Project Management Institute

The emerging role of the project manager

The Critical Path

by Russell Darnall

IN PRE-AGRICULTURAL ECONOMIES, wealth depended on the availability of resources like game, fruit, or fish—and the skill to catch or use those resources. In agricultural economies, land was the primary resource. In an industrial economy, raw material and the equipment to transform it into goods was the primary economic resource. As society has evolved from one type of economy to another, the skills needed to keep up with change have evolved, and the system of education has had to change to keep pace. Industrial-era education, a system that is still in place, focused on producing workers who showed up on time, followed the direction of authority and provided basic skills needed to produce goods.

Today, a different economy is emerging. Peter Drucker and others have labeled this the “knowledge society”: workers gain access to jobs through formal education, a great deal of knowledge is needed to do one's job, and the education process never stops. Increasingly, an educated person is one who has learned how to learn and who continually challenges the status of his or her profession. In this new economy, the knowledge worker owns the tools of production: his or her education and experience. The individual is a cost center and the organization or project becomes the performance center.

This new economy is changing the way we manage projects. We see changes in our client's expectations, in our tools, and in the global business environment. New technologies, new demands for partnering and teaming, new diversity in team environment are creating a need to take a serious look at the way we will be managing projects. It is also creating a growing gap between the current level of skills and the skills needed to successfully manage increasingly complex projects.

Not long ago, project management training focused on issues like scope development, managing the change process, and accurate forecasting. Today the focus is on building a high-performance team, managing our client's expectations and managing the project's business. The most important skills needed by today's project manager are people skills. In most cases, the less technically focused the better. To say Joe is a good project manager except he lacks good people skills is like saying he's a good electrical engineer but doesn't really understand electricity.

Today's project manager must have the ability to understand what influences perceptions. He or she must be able to map (the capacity to draw pathways from the present to the future) and display imaging skills (the ability to picture in words or drawings what you envision as the project future). Today's project manager must be able to apply divergent thinking (the ability to discover more than the one right answer) and convergent thinking (the ability to develop focused integration of data and prioritize choices).

Today's project manager must communicate the vision of success, connecting the effort of everybody on the project to this vision and to the project's goals. These goals must connect to the project success as defined by the client's business goals.

Today's project manager must understand what motivates members of the project team. He or she must align with clients, develop a high-performance team, manage the complexity of projects, drive innovation, and create a learning project. These are not just buzzwords. They are words that reflect a changing economy, a knowledge-based employee and a client with growing expectations. They reflect a new way of doing business and a new approach to project management.

Not long ago, there were essentially three criteria for a project's success: complete your project on time, on budget, and within specifications. Today's project managers must do much more. They must understand the business goals of clients and develop a partnering relationship that will enable mutual success. Success is less dependent on managing cost than on building a team that focuses on cost.

Good scopes, good planning, and good estimates based on good information are still necessary for managing a good project, but today's project manager must understand what drives the expectations of the clients and use a project management approach that meets those expectations.

Companies that understand these trends and develop the tools and the work processes that meet the needs of a new approach to project management will execute projects that finish ahead of schedule, meet the budget requirements of the project and, most important, meet the business needs of their clients. Projects managed under the old assumptions will experience systems problems, will have destructive conflict, will encounter surprises that will not please the client, and will receive more upper management “help” than desired.

BUILDING OUR PEOPLE SKILLS is only one of the aspects of the change that is needed in our approach to project management. Understanding the unique organizational and systems requirements of a project environment and building the tools and skills base to manage this environment will challenge us for years. ■


Russell Darnall has served on the management team of large, complex projects in both the United States and South America and has provided project management support on projects. He is the author of The World's Greatest Project (PMI, 1996).

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.

PM Network • July 1997



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