Behavior competencies

a model for professional development--are they really important to good project management?

Neal S. Gray, PMP, CQA, MBA, Senior Principal Consultant, Keane, Inc.

“Congratulations! You did such a great job as a senior team member on the last project you have been given the opportunity to advance in your career and are now a project manager. Go forth and lead the project to ultimate success…don't mess up.” This is the common directive given to so many new project managers as they embark on their new career in management. Unfortunately, these new project managers usually have little if any idea what skills and competency behaviors are key to success in their new role. It is important that project managers of all experience levels recognize and understand what competencies are necessary to produce better project results on a more consistent basis.

Creating the Model

Several years ago, Keane, Inc. combined its project experience with the research capabilities of McBurr and Associates, a behavioral specialist company. A number of successful Keane project managers were identified along with a similar group of project managers from several of Keane's customers. Together, Keane and McBurr studied the behaviors of these superior performer project managers and determined what was different about what they said and did to achieve better project results. Currently, PMI has a standards group studying and creating a model for Project Manager Competency. The PMI model discusses three categories of competencies. Input competencies include that which a project manager needs to know, output competencies include those things a project manager needs to deliver, and personal (or behavior) competencies that include those behaviors that lead to better success.

Exhibit 1. Keane's Project Manager Behavior Competency Model

Keane's Project Manager Behavior Competency Model

The Keane, Inc. model that is the basis for this paper concentrates on the personal (or behavior) competencies that we have determined are key to producing better results, more often, in a better way. This model groups competencies into one of four clusters (Exhibit 1). These distinct but critical clusters are Problem Solving, Project Manager Identity, Achievement, and Influence. When combined, the four clusters include a total of 17 specific project manager behavior competencies. During the studies conducted by McBurr and Associates, the project managers were interviewed extensively focusing on the key distinction between a person's concepts about what it takes to be successful on the job, and what the person actually does that results in success. The intent of the interviews was to determine (1) what are the competencies for superior project management behavior and (2) what were the things a project manager did or said that indicated that the behavior competency was being performed. The specific things project manager's say or do that indicate competency performance are called behavior event indicators. Often the project manager's were unaware or only partially aware of what they actually said or did that lead to the competency and project success. The task for McBurr was to identify the behavior event indicators so that they could be used to:

• Develop a model of Project Management Competencies

• Create personal assessment tools for use with the model

• Develop training to alter the behavior of project manager's who were struggling to parallel the behaviors in the model.

Once the behavior event indicators were identified, the competency model was created and a competency acquisition process was determined. The competency acquisition process includes five phases of learning and internalizing. The five phases are Recognition, Understanding, Self-assessment, Try it (practice), and making the new behavior Yours on a daily basis (RUSTY). To incorporate new competencies into future behavior, it is necessary to recognize the model for best results, which becomes the goal for improved performance. Each competency of the model needs to be understood as to why the competency is important and what specific behaviors need to be addressed. Once solid recognition and understanding is achieved the individual must assess themselves and their project against the ideal model. Behavior discrepancies can then be determined to address what new behaviors need to be attempted and practiced. Lastly the behavior needs to be made a regular part of how the project manager does the job so the newly acquired skill becomes a natural part of the daily project process. If new behaviors are not consistently taken through these learning phases then the individual will become “rusty” in their use and will fade back into old habits.

The Model

Keane has identified an interesting phenomenon in regards to the 17 competencies. What was discovered, and continues to prove true, is that no project manager needs to be great at all 17 competencies. This is because no project or project phase needs a project manager to be great at all competencies for the critical success needs of the effort. Which of the 17 is most important for good project management? That depends on the project, the company doing the project, the stakeholders involved, and the identified critical success factors for the project. The key is recognizing which competencies are critical for the project and then match those project competency needs up with a project manager who has excellence in the same competencies or who can be readily trained in those areas. Different projects within the same company or department will often require a different subset of the 17 competencies for success. The same type project conducted with different companies or departments will often require a different subset of the 17 competencies. Thus, the challenge of determining what competencies are critical to the project and then matching the project with a project manager.

This kind of competency model, when applied properly, can be, and is being, used to improve several areas in the constant struggle to fill the business need for superior project managers to successfully lead the ever growing backlog of required projects. The processes that can be improved include hiring for those competencies that are hard to train, mentoring for those competencies that are easier to coach, and professional development and training for those that are easier to teach. The following is an overview of the four clusters and the 17 associated competencies.

Problem Solving Cluster

This is perhaps the most frequently displayed of the competency clusters, especially for project managers in technical areas. For most new project managers this is the easiest group of competencies to incorporate into success behavior since project managers so often were senior team members who had been involved with problem solving as a course of team activity before becoming a manager. This cluster is demonstrated by logically analyzing information, activities, and situations to identify patterns that lead to successful results. The four competencies of this cluster are:

Diagnostic Thinking. Includes the ability to identify key personnel and decision makers for the project, assess strengths, weaknesses, and capabilities of people through direct observation and secondary sources, spend adequate up-front time planning to minimize unnecessary work, identify key issues in complex situations, analyze situations for patterns and cause-effect relationships, and analyze information to confirm initial conclusions. Some examples of diagnostic thinking are demonstrated by the project manager who insists on having a list of every business customer and vendor who is going to have anything to do with the project, who re-identifies all of the tasks that have to be done and re-estimates everything when beginning the project, and who puts in many hours up-front on the project plan to gain some breathing space later on.

Systematic Thinking. Includes the ability to solve complex problems by breaking them down into manageable pieces, developing and evaluating alternatives, anticipating problems, thinking through potential consequences of decisions, actions, or events, and devising logical, well-reasoned sequences of activity to accomplish project goals. Some examples of systematic thinking are demonstrated by the project manager who begins meetings by reviewing each person's role and finding out how they were doing, who reviews with his boss all of the levels of the division that they would have to deal with on different aspects of gaining approval for new equipment, and who, upon taking over an existing project, reviews all of the reports and financial information that exists, putting it into chronological order.

Conceptual Thinking. Includes the ability to discover concepts or themes that unite seemingly dissimilar activities to solve a problem or create an opportunity, apply lessons learned from past experience to new situations, use analogies or metaphors to communicate essence of ideas or situations, and search for simplest workable solutions. Some examples of conceptual thinking are demonstrated by the project manager who identifies ways to save a client money by getting other companies in the same industry to share in the costs and results of defining requirements, who relies on their own past technical experiences to verify subsets of the project plan developed by a team member, and who realizes that the current manual process was the simplest solution and that computerizing the process would complicate needs of the customer and not be cost beneficial.

Monitoring and Information Gathering. Includes the ability to check performance of individuals against project milestones and deliverables, ask questions designed specifically to get information about project status, recognize discrepancies between what is and what should be happening, and follow up an individual's performance after diagnosis of a problem. Some examples of monitoring and information gathering are demonstrated by the project manager who reviews early drafts of his subordinates documentation to assure that it was done correctly, who looks at initial test runs as evidence of whether team members are doing their job in programming, and who had a team member with performance problems set specific goals and dates to read manuals and complete a self-study program, and then followed up to see that this was done.

Managerial Identity Cluster

This cluster is essential because of the critical need for project managers (especially new project managers) to instill others with confidence in the project manager and team to take on increasingly difficult and challenging projects. This cluster contains competencies that sit at the core of the self-concept of a superior project manger. Effective project managers assert authority and control with confidence and are flexible in their approach when circumstances require adjustments. The three competencies of this cluster are:

Strong Project Manager Identity. This competency includes the need to clearly define ones self as project manager, avoid inappropriate participation as individual contributor, or involvement in the details of the project, exercise control over project staffing and/or execution, delegate tasks, and assume personal responsibility for project outcomes. Some examples of strong project manager identity are demonstrated by the project manager who starts the client kick-off meeting by introducing himself as the project manager, who redirects a programmer's technical questions to the senior analyst on the project rather than handling them herself, and who went to the user and admitted he didn't correctly account for project expenditures and was now behind budget.

Self-confidence. This competency includes the need to express confidence in ones own judgment and capabilities, take a firm stand in the face of opposition, confront problems with others quickly and directly, and to express confidence in the project manager role as he/she defines it. Some examples of self-confidence are demonstrated by the project manager who describes her role as controlling the situation and insists on the right to say how long anyone stays on the project, who immediately calls in a team member to find out what was happening because he had come in late two days in a row, and who described his job as a team builder and motivator with the “gift of gab” which enabled him to represent his team to the organization.

Flexibility. This competency includes the need to try a different approach to solve a problem when the first does not work, use available resources creatively to get the job done, adjust ones managerial or interpersonal style to fit situations and people involved and modify existing procedures to respond to a new situation or better idea. Some examples of flexibility are demonstrated by the project manager who, finding that the client would not sign off on large pieces of the project, submitted small pieces for her consideration, which took less of the clients time to review and approve, who wanted to convince people to use object oriented design and spent time explaining the history and rationale to one person who wanted that detail and merely showing how to use the techniques to someone who liked to be simply told what to do, and who after realizing that an initial decision was not turning out the way that was expected was willing to look at other alternatives and rethink the original choices..

Achievement Cluster

Successful project managers demonstrate a strong focus on getting things done. These project managers set goals, establish standards for both their own performance and that of their team, understand how the project fits in and meets various strategic business objectives and needs, and help to keep the team focused on accomplishing the right things. The four competencies of this cluster are:

Concern for Achievement. This competency includes actively pursuing or creating business opportunities to change ones self and others, looking for ways to optimize efficiency and productivity, and setting and enforcing high standards for ones self and others. Some examples of concern for achievement are demonstrated by the project manager who expresses pride in finding ways to save costs for customers and by doing so, at the same time making money for the company, who insists that documentation be written in clear, readable prose and returned drafts to staff if he couldn't understand them, and who began looking for other project opportunities within the clients organization for her team members as the current project was winding down.

Results Orientation. This competency includes keeping team members focused on project goals and deliverables, prioritizing activities in terms of relevance to achieving project goals, devoting time and effort necessary to accomplish the goal or task, taking repeated action to overcome obstacles or achieve the goal, expressing sense of accomplishment when the project is completed successfully. Some examples of results orientation are demonstrated by the project manager who asks his analysts, person by person each week, if they are clear on what they are to deliver and if they are not, would probe and investigate why not, who resists having a team member test a new software package for the client since it does not contribute and would, in fact, detract from progress toward completing the project's goals, and who expressed her satisfaction that the project was successfully accomplished.

Initiative. This competency includes initiating multiple actions, if necessary, to solve a problem or achieve the goal, seeking additional responsibility, taking calculated risks, and gathering information about customer and user organizations and environment throughout project. Some examples of initiative are demonstrated by the project manager who gets his team excited by the idea of locating and solving new problems, who takes a chance on an inexperience new team member because she knew she needed this person's fresh perspectives and high motivation, and who spent extra time toward the end of a project talking to users to gain a sense of their confidence in taking on ownership of the new system.

Business Orientation. This competency includes being motivated by impact of project on business objectives and bottom line, evaluating costs and benefits, pursuing project goals in support of organizational goals, and actively contributing to organizational goals. Some examples of business orientation are demonstrated by the project manager who expresses the importance of the customer order entry website created in the project in terms of the potential drastic effect on company revenues if they failed, who initiates simple cost/benefit analyses on his own, to test ideas and find more productive methods, and who wanted to build the best company web site because it was a “flagship” site that was critical to the organization's global image and objectives as a world leader in its market.

Influence Cluster

This cluster addresses the fact the superior project managers recognize that they are no longer individual contributors who can get work done all by themselves. Now, as project managers, more than ever it is necessary to get others to contribute (and commit) do doing what is necessary for project success. To influence others requires various people skills. Successful project managers need and desire to be better in how they deal with people—an area in which many people, especially technical people, are not comfortable. The six competencies of this cluster are:

Organizational and Interpersonal Astuteness. This competency includes the ability to state an understanding of needs, concerns or perspectives of others, to anticipate others’ reactions, to read and interpret behavioral and other nonverbal signals, and to know how to use formal and informal organizational systems to accomplish goals. Some examples of organizational and interpersonal astuteness are demonstrated by the project manager who spends time and effort to counsel an employee whose performance is falling behind and discuss how his problems in balancing his lifestyle are affecting his work, who knew that the client company president was easily “set off” and “shoots from the hip” and learned to use this to his advantage by getting the president excited and involved at strategic points when the project needed a push, and who used his contacts and informal networks to get things done rather than simply relying on established channels to gain information.

Skillful Use of Influence Strategies. This competency includes the ability to trade favors or resources to get something needed for the project, to enlist support of powerful people to influence others, to negotiate compromises with others to meet competing demands, to get others to commit to action by pointing out risks, consequences and benefits, to orchestrate presentations to produce desired results, to develop and use influence networks, and to use expert power to persuade others. Some examples of skillful use of influence strategies are demonstrated by the project manager who uses a particular customer's influence with others in the industry to get them to contribute toward a joint development project, who told the user he could spend less time on initial design, but then asked if the user was willing to run the risk of having something developed he would not want, and who brought in a senior technical developer to talk specific details with the customer to gain credibility for the project teams ability to accomplish the project successfully.

Team Building. This competency includes the ability to use challenging work to motivate individuals and the project team, to recognize and reward others for their accomplishments, to use humor to break tension and build team spirit, to organize formal and informal activities to build a shared sense of purpose in the team, to keep project team members informed of events and issues that may have impact on them, and to perceive and respond supportively to needs and feelings of project staff. Some examples of team building are demonstrated by the project manager who takes the time to compliment team members, and say thanks, when they achieved project goals, who twice a month provides lunch for the team meetings, and who advised an inexperienced team member that though it was good she had tried to solve a problem herself, she should come to see him if she found she was spending more than two hours on a particular problem.

Developing Others. This competency includes the need to express confidence in others abilities, to involve project team members in planning and goal setting for the project, and to find opportunities to develop and coach others within the scope of the project. Some examples of developing others are demonstrated by the project manager who, in her first team meeting, had each team leader take a part of the presentation, who took the time to find out what his staff thought they were going to be doing on the project and what type of experience they were looking for, and who assigned an intermediate programmer to work with an experienced analyst to learn a new programming language.

Customer/User Orientation. This competency includes the need to tell customers/users they come first, to spend up front time to understand customer/user needs and perspectives, to actively listen and nondefensively respond to customer/user concerns, to incorporate user perspective in project outcomes, to keep customer/user continuously informed about project status and activity, and to work throughout the project to deliver customer/user acceptance, “ownership” and mastery of the resulting system. Some examples of customer/user orientation are demonstrated by the project manager who spends time visiting all the regional offices of the customer and talking with the regional managers, telling them what the system would be like and gathering their ideas, who evaluated and modified her project according to the needs of the field staff that would ultimately use the results, and who wanted the user to share a sense of ownership in the test plan and therefore talked through with the user what they thought was necessary to test different business functions.

Self-Control. This competency includes the ability to remain calm in stressful situations, and to hold back emotional or impulsive responses. Some examples of self-control are demonstrated by the project manager who listened intently, asked clarifying questions, and remained calm through yet another customer initiated change of scope meeting that affected programs his team was currently working on, who thanked the customer for bringing up their concerns about a certain team member's behavior, instead of rushing to defend it, and who didn't turn red, bang their fist on the table, or yell when a team member didn't follow through on a promise to deliver their piece of the project on time.

Conclusion

It is important that project managers of all experience levels recognize and understand what competencies are necessary to produce better project results on a more consistent basis. This paper has addressed the Keane Project Manager Competency Model. This model groups competency into four clusters. These distinct but critical clusters are Problem Solving, Project Manager Identity, Achievement, and Influence. When combined, the four clusters include a total of 17 specific project manager competencies. No project manager needs to be great at all 17 competencies. The clusters and competencies were identified, their importance to successful project management reviewed, and some examples of relevant behaviors around the competencies were mentioned. Only a surface look was given on the relevance of these competencies since to do otherwise would require an entire book. This kind of competency model, when applied properly, can be, and is being, used to improve several areas in the constant struggle to fill the business need for superior project managers. The processes that can be improved include hiring for those competencies that are hard to train, mentoring for those competencies that are easier to coach, and professional development and training for those that are easier to teach. This model has proven its value to superior project manager performance in countless projects managed by Keane as well as projects managed by Keane's clients.

References

Keane, Inc. 1999. Project Managers Development Program. Unpublished course material. Boston; Keane, Inc.

Keane, Inc. 1999. Project Managers Accelerated Development Workshop. Unpublished course material. Boston; Keane, Inc.

Plummer, Donald H. 1995. Productivity Management. 2nd edition. Boston: Keane, Inc.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

Proceedings of the Project Management Institute Annual Seminars & Symposium
November 1–10, 2001 • Nashville,Tenn.,USA

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