Project Management Institute

Match makers



Kevin McDevitt, Siemens, Princeton, New Jersey, USA

Kevin McDevitt, Siemens, Princeton, New Jersey, USA

The best project managers are obsessed with consistency, repeatedly delivering top-notch results and shaping teams that are most conducive to fostering those outcomes.

But even a star project manager can fail if put in the wrong situation. To maximize delivery success across the portfolio, the onus is on organizations to correctly match projects and project managers. Doing this requires consideration of a project manager's every attribute, including education, experience, and the ability to juggle both technical complexities and complex personalities.

Incorporating all of these factors—some easy to measure, others not—and tying them to projects is tricky. But these three steps can help organizations ensure the right people work on the right projects:

Project category is a function of complexity, volume, strategic nature, risk, etc

Project category is a function of complexity, volume, strategic nature, risk, etc.

Source: Siemens


Project-driven organizations are built on systems and processes that produce reliable results and can be applied consistently. They also take similar approaches to matching projects and project managers. These tactics range from creating relatively simple checklists to ensuring a prospective project manager has appropriate certifications or domain expertise to building a comprehensive framework.

At global conglomerate Siemens, engineers may spend more than a decade rising through the project management ranks and advancing through the internal project management academy before they qualify to take the lead on a project of global scale.

“The idea is to build a matched set of projects and project managers,” says Kevin McDevitt, senior program manager for project and risk management in the corporate research division of Siemens' Princeton, New Jersey, USA office.

Siemens classifies each of its projects in one of six categories based on factors such as size and complexity—whether a project includes multiple Siemens divisions, a strong regulatory component or high-profile stakeholders, for example. The organization also places project managers into four corresponding levels based on their credentials and experience levels; project managers lead projects appropriate to their level. Project managers move up the career ladder by successfully leading lower-level projects, completing development courses and performing well on annual competency analyses, which include evaluation for hard-to-measure traits such as emotional intelligence and interpersonal skills.

Not all strategies are as formal. A rigid structure may not even be desirable at organizations that emphasize people skills such as leadership. But putting a premium on such skills requires its own strategy.

When looking for project managers, Steven Thomas, a London, England-based program manager for the BBC, values specific behavioral traits over easy-to-measure qualifications such as project management experience or domain expertise.

“Recruiters tend to focus on the easy selection criteria: Does a candidate have a project management credential? A computing degree? Experience in investment banking? The profile looks good but, in fact, says nothing about what the person can actually do,” says Mr. Thomas. “I want to know whether the candidates build great teams as a matter of course, whether they creatively deal with complexity on their projects and, most important, whether they finish.”

So while he relies more heavily on interviews than does Siemens, Mr. Thomas still approaches the hiring process with clear goals that guide the way he vets candidates.


Is domain expertise more important than general business acumen? Is experience with a project of similar size and scope more important than experience with a smaller project in the same field? It all depends.

“Different projects suit different types of project managers, and therefore the role description for a project manager on a specific project needs to be defined clearly,” says Gareth Byatt, PMI-SP, PMI-RMP, PMP, PgMP, business program manager for Sydney, Australia-based property and infrastructure group Lend Lease. For example, if a project is of a business transformation nature, a project manager who has dealt with projects involving organizational change management may be a better fit than one with specific technical industry experience. On the other hand, he says, when choosing a project manager for a construction project, organizations may be more likely to value industry-specific technical construction experience.

Two Thumbs Up, Two Thumbs Down

Conventional wisdom isn't always the best guidepost. Here are two underrated skills a good project manager absolutely needs—and two common “must-haves” organizations can survive without:

Functional flexibility:
“You may have clients who are like bouncing balls, constantly all over the map, and the project manager's job is to be the same every day despite those mood swings. But some people just can't deal with that,” says Lou Pack, PMP, ICF International, Fairfax, Virginia, USA. “It is more of an art than a science to know when to go with the flow and when to draw a line in the sand.”

Public-relations pragmatism: “All project managers need the ability to communicate well with stakeholders,” says Gareth Byatt, PMI-SP, PMI-RMP, PMP, PgMP, Lend Lease, Sydney, Australia. “The larger the project, the more stakeholders there are, and the more skilled the project manager needs to be. I ask project managers how they manage their stakeholders, and failure to articulate their approach to me in a clear and compelling way is a red flag.”

domain expertise, particularly in large projects:
“We've found that there's less doing, and more managing of the doing, as projects get more complex,” says Kevin McDevitt, Siemens, Princeton, New Jersey, USA. He recommends hiring a subject-matter expert to mentor project managers who are stepping into new verticals.

Perfectionism: Go for finishers, says Steven Thomas, the BBC, London, England. Great project managers “hate loose ends,” he says. “They are thorough and have high standards yet know that ‘perfect’ is the enemy of ‘good.’ They do the work themselves if there is nobody else to do it. Nothing will stop them until they are finished.”

“The idea is to build a matched set of projects and project managers.”

—Kevin McDevitt, Siemens, Princeton, New Jersey, USA

You Chose Poorly. Now What?

No matter how rigorous an organization's selection process, misfires happen. Frequently they're due to circumstances that senior leadership couldn't foresee when assigning the project manager.

“When we've had situations go off the rails, usually it's come down to interpersonal relationships. Often there's a change on the client side, people coming in and out,” says Lou Pack, ICF International, Fairfax, Virginia, USA. “If the project team can't accommodate those changes, then we need to change some people out to make it work.”

Mr. Pack recommends first adding someone to the project leadership team who can handle some of the client relations burden, shielding the project manager who is under fire. Eventually, the project manager may have to be replaced, even if the client is to blame for the breakdown.

If the deliverable is a nuanced software product, though, Mr. Byatt is more likely to value software-development experience.

Skills gaps can be filled by building the project manager's leadership team with people whose experience and expertise complement one another.

“If emotional intelligence is not the project manager's strength, you may be able to moderate that by interjecting another senior leader as a buffer between your project manager and your client,” says Lou Pack, PMP, senior vice president at Fairfax, Virginia-based professional services provider ICF International. “Or if you have a crackerjack project manager with all kinds of experience but not much domain expertise, you can appoint a senior engineer to fill that gap.”

Siemens employs a similar strategy, says Mr. McDevitt. The company prioritizes cross-training so its project managers are versatile enough to transfer between the corporation's different divisions. That way, if one division has a sudden requirement for project managers, there's no need to go on a hiring-and-training binge. The organization just looks for qualified project managers from divisions that aren't as busy.


Mr. Byatt uses a competency framework to match his organization's project managers to projects. The framework includes technical ability and experience, as well as harder-to-measure criteria such as governance capabilities and leadership. Prior to interviewing candidates for a position, he calibrates the framework to match the demands of the project, then listens carefully.

“A key element is being skilled at holding interviews and training your senses to spot the good fit,” he says.

In the past, Mr. Thomas employed psychometric tests to measure soft skills, and used the results to identify developers who indeed possessed the traits he sought.

Ultimately, no matter how many helpful metrics an organization employs, “it often boils down to the hiring manager's experience and gut feel,” Mr. Pack says.

In other words, no method completely removes judgment calls in hiring a project manager. No matter the framework, increasing the chances of proper personnel alignment starts at the top by ensuring the people responsible for those decisions are capable of making wise, well-informed choices and taking smart risks.PM

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