Project Management Institute

Project management essentials — beyond the basics: You know you are a project manager when…


President, Zozer Inc.


When are you a project manager? Simple question—this is a question being asked and answered by an increasingly large number of people. Indeed, in 2009, U.S. News and World Report ranked project management as the third-most valued skill by employers, behind only leadership/negotiation skills and business analysis. More than 600,000 people from 184 countries around the world are members and/or certification and/or credential holders in the world’s largest project management professional association, the Project Management Institute. It is a question being asked increasingly by individuals striving to adopt the practices in A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide). So, what are the project manager essentials beyond the basics? How do you know when you are a really a project manager?

This paper will offer some insights into the important aspects of being a project manager. It will explore project managers’ views of work, the attitudes of project managers when confronted with barriers and obstacles, and the relationships of project managers with their customers and stakeholders. A comparison will be made between accidental or interim project managers and career project managers. Project manager behavior toward relationships, decision-making, power, and their projects, will be reviewed. A simplified checklist will be included that can be used as an aid in determining if you really are a project manager.

This paper is intended to provoke critical thinking about what it means to be a project manager and perhaps to provoke some introspection about being a project manager.


The Problem

Project management is an activity bring undertaken by increasingly large numbers of people worldwide; according to a study published by the Anderson Economic Group, an average of 1.2 million project management positions will need to be filled each year through 2016 (PMI, 2011, p. 16). Large numbers of those people adopting and using project management are doing so after they have established a career and work history in other fields. These people are discovering the value of project management when applied to these fields: information technology specialists are using project management to improve product and service delivery; healthcare professionals are using project management for efforts to advance patient care; corporate mid and senior-level managers are using project management for efforts to achieve strategic goals; sales and marketing professionals are using project management for efforts to increase market share; and education professionals are using project management for the development of new curricula.

This steep growth in the application of project management has been met, in part, by the growth of opportunities for individuals to learn about and apply project management. The project management profession has responded by expanding its capacity, as have the training industry and higher education. The Project Management Institute (PMI) increased by a factor of ten during the 1990s, grew another six times during the 2000s, and stands today at over 600,000 members and certification and credential holders (PMI, 2012, p. 2). Approximately 660 institutions now offer a project management degree or certificate program, a ten-fold growth in a decade (PMI, 2010, p. 2).

With this steep growth of project management, we find that increasing numbers of individuals in other fields are adopting project management practices to support their chosen fields; we find increasing numbers of individuals drawn into project management positions; and we find increasing numbers of individuals referring to themselves as project managers. Many of these individuals may have benefited from formalized project management training and/or education, some may find themselves in actual project manager positions and/or career paths, and some may be involved with project management as a tangential and/or temporary undertaking. This raises a question: What exactly is a project manager? What does it mean to be a project manager? When are you a project manager? What characteristics, behaviors, attitudes, and beliefs constitute the essence of being a project manager? To borrow from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “To be a project manager, or not to be a project manager, that is the question.”

Why It Matters

The questions about being a project manager are about more than just semantics. The questions speak to core qualities associated with project management and project managers. Indeed, it is these core qualities that distinguish the great project managers from the remainder of the pack. A survey of over 5,000 project managers and stakeholders has provided an extraordinary insight into what the top 2% know and do that everyone else does not (Crowe, 2006, pp. 13–25). This study focused on identifying the best project managers (referred to as “Alpha project managers”) and then on determining what they did that made them the best. Opinions about these project managers were obtained from their team members, their customers, and their management. Opinions were focused on eight specific areas: attitude and belief, communication, alignment, approach and organization, focus and prioritization, issue management, relationships and conflict, and leadership. Some of the study results reveal large differences between what the Alpha project managers believe and do versus the non-Alpha project managers.

Exhibit 1 contains a fictional situation where an experienced and successful individual in the information technology field aspires toward project management. In the scenario we encounter someone who may be learning and even applying some of the fundamental project management concepts and practices —at least in the classroom. However, we also find a gap between what the individual has learned and what they are able to actually do. The scenario suggests that this gap is related to the lack of an underlying instinct, the instinct to act as a project manager. This underlying instinct is precisely what was addressed in the study of Alpha project managers, It speaks to the core characteristics, behaviors, attitudes, and beliefs constitute the essence of being a project manager.

A situation

Exhibit 1 – A situation.

A Definition

The Project Management Institute (PMI, 2013, p. 555) defines a project manager as “the person assigned by the performing organization to lead the team that is responsible for achieving the project objectives.” While this definition addresses the roles and responsibilities of the project manager, it is silent regarding the underlying aspects of being a project manager. This paper takes the position that assigned roles or responsibilities are necessary but not sufficient to being a project manager. This paper takes the position that the underlying aspects are as important, if not more important, considerations for being a project manager. This paper takes the position that the definition of project manager must include consideration of essential project manager characteristics, behaviors, attitudes, and beliefs.

Underlying Project Manager Essentials

Alpha Study

Although in this study (Crowe, 2006, pp. 84–89, pp. 106–107) both Alphas and non-Alphas understood equally the importance of planning, the Alphas dedicated double the amount of project time to actually do the planning. Alphas spent on average a total of 21% of all project labor hours on planning. And it wasn’t just the planning associated with the upfront project planning, it was also the planning that occurs throughout the life cycle. Similarly, both Alphas and non-Alphas equally understood the value of communication; however, the Alphas were viewed by others as being much more effective at performing the actual communication (80% for Alphas versus 49% for non-Alphas). The communication they paid the most attention to was with their stakeholders; Alphas constantly asked others for their opinions about the project, and they responded with information tailored to their stakeholders’ interests. They set a communication schedule and adhered to it stridently. They communicated their message in a clear and concise manner, without wasting time, by tailoring their message and delivery to the specific needs of each stakeholder.

The Alpha project managers (Crowe, 2006, pp. 64–65) were found to believe strongly that they had enough authority to manage the project (89% for Alphas versus 49% for non-Alphas).

The degree of authority a manager has on a project directly corresponds to how much authority he believes he has. Several times, the attitude was conveyed that project managers who believe that are empowered and behave accordingly usually have a greater level of authority conferred upon them than those managers who believe they lack an organizational mandate.

Alphas take the project assignment as a mandate to lead. They assume authority to match their given responsibility, and they lead the project accordingly.

These data support the maxim to “take action now and ask forgiveness later.” This type of action requires attitude, and attitude abounds with Alphas (Crowe, 2006, pp. 50–51). They enjoy their work more than their counterparts. Alphas reported that they generally loved their jobs twice as much as non-Alphas (67% for Alphas versus 32% for non-Alphas). This attitude caused Alphas to tend to treat project management more as a career unto itself, whereas non-Alphas tended to view it as a stepping-stone. Alphas do not see themselves as accidental, or interim, or incidental project managers.

Incidental Project Manager

The concept of incidental, or accidental, or interim project manager has been explored and compared to the career project manager (Pinto, 1995, p. 42). These terms have been used to describe individuals who may be employing, or trying to employ, project management practices even though they may not be in full-time established project manager positions. The project management practices may be incidental to the primary focus of their job, or they find themselves performing these practices quite by accident without the realization that the practices are associated with project management, or they may look at their practice of project management as a temporary interim assignment. The incidental project manager more likely has a technical background, often as an engineer, programmer, systems analyst, or similar. By contrast, the career project manager will more likely have, or seek, a formal project management education, and have, or seek, experience in management and organizational skills. The career project manager may also have some knowledge relating to functionality, features, or domain of the project deliverables. Exhibit 2 lists the characteristics that have been associated with incidental and career project managers. The data in the table are supported by research that shows that project success and failure are located in the “softer” side of project manager responsibilities. That type of success hinges more on effective leadership, team management, and stakeholder management. The research also provides evidence about growing numbers of project managers who are entering the profession reluctantly and unprepared and who are finding themselves lacking adequate support from within their organizations and from their management. This lack of preparedness and lack of support is a double whammy that can derail many of the non-Alphas.

Project manager differences

Exhibit 2 – Project manager differences.

Discipline and Willpower

As evidenced in the Alpha study, knowing what to do and actually doing it are two different things. In that study, virtually all project managers were familiar with the concept of project planning; yet it was the Alphas who actually took part in planning twice as often as the others. Even entry-level project managers with little or no experience can accurately describe the reasons behind the importance of planning and communication. Only the Alphas possessed the discipline to do the basics. They understood and acted on the priority to do the basics by reducing or eliminating time spent on lower priority activities. They possessed the discipline to carve precious time out of their busy days to do the basics. They spent more time on the important and less time on the immediate. Were the others not disciplined enough? Apparently, they were not. “It is my experience that project managers are not willing to make the tough and unpopular project-related decisions, even though their instincts warn them that they are not taking the most effective action,” says one of the most listened to modern-day project management gurus (Whitten, 2005, p. 42). Similarly, one of today’s most highly regarded business experts reports that “an absolutely iron will” is essential in moving from good to great (Collins, 2001, p. 271). My view (O’Brochta, 2008, pp. 1–2) is that “project management is about applying common sense with uncommon discipline.”

Fortunately, there is now science behind the building of discipline and willpower (McGonigal, 2011, p. 59). Our brains include the willpower muscle, and it gets used every day. And like a muscle, willpower can be strengthened. Researchers are learning what kind of calisthenics it takes to get our willpower into shape. First and foremost is the discipline of routine and habit. Even a small change to a routine, if repeated often enough, will evolve into a new habit. Adding a new project management basic to your routine will, if it does not require too much extra effort, evolve into a standard behavior. Small increments accomplished over an extended period of time will produce notable increases in willpower, similar to the progression experienced by someone starting a new physical fitness program.

Goal Oriented

In projects, considerable effort is associated with the goal. Business and stakeholder needs are captured in a scope statement, milestones and deliverables are captured in a plan, and deadlines are captured in a schedule. All of these become goals for the project manager. Recall that the definition of a project manager is the person who is responsible for “achieving the project objectives.” So, by definition, effective project managers are goal oriented. They accomplish this by possessing the ability to respond to barriers and obstacles with alternatives and work-arounds that are focused on the goals. Progress is always forward. They anticipate and forecast future events, with the potential to impact the forward progress and they develop contingencies. They also do this by forming and maintaining relationships with those who can support their satisfaction of the project goals. These relationships can be called upon in times of need. The Alpha study results (Crowe, 2006, pp. 67–70) show that “Alphas demonstrated the ability to create and maintain focus on the right goals and objectives more effectively than their peers.” They spent less time in meetings and less time responding to emails than their counterparts, yet they were viewed by customers, team members, and senior management as being more responsive to their project-related requests. This goal-orientation is yet another aspect of having the discipline to maintain focus on the basics.

Decision-Making and Power

Recall that Alpha project managers act presuming authority. They accomplish this through strong decision-making skills and through the development of their own personal power. Decisions are focused more on the needs of the project and less on serving other agendas. Decisions are made after quickly sifting (Crowe, 2006, pp. 71–75) through the continuous river of information flowing their way and isolating only that which is essential to their decision. They accomplish this by basing decisions on considerations about how the current conditions differ from the established and base-lined plan; large deviations require important decisions and small deviations may only require minor decisions. Decisions are made based more on rational analysis of the alternatives and less on intuition; they may use techniques that consider the alternative pros and cons, strength weakness opportunity threats analysis (SWOT), pairwise comparison, or weighted decision tree. Decisions are made based more on pre-formulated alternatives and contingency plans and less on spontaneous reaction.

Through the understanding and use of power, the project manager can accomplish a tremendous amount of what is needed to achieve his or her project goals. Power refers to the ability of the project manager to influence others to act for the benefit of the project; it is a resource that enables compliance or commitment from others (Pinto, 1996, p. 43). As illustrated in Exhibit 3, we can recognize that as project leaders we rarely have significant amounts of positional power; our formal authority is usually quite limited within the organization. However, we do have opportunities to develop and use sources of power that others don’t. Specifically, we are the experts; no one knows more about our project, or our portion of the project, than we do. This knowledge can serve as the basis for opinions, decisions, and actions that are rational and well supported. Through communication early and often with key stakeholders about the project and tailoring that information to the specific needs of each stakeholder, project leaders can establish themselves as experts about the subjects they know best – their projects. Over time, the recognition of their expertise will grow, and so will the dependence by key stakeholders on this expertise; this represents a growth in the project leader’s expert power. At some point, this power will have grown to the point where the project leader is called upon to provide expertise about a topic that is less related to his or her actual project; this is the point in time where his or her power has grown so significantly that he or she can begin using his or her power to accomplish project leadership actions related to building and maintaining his or her high performance team. A second source of power at the project leader’s disposal is his or her perceived association with others who are influential: referent power. Successful project leaders develop and cultivate relationships with a vast array of stakeholders that extend far beyond the immediate bounds of their projects. The fact that so many projects are managed in matrix organizations further enhances this effect. The expert and referent sources of power, particularly for a project leader, can distinguish the actions we want to take from the blur of other activity in the organization.

Project manager power

Exhibit 3 – Project manager power.


Project Manager Essentials – Beyond the Basics

The notion that project management has less to do with title or position and more to do with attitude and behavior has been explored. Opportunities for critical thought have been provided regarding what it means to be a project manager and about being a project manager. Observations have been made about the project manager’s view of work, barriers, relationships, decision-making, power, and their projects. Discipline and willpower have been suggested as key attributes for the advancement of the project manager. The implications of these observations and suggestions can lead to actions not only by emerging project managers as they navigate strategically along a progression of work experiences, but also for established project managers who are looking reflectively at the path that they have followed. Exhibit 4 contains a listing of the essential summary points in the paper that can be considered if you really want to know if you are a project manager.

Project manager state of being

Exhibit 4 – Project manager state of being.


Collins, J. (2001). Good to great. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

Crowe, A. (2006). Alpha project managers: What the top 2% know that everyone else does not. Kennesaw, GA: Velociteach.

McGonigal, K. (2011). The willpower instinct: How self-control works, why it matters, and what you can do to get more of it. New York, NY: Avery.

O’Brochta, M. (2009, January). New number one reason for project failure – Lack of discipline. PM World Today.

Pinto, J., & Kharbanda, O. (1995). Successful project managers: Leading your team to success. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Pinto, J. (1996). Power & politics in project management. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

Project Management Institute. (PMI). (2010). Establishing a project management degree. Newtown Square, PA: Author.

Project Management Institute. (PMI). (2011). Careers in project management. Newtown Square, PA: Author.

Project Management Institute. (PMI). (2012). PMI 2012 Annual Report. Newtown Square, PA: Author.

Project Management Institute. (PMI). (2013). A guide to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK® guide) – Fifth edition. Newtown Square, PA: Author.

Whitten, N. (2005). No-nonsense advice for successful projects. Vienna, VA: Management Concepts.

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.

© 2014, Michael O’Brochta, ACP, PMP
Originally published as part of 2014 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Phoenix, Arizona, USA



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