Important leadership competencies for project managers

the fit between competencies and project characteristics

Jennifer Krahn
PhD Candidate, Project Management Specialization
Department of Civil Engineering
University of Calgary, Alberta, Canada T2N 1N4

Francis Hartman, PhD
Professor and Director, Project Management Specialization
Chairholder, NSERC/SSHRC/Industry Chair in the Management of Technological Change:
Project Management
Department of Civil Engineering
University of Calgary, Alberta, Canada

Proceedings of the PMI Research Conference
11-14 July 2004 – London, UK

Would it not be wonderful if we always had confidence in our ability to deliver a project with resounding success – AND that confidence was fully justified? Beyond the tools and techniques for planning and managing the project, this level of confidence would require knowing that the project – with its team, in its context, and with its characteristics – was a good match with the skills and experience of its project manager. To be in such a strong position requires a greater understanding of what it takes by way of leadership competencies to achieve success. This is what the research in this paper is about. The paper presents selected results from the first round of study and explains what the expected outcome will be of subsequent work.

The gap in current literature

The use of project management tools and techniques is growing. The impact of project success on organizations is also increasing as project management is implemented more often and for projects of greater importance. In this environment, project managers are central to effective project delivery. However, they are now asked to manage a wider range of projects that require an increasingly diverse set of skills and competencies. In most industries, these skills and competencies are listed as important for project managers on most projects. This paper examines the relationship between project characteristics and the skills and competencies of the project manager. This paper also discusses select findings of a Delphi study. In particular, the paper focuses on leadership competencies, as based on a survey of the literature and the initial results of the first phase of our Delphi study. The paper concludes with discussion about the competencies that are most important for project managers who oversee projects with different characteristics.

The expanded use of project management…In a changing environment

The global environment has changed considerably and continues to do so (Hamel, 2000). Projects are run in dynamic environments—with greater time, quality and cost pressures. Projects also involve a more diverse group of stakeholders, feature teams with greater heterogeneity and include more work across borders than ever before. Projects managed within this tempestuous environment have also changed as the strategic importance of projects to organizations has increased (Hartman, 2000). In many organizations, projects are also becoming more complex (such as the recent Mars Rover missions) and larger (such as billion dollar oilsand developments in northern Alberta), requiring greater team diversity, inter-project dependencies, and rapidly changing technology. These changes impact the way in which a project can be most effectively managed and alters the place of projects within organizations.

What can be done to increase project success? Project management tools, including software, are growing in use. Better project delivery processes, project management knowledge and certification are also increasing. However, project management competence is still largely understood as independent of the nature and context of the project.

The importance of project manager competencies

The combination of a changing organizational environment and changing project characteristics make the role of the project leader difficult. Within this environment, a competent project manager is frequently regarded as having a significant impact on overall project success (Ammeter & Dukerich, 2002; Smith, 1999; Sutcliffe, 1999) as well as being critical to other project elements, such as the success of the project team, including team members’ motivation and creativity (Dunn, 2001; Rickards, 2001). This strong link with success ensures that project manager competencies are of particular interest.

Project managers, as individuals, are all different. Preferences, abilities, values, and approaches differentiate the way in which project managers think and approach life, the way in which they manage projects, work with people, view their role, and exercise their influence. Projects are also individual, with varied characteristics, requirements, teams, environments, and regulatory requirements, among other factors. As the differences among project managers and project characteristics are taken into account, the question to be considered is whether the right matchmaking tools have been developed to successfully marry project managers with projects in a way that will bring project success.

When project managers are matched with projects, how should their competence be considered? Competency literature shows that researchers in the management field have used the concept of competence to mean the mix of knowledge and skills used in the workplace by the worker (Nordhaug, 1998), rather than considering all of the competencies of an individual. Further, different approaches have generally been taken to investigate competence in the field of management. While Sanberg (2000) used an interpretative approach for his investigation of competence at work, he also provides a good description of three main approaches used to investigate competence and proposes a new approach to this area. He notes that all consider competence to include those attributes used to complete work. Worker-oriented approaches outline the attributes of workers (these may be included in categories); criticism of this approach focuses on the general nature of the competencies identified using these approaches. The work-oriented approaches identify competencies by first identifying the central activities of the work, which tends to produce less general competencies. Those that use multi method-oriented approaches integrate both of the earlier approaches to produce a more comprehensive view of competencies.

The present study uses a worker-oriented approach due to (1) the nature of the literature foundation used and (2) the excessive responses anticipated if a work-oriented approach had been used, given the wide range of central activities of most project managers. In fact, both a wide range of project manager activities and a significant number of competencies are expected of project managers. To illustrate the sometimes too broad expectations of project manager competence, one author suggests the following list of competencies:

The successful project manager should have the following skills and competencies: flexibility and adaptability, preference for significant initiative and leadership, aggressiveness, confidence, persuasiveness, verbal fluency, ambition, activity, forcefulness, effectiveness as a communicator and integrator, broad scope of personal interests, poise, enthusiasm, imagination, spontaneity, able to balance technical solutions with time, cost, and human factors, well organized and disciplined, a generalist rather than a specialist, able and willing to devote most of his or her time to planning and controlling, able to identify problems, willing to make decisions, able to maintain a proper balance in use of time…(Archibald, 1976, p. 55).

The most important competencies for project managers have been a topic of investigation for some time. Most publications reflect that project managers need to be all things to all people in these studies. Such perfection is not something we can reasonably expect. Therefore, for this investigation, the approach taken is not to examine project manager competencies in all contexts, but rather to consider the competencies that are most important for project managers in the context of a particular project.

Conventionally, competencies have been reported in lists or various categories. In some instances project management competencies were recorded generally and in other cases the competencies are specific to one or more industries (Grant & Shane, 1997; Hirschhorn, 2001; Jiang & Margulis, 1998; Lampel 2001). Competencies presented in such extensive lists are presumably difficult for project managers to apply both because there are too many on which to concentrate at once and because not all competencies listed may be necessary for the effective management of the project they are delivering. Specifically, while these lists of competencies may consider particular industries, they rarely differentiate among different characteristics of project environments. These lists of competencies do not consider project characteristics or diverse stakeholders and associated challenges. The competencies presented are also generally broad, ranging from technical expertise to strong communication and problem-solving skills. These descriptions may be of limited assistance to those managing projects because the competencies are somewhat vague. Other larger works, such as a book by Frame (1999) and workbook published by the Project Management Institute (2002), provide large lists of competencies for self-assessment. While such works, particularly the latter, provide considerable breadth of competencies, self-assessment may not be the best way in which to ascertain competence levels. Further, the competencies listed may not accurately reflect the many varied project types and the uncertainty, diversity, and other characteristics experienced on most projects.

The relative importance of particular project manager competencies is still in debate. Varied competencies have been identified as more important than others, but all agree that all competencies identified have their place in the project managers’ portfolio. In the past, the skills and competencies deemed most important for effective project managers were of a more technical nature, however, it is now widely recognized that a mix of technical and people-oriented skills are important for project managers to be successful (Chen 1997; Edum-Fotwe & McCaffer, 2000; Yasin et al, 2002). Based on the current literature, we found it difficult to determine the most important competencies for a project manager to be successful. For example, studies, even from very technical fields, have made it clear that achieving project success requires project managers with a mix of technical and soft skills (Taborda, 2000; Zimmerer & Mahmoud, 1998). Others assert that leadership is an important skill for project managers (McDonough, 2000; Sutcliffe, 1999) yet others indicate that decision making and communication are the most important skills, with leadership ranking third (Wateridge, 1997).

While differences in priorities or preferences are presented, the importance of this mix of competencies related to technical and people-oriented aspects of projects is strongly reflected in the literature (Goodwin, 1993; Chen, 1997; Jiang and Margulis, 1998; Frame, 1999). Some argue that to prepare project managers to meet the challenges of project management in the future, this training should be addressed at an organizational level rather than a project level (Wateridge, 1997). Several authors also note that this combination of skills and competencies presents a clear challenge to project managers due to their breadth; but Alavi (2002) suggests additional training or education for project managers. Even with training, according to Pinto and Kharbanda (1995) and Mendzela (1998), organizations will find it very difficult to meet the demand for people with this mix of skills.

The importance of project characteristics

Overseeing the planning and delivery of the 2004 Olympics in Athens is a project, as is re-roofing a block of townhouses, though we can tell immediately that these are very different types of projects. Many elements of projects can vary considerably: the strength of the link between the project and corporate strategy can differ; a project's importance to the organization can fall within a significant range; the project can be expensive or financially less significant, routine, or unique; and the project can be time-constrained or performance-driven.

While projects have different environments and characteristics, project management literature frequently assumes that projects are similar, rather than different, according to a description using characteristics or a system of classification (Shenhar, 2001). When project manager competencies have been sorted or grouped, it has often been by the industry within which the project is managed or type of competence (such as business competence, technical competence, etc.). Further, much of the literature regarding the project manager's skills and competencies has described projects within a particular industry rather than differentiating among project characteristics within or across industries (Edum-Fotwe & McCaffer, 2000; Grant & Shane, 1997; Wateridge, 1997). This may give the impression that skills and competencies, as listed in the literature, are important for all project managers at all times on all types of projects.

The literature lacks a thorough classification of project manager skills and competencies according to different project characteristics and their corresponding needs as well as across project types. Several authors have presented project classification frameworks (Balachandra & Friar, 1997; Dvir, Shenhar, & Tishler, 1998; Levene, 1997; Shenhar, 2001); different success factors for varied projects have also been identified (Dvir et al., 1998). Crawford, Hobbs, and Turner (2002) provide a very comprehensive overview by identifying many more systems. For the purpose of the present study, a classification system of projects will be used whereby projects are categorized into three main types based on the published framework by Levene (1997). This project classification has been selected for two main reasons:

1) This method can be used across industries and, therefore will not be limited to select industries as are some other frameworks.

2) It is straightforward and easily understood by study participants.

The three major types of projects outlined by Levene (1997) include Runners, Repeaters, and Strangers. Runners are routine projects that involve little or no new technology; these projects are not complex and are low risk. Repeaters are more complicated than Runners; these projects are somewhat novel but still have strong elements of duplication from one project to the next. Strangers, renamed Renegades for the present research, are projects that have high complexity and are unique. These projects are the highest risk and the most difficult to manage.

The importance of leadership competencies for project managers

Projects create change. Projects begin with an objective, such as changing a facility, developing a new product, or restructuring an organization. Plans are developed to implement the desired change and to keep in touch with stakeholders; the plan is then executed and change occurs. Change is an important result of projects because it highlights the temporary nature and uncertainty of projects. It also reveals the environment within which the project manager works. Kotter (2001) asserts that leadership and management, while complementary, are different.

Managers deal with complexity and leaders address change. This is significant when we consider the role of the project manager and the project leader. If projects introduce change to an organization and the environment within which projects are managed is experiencing increasing levels of change, project managers are required to not only use competencies associated with management but also, to a growing degree, to use those competencies that are related to leadership.

Perhaps the role of the project manager has been defined too broadly, but given a relatively narrow title. As noted, the breadth of competencies describing effective project managers is large. If the role was instead considered in the context of project characteristics, the category of project manager may be further divided into project technician, project manager, and project leader. If this was the case, we can use Levene's (1997) proposed three types of projects as a starting point with a division of projects with a combination of project characteristics, including Hartman's (2000) scales. Hartman (2000) explains that all projects range according to five characteristics:

  • Size, or the impact of a project to, or on, an organization.
  • Complexity, or the number of stakeholders and specialties involved on the project.
  • Attractiveness, or the measure of how desirable the project is to work on.
  • Constraints, or the level of resource limitation placed on the project typically measured as restrictions in time and cost versus demands on performance (scope and quality).
  • Uncertainty, or the extent to which the project can be defined at the outset.

It might be that if these types of projects, proposed by Levene (1997), were combined with the project characteristics (such as Hartman's (2000) five scales), different types of project managers could be identified. For example, if the title project manager was indeed sub-divided into project technician, project manager, and project leader the title might more effectively match the characteristics of the project, subsequently enabling project managers to identify the competencies required for optimal performance. If Levene's (1997) three project types could be related to Hartman's (2000) five scales it may be that a runner project would score relatively low on the scales, while a repeater would produce a mid-range score, and a renegade place a higher score. Exhibit 1 outlines the potential links among these concepts.

Proposed role and characteristic framework

Exhibit 1: Proposed role and characteristic framework

Hartman's (2000) five scales include project size, uncertainty, attractiveness, constraints, and complexity. Other project characteristics could also be included here. One intervention by Hartman (unpublished) in a large corporation has shown that there is a clear and discernable correlation between scores of some 80 projects using the five scales and the difficulty of managing them. This has been used to identify specific skills needed in the project manager to enhance the probability of a successful project delivery.

As shown in the exhibit above, runner projects are lower ranking in terms of the five scales described by Hartman (2000) and can be managed with a greater focus on project management tools. These types of projects would include those that are undertaken more than once with very little differentiation, such as construction of multiple units in row housing, where one unit is very similar to the next unit; or roll-out of a new version of a commercial software package in an enterprise. Repeater projects, which require more complete processes in addition to project management tools, are generally more difficult to manage than runner projects and would include projects such as construction of a sports stadium or implementation of a data warehousing system. Though similar projects may have been previously delivered, each new project requires considerable customization. Renegade projects, the most difficult to manage, require that the leader use a mix of competencies in addition to selecting the right processes and tools. Examples of this type of project would include staging the Olympics or building a multi-national science initiative or indeed any project that has a significant political agenda or is sensitive to one or more special interest groups.

While the current titles project manager and project leader are often used interchangeably, it may be that a combination of Hartman's (2000) five scales and the degree of change introduced by a project impacts the amount of leadership required. A change in titles to more specific categories would differentiate among the roles of project managers for each project type. It would show the level of leadership required in order to successfully complete projects, even those that score lower on Hartman's (2000) five scales. Whatever the case, leadership is increasingly recognized as an important competency for project managers, particularly as they gain more responsibility without necessarily gaining the benefit of additional authority (Donnelly & Kezsbom, 1994).

Research hypothesis

While varied classification systems exist that outline the unique characteristics of different types of projects, a similar classification system to link project manager skills and competencies that are important to each classification of project does not. A Delphi study, building on a review of literature, addresses the hypothesis that the importance of the project managers’ competencies differs depending on the characteristics of the project for which they are responsible.

Method: Delphi study

As noted, a significant amount of research has considered the types of competencies most important for project managers. In general, the studies have produced lists of competencies, sometimes also grouped or categorized according to competence type. The present research seeks to determine the most important competencies for project managers, depending on varied project characteristics. The goal of this phase of research is to better identify the importance of leadership competencies, by determining whether there is a link between the competencies of the project manager and the characteristics of the project, and to confirm the characteristics that should be included. A Delphi study was selected for this study for three reasons. First, the authors sought the opinion of a cross section of project professionals who are recognized for their success in project management, regardless of their location in Canada. Second, the authors wished to use a method by which the suggested competencies could be ranked. Third, some interaction was important among participants to gain consensus about the ranked importance of the competencies. A Delphi study allowed this by including multiple rounds in which summarized responses could be provided back to participants for their review.

Participants for this study had to be recommended as excellent by their colleagues in order to participate. Primarily two types of participants were involved in this phase of research, project managers and project sponsors; a small number of project team members also participated. Of the 75 potential participants approached about the study, 60 project professionals from across Canada in different industries took part in the Delphi study. Each participant was provided with the same questionnaire. Of those who chose not to participate, schedule conflicts were cited as the main reason (e.g., out-of-town travel). Others indicated they would be too busy during periods of the investigation.

As noted, the purpose of phase I of the Delphi study was to identify the relative importance of the skills and competencies of project managers on projects with differing characteristics. The first round of the Delphi study intended to identify project manager competencies and project characteristics. It was developed based on the worker-oriented approach. Data analysis was conducted after this and each round. The authors primarily considered the rank of project manager skills and competencies and their rated importance for the two groups participating. The initial questionnaire requested that participants rank project manager skills and competencies on a project and that they provide information about the key characteristics of the project about which they are commenting. Significant differences in the importance rating between groups of project manager skills and competencies were also analyzed. Finally, participant demographics and project and organizational characteristics were considered in the analysis.

Findings, expected results, and conclusion

The Delphi study has so far revealed that dozens of competencies are considered important by varied participants. Ranging from effective communication (the most often cited competence) and organization to the ability to manage stress, responses seem to reflect a range of different combinations for success. While some competencies were commonly listed (including leadership, negotiation, and decision-making), others were rarely listed but appear valuable (such as time management and a sense-of-humor). Participants also indicated differing levels of certainty regarding the relationship between project characteristics and the presence of specific project manager competencies. Built on Hartman's (2000) five scales and the feedback of participants, most respondents feel that the characteristics do impact which competencies are the most important. However, a small number of respondents held that all competencies were important, regardless of the characteristics of the project.

Authors expect in subsequent rounds of the Delphi study to build on and gain clarification about the first two findings. Further, the authors expect to identify a pattern of competencies both in terms of the ratings of importance provided by participants and the change in ratings as the study progresses. The authors also expect to identify key links between particular competencies and project characteristics as well as groups of competencies associated with different characteristics.

Initial results reflect three interesting observations. First, when project professionals working in project related roles list important competencies for an effective project manager, the list is both varied and long. This appears to be related to the diverse backgrounds, project experience, and the unique type of projects related to their particular industry. Second, while the majority of participants indicated that they believe the importance of competencies may differ depending on the characteristics of the project, very few asserted that all competencies listed are important for project managers. Third, response is higher from participants who have been recommended as excellent than for studies involving participants who have not necessarily been recommended.

The study will continue to pursue the relationship between project characteristics and the specific leadership skills needed to deliver projects with greater success. While it is unlikely that the perennial argument about whether leaders are born or made will be answered, the authors expect that specific leadership skills associated with specific aspects of a project will be identified. Wherever possible, training or personal development tools, techniques and other methods will be identified against each of the specific leadership competencies identified in the study.

In the end, projects will not normally be changed (such as changing the scope, vision or direction of a project) simply to suit the skills of the available or designated project manager! We will continue to build project management as a profession. Therefore, we must understand the attributes of true professionals better and be prepared to recognize that not all project managers are the same and not all projects are the same. Matchmaking methods by which to align projects and project managers for success will serve to improve the performance of projects, increase the effectiveness of the teams that deliver them and strengthen the enterprises that require project delivery.

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