topics and with the right people
    – Keeping a project on schedule by motivating people to do work when the PM doesn’t directly supervise those people
    – Getting the right people to act on a problem when everyone thinks it’s someone else’s job

    I think it’s getting better though. Time will tell.

  3. Joel Says:

    Excellent two part post. It’s interesting to note the parallels between becoming an accidental Project Manager and becoming an accidental Software Developer. When companies need a quick, cheap solution they will often pull people that are smart and adaptable into either role, but as others have pointed out – you will definitely get a different result from a trained, experienced professional.


  4. Manage your career like a project—Finding a Project Manager mentor « Fear No Project – A Project Management Blog Says:

    […] April 10, 2010 — Bruce McGraw Wow- thanks for the response to my post on “the accidental PM”!  I have received several inquiries about other job titles and how they should handle their […]

  5. Picking a Project Manager Successor « Fear No Project – A Project Management Blog Says:

    […] my posts. Picking just a couple examples, you may want to check out The Ethical Project Manager and The Accidental Project Manager. To answer question 2, I suggest just a couple traits the absence of which spell disaster for a […]

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