Jun 23, 2015

The Value of an Experienced Project Manager

Posted by Jeannette Cabanis-Brewin in Project & Program Management, Demand Management, Human Capital, Project Failure & Recovery, Project Management Research, Project Management Training, Resource Optimization, Strategy Execution | 0 Comments

"Companies often only come to the realization that they need help when the chips are down."

The value of project management knowledge is, of course, the bedrock of PM Solutions' business. Recently, new research by the PM College and PM Solutions Research validated that companies with higher-skilled project managers experienced better business results. But what if, like the majority of companies in that study, your organization lacks those key individuals to provide leadership on critical projects?

Over on the consulting side of PM Solutions, Practice Director Roger Bryson has the answer. We caught up with him by phone to get his thoughts on the role that experienced project and program managers play in helping organizations achieve stretch goals.

Q: You recently completed an analysis of past and present PM Solutions clients who had hired our consultants to lead projects or programs to a successful conclusion.  What can you tell us about the drivers within companies that cause them to reach out for expert help?

Bryson: Our client companies present us with many unique situations. But the common factor is that there tends to be a strong business imperative -- some compelling business event or condition that  increases the criticality of the project. For example, a business transformation or restructuring; capitalizing on time-sensitive market opportunity; or enabling growth by driving critical R&D projects. Even a major system implementation, like ERP, can outstrip a company's in-house expertise, especially when the timing is critical.

In some cases the imperative is related to growth in a way that requires a combination of delivery and mentoring. For example, they need a competent program manager now, to bring the transformational projects in on time. But to go forward afterwards, they also must have skills transfer. Our senior practitioners enable growth via a mentoring approach.

Companies often come to the realization that they need help only when the chips are down. Either they find they don't possess the project management skills to feel comfortable in attacking a new challenge on their own, or after the initiative is under way, they discover they didn’t have it in sufficient capacity. The company as a whole may lack project management discipline. Or, maybe they are growing so fast, their internal development program may not be able to keep up the pace. Whenever the growth imperative is more important than cost containment, companies will reach out for expertise.

Q: In your experience, how does bringing in an outside expert for a short-term assignment differ from either hiring or promoting from within? 

Bryson: I'd say it differs in three ways. First, the access to specific capabilities. A particular initiative may require skills and experiences that are difficult to develop organically, especially over a short time frame. External resources can bring a depth and breadth of experience that  may not be worth hiring for, because the duration of need for that skill level may be limited to a critical project.

Second, there's the speed of ramp-up. Searching, interviewing, hiring, onboarding ... especially of more senior staff ... that's not an overnight solution to supplying a missing skillset. And then, if the wrong choice was made, it's a lengthy process to step back from that decision. With a contracted resource, someone else has already done all that for you. Our consultants have been vetted -- and field tested -- for precisely the needs that client companies are experiencing. That means that -- to cite an especially rapid response we did for one client -- if you realize on Thursday that your critical project is seriously off-track, on Monday someone shows up and starts solving your problem.

Last, a key difference for the client is in the duration of need. If you need steady-state staffing with a higher level of project management skills, training may be the answer. But for "surge capacity" -- when you need to hit the ground running -- an experienced project manager who is available for just the period necessary to pull off an initiative makes sound business sense.

Q: I recently read a paper that included the findings that when experts are brought in to work with less experienced people, it’s not just the tasks that they actually perform that create new knowledge and skills, but there’s a broader conceptual understanding that is improved, about related tasks.  Have you found that to be true in project management?

Bryson: I have.  Even when the focus of an engagement is to deliver a specific project outcome, the skills that it takes to be successful as a project manager can be transferred, or “rub off” on the broader team.  We talk about project management as a combination of science and art,  and the knowledge and skills can be transferred in both categories.

When we talk about the science we think of the techniques and disciplines needed to successfully manage projects.  Think scope definition and control, developing effective project baselines including schedule and budgets; issues and risk management, managing  and controlling the project through a disciplined cadence of activities. By seeing these disciplines executed and participating in the activities, less-experienced project managers can internalize best practices, develop instincts regarding how to tailor best practices to different complexities of projects, and perhaps develop the "muscle memory" to do so on their own once the external consultant has completed the engagement.   

To build on the “broader conceptual understanding”  element of the question, let’s talk about the art side.  By the art side, we refer to the soft skills of leadership; interpersonal skills, communications, business savvy, and increasingly the managerial courage it takes to drive successful outcomes on critical projects. By observing experienced project managers work through the people and organizational challenges associated with the discipline, less-experienced resources can internalize some of the techniques and critical success factors regarding the art of project management. Sometimes this can take the form of giving them the resolve to do things that take courage.  One of my former colleagues, a very capable program director, had a favorite saying: "bad news doesn’t get better with age." That’s a lesson many project managers learn through the school of hard knocks. To be able to observe experienced individuals take on the difficult issues that are inevitable in complex projects can give your staff both the resolve as well as techniques to do so themselves.

Q: Can you share with readers a few “war stories” of projects or programs where employing a consultant tipped the scales toward success? 

Bryson: We've already done this, and are adding new examples all the time; readers just need to look at our Case Studies and search for their own industry or type of initiative to find stories about how experienced project leaders have turned around our clients' businesses. Our case studies illustrate the breadth and depth of our consulting services.

More questions for Roger? You can reach him at rbryson@pmsolutions.com.

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