“We’re installing XYZ software and we need to hire a Project Manager. Go hire me one.”
How many times have you been handed a job requirement that looked like this? How often have you seen job requirements that left you scratching your head wondering what you should be looking for when hiring a project manager? Or worse, one that sent you off in search of the impossible dream.
A great deal of confusion exists with this position and what is expected of it. And that leads to an overload of the wrong type of applicant. Or worse, to hiring the wrong person for the job.
In this article, I’m going to address the question of “What is a project manager?” I’m also going to give you some direction as to how to select the appropriate individual.
So the first question is, “What is a project manager?”
In a simplistic answer, a project manager is simply an individual who leads a temporary endeavor or project to completion. Of course, that fails to explain why there is a difficulty in identifying skills. We need to examine the question somewhat closer.
So let’s start by asking another question, “What is a project?”
The Project Management Institute (PMI) has a nice long answer involving duration, business and effort. But a more understandable answer begins by looking at normal operations in a business.
Most efforts in a typical business are focused on repetition and continuation. You are constantly looking for new customers. You are repeatedly taking orders and shipping product. You are looking for new candidates, reading resumes and hiring people. Time after time, in a never-ending cycle. Each process may end but it simply leads to the next cycle. Change is the enemy, the great disrupter of cycles. Beginnings and endings are to be avoided at all costs.
A project, on the other hand, has a distinct beginning and end. And it has a unique process (and product) which will never be repeated in exactly the same way. Change is a part of its nature. Change is built into the process. And change often is the focus of its efforts.
So a project manager is a manager that is focused on the temporary and on change. Most managers focus on the center of the life cycle — keeping things on an even keel and slow improvement. However, this manager focuses on the whole life cycle with particular emphasis on the edges — building the team, identifying their processes and disbanding the team.
So what should you look for in a project manager?
There are some basic characteristics and skills that all project managers should have. The ability to plan a project, to build a team and focus it on the task at hand. And of course, the ability to disband the project team smoothly while retaining what was learned.
But that’s where the similarity ends and the source of the difficulty begins.
Often project managers are hired based on their knowledge of the distinct subject matter. In essence, they are mistaken for subject matter experts.
It is easy for people to identify positions by the subject matter of the project. So you look for an IT project manager with XYZ software implementation experience. Unfortunately, that requirement is based on a basic misunderstanding of the nature of the needed skills.
Project managers by their nature deal across organizational silos. They represent a senior manager (often a director or vice-president) called the sponsor. They function as an extension of (or assistant to) that person performing detailed work which could quickly overwhelm the sponsor. Project managers bring people from different silos together in order to accomplish the project. To expect them to be subject matter experts is unrealistic. After all, no one expects the CEO to be an expert in all aspects of the company’s operations.
The key instead is to identify the number, extent and nature of the silos involved. Effectively, you will be hiring a senior manager who will be expected to run a small division consisting of one person from each of the silos. Not a hands-on manager who is expected to code in JAVA or HTML.