What happened to middle management?

not an option for success



Many organizations are equipping their executive-level staff with project management knowledge and requiring project managers to be skilled and eventually Project Management Professional (PMP®) certified. What about the management levels in between? Where do the middle managers learn about project management? Often, project managers feel lost in the shuffle because middle management is not trained and does not understand the importance and severity of project management. It is extremely important to get all levels of management to buy in to the notion of project management or it will not be an enterprise-wide success.


In a survey recently conducted at a project management conference, “40% of total respondents indicated that they currently use Project Management Professional (PMP) certification(s) for competency enhancement” (Robbins-Gioia, LLC, March 2004).

According to the Project Management Institute's (PMI®) website, there are more than 75,000 PMPs worldwide. The importance of qualified project managers is now mandatory for major projects in the U.S. federal government. Organizations are planning and budgeting for training to ensure that their project managers (PMs) are PMP certified. Why, then, are projects within organizations still failing at a higher than desired rate? Why are targets being missed and strategic objectives unattained?

In times where resources are short and PMs are a demanded resource, the majority of organizations work in a functional or matrix type of structure. More often than not, PMs are “loaned” to other organizations to work projects while still reporting to their respective functional managers. Even though the project manager often retains management authority over their projects, they experience frustration because of barriers they face once they return to their respective functional areas and want to instill project management practices across the organization.

The Training Gap

I have trained a great number of students who successfully passed their PMP examinations, yet the overall organization did not realize the results they desired or anticipated. After interviewing several of the project managers and other stakeholders in the organization, I heard an all too familiar story. “Now that we have our PMP certification, we know what needs to be done and we don't have the power to make the changes.” “Our managers don't believe in project management; they believe it wastes time and takes us away from them longer.” In order to overcome barriers, organizations must develop training programs that map to strategic objectives.

Great organizations that practice project management understand the importance of having a balanced portfolio. Portfolio management requires that organizations link their portfolio of projects to strategic objectives. Education and skills development should be viewed as organizational projects that assist in the attainment of strategic objectives. World class organizations understand that all levels in the organization contribute to goal attainment and success. Thus, all of those levels in the organization must be trained on project management appropriate skills.

Four Key Levels of PM Training

I have worked with many organizations to develop professional development models that demonstrate linkage to project management success and attainment of strategic objectives. The most forward thinking of these organizations has instilled four levels of project management training. The four levels from highest to lowest are: Executive, Functional/Business Unit Manager, Project Manager, and Team Member. The figure below illustrates the four levels. Descriptions of each level are detailed below (Exhibit 1).


Exhibit 1

Executive Level:

If you are considering rolling out an organization-wide project management solution and training program, it is best to start at the executive level. When studying the key reasons that projects fail (Gioia, 1996), Robbins-Gioia has found that one of the dominating reasons that projects fail is because of a lack of executive level sponsorship. You can alleviate that risk by holding a brief, concise executive workshop that focuses on the key benefits and aspects of project management at the executive level. For example, executives don't necessarily need to know how to perform a forward and backward pass on a schedule, although they do need to understand that without properly developing and maintaining a project schedule, projects risk delays in time to market which could decrease shareholder value. Having executive level understanding and buy-in at the onset motivates and sets the tone for the culture to adopt project management.

Functional/Business Unit Manager Level:

I have found this level of the organization to be the most neglected in terms of project management education. Often, functional managers run mini-businesses, or business units, as they are called in some organizations. They have equal position power to other functional heads and are typically left alone to run their businesses as they see fit (as long as objectives are met). Although they may dabble in some of the practices of project management, they are not baked into their business processes. Many times, business managers believe that they are supporting the project management initiatives by sending the staff who manage projects to attend project management training. Even in situations where the functional/business unit managers have good intentions to embrace the changes and recommendations of the newly trained PM, educated decisions cannot be made without a baseline knowledge of project management.

So what training is recommended for functional/business unit managers? At a minimum, I recommend an introductory project management course (no more than one week). The emphasis should be on providing baseline knowledge of project management so that increased communication and progress can be made between the PM and other functional/business unit managers. When working toward supporting a project management culture, a large part of this person's job is resource management. Emphasis on skills surrounding negotiation, communication, and persuasion skills are recommended to ensure that managers within the organization are working together to achieve overall organizational success.

Project Manager Level:

No matter where project managers lie within the organizational structure, they should receive extensive training with a measurement goal, such as PMP certification, to demonstrate their abilities. There are hundreds of training programs available for PMs today. Whether developed internally by your project management office or outsourced, the key to this level of training is consistency. To realize the greatest return on your training dollar investment, you must institutionalize the same training program for all of your project managers. Where possible, I strongly recommend customizing training programs that focus on key project management processes used in your organization. The result is qualified/certified project managers who know how their organizational policies and procedures concerning project management are executed. If your organization has not embraced or developed project management processes and procedures but is in the exploratory mode, train a core group of PMs who either will establish the project management office or make decisions on behalf of the organization regarding project management establishment. Then, once the project management structure is in place, train the remainder of the PMs with the customized focus.

Team Member Level:

Every project manager has a team supporting them. Although every member of the team does not need to be PMP certified, they should still understand the core baseline knowledge of project management and how they contribute to the overall success of the project. An introductory project management class is recommended at this level with an emphasis on team building and communication. When possible, this level of training should occur with teams in the same course environment. This forum for learning ensures not only knowledge transfer of the same project management core skills, but how to function effectively as a team.


Lastly, I want to emphasize that in many cases, the resources from the team member level and project manager level will be matrixed from the functional/business units within the organization. The establishment of a training program that includes and requires project management skills development at the functional/business unit level is necessary for an organization to truly work together. The project management skills will provide a common understanding of what it takes to achieve organizational success. If organizations do not consider the effective skills development of all levels of employees in order to obtain strategic objectives, those organizations may find themselves scratching their heads when objectives are not achieved.


Gioia, J. (1996, November) Twelve Reasons Projects Fail. PM Network 11(11)

©2004 Jennifer Stanford, PMP
Originally Published as a part of 2004 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Anaheim, California



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