Project manager competence
how effective can you really be in your organization? Determine your Effective Outcomes Quotient™ (EOQ)
Project manager competency assessments are used by organizations to identify project management skill gaps and foster an organization’s training and professional development efforts. In mature project management organizations, competency assessments are used to match project managers with projects of the appropriate size and complexity based on the project manager’s competency level. This sounds great in theory, but the problem is that most competency assessments, in general, examine and evaluate a project manager’s knowledge, skills, and abilities in a vacuum. When organizational project management maturity is considered along with project manager competence, how effective can a project manager, experienced or not, really be? What project outcomes should realistically be expected by managers in companies with high or low organizational project management maturity?
This paper begins the groundwork for a research effort to examine the factors in the organizational environment that enhance or detract from project manager competence to determine a project manager’s Effective Outcomes Quotient™ (EOQ). When a project manager’s EOQ indicates a gap, the project manager’s efforts may not meet his or her own expectations or the expectations of management and project stakeholders. Does this mean that the project manager is not competent? Not necessarily. It may mean the performance expectations set by the project manager and management are unrealistic given the organization’s project management maturity level and other factors present in the overall organization.
Project Management Competence
There are many publications, models, and tools available to assess project manager competence. The Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) (PMI, 2004)includes five areas of project manager competence: project management application, technical area expertise, understanding of the project environment, general management, and interpersonal skills (Project Management Institute, 2004). The Project Manager Competency Development Framework draws heavily on the PMBOK® Guide and is organized into three competency areas: project management knowledge, personal competence, and performance competence (Project Management Institute, 2002). Other models address similar competency dimensions that are self-rated by the participant to create competency scores for each dimension. Another perspective includes knowledge-based competencies such as objective industry and project management competencies; socially rooted competencies, including judgment and human relations skills; and business judgment competencies which include those skills that help project managers make decisions in the best interest of the organization (Frame, 1999).
Regardless of the model used, the resulting output from many of these assessments is a long list of opportunities for improvement and associated training courses that address the project manager’s performance gaps. What development actions should the project manager take first? And, a more important question, which actions would result in the most improvement in the project manager’s current workplace? The answer, of course, is, “it depends.” The obvious choice—training—may not always provide the most improvement in performance outcomes if the organization is not ready to support the project manager’s successful application of the training concepts in the workplace.
A recent survey, in a large organization that is making a considerable investment in project management certification, found that eighty-six percent of training participants report that the skills learned are applicable to their jobs, but only twenty-two percent indicate that their workplace is supportive of their learned skills. So, how effective can these project managers be in their organizational environment and what performance expectations do their managers and stakeholders have? It is likely that management will expect to see better project outcomes. Can a project manager realistically expect better outcomes if he or she is unable to apply project management best practices in the workplace?
A key statement in the Project Manager Competency Development Framework notes that,
“a competent project manager alone does not guarantee project success, and that focusing solely on project manager competency, regardless of the organization’s performance, is too simplistic” (Project Management Institute, 2002, p. 2-3).
Therefore, for an organization to achieve project management improvement and success, the organization must change their management systems; not by trying to change the people or by applying one-step solutions such as training alone. The organization needs to set up the organizational conditions that enable people to work together effectively, with mutual trust and thereby provide the opportunity for the full expression of accountability, authority, and creativity in managing projects (Jacques, 1998).
The Organizational Context
Organizational project management is the “application of knowledge, skills, tools, and techniques to organizational and project activities to achieve the aims of an organization through projects” (Project Management Institute, 2003, p. xiii). This definition presents a limited view in that it is strictly focused on project management processes. Typical organizational project management maturity assessments examine only this narrow focus and fail to evaluate the effect of other organizational influences that are not specific to project management. In reality, project managers must operate in the context of the overall organization and their performance is affected by factors such as the overall organization’s culture, creative climate, hierarchical structure, leadership practices, etc.
Levinson (2002) describes an organization as a set of interrelated subsystems which is a component of a larger system, the economy. Sometimes the internal subsystems function well together and adapt to internal and external influences, whereas other times they do not. To truly understand how the environment impacts project manager performance, organizational assessments should provide a means for assessing the influence of the overall organization on project management practices and the interrelationship of the subsystems within it.
The Myth of Project-Based Organizations
Project-based organizations create an environment that supports effective project management practices, promote collaboration across the organization, and provide project managers with the resources, structure and information they need to do their job. Projects are linked to the organization’s strategy and are funneled through a portfolio management process to ensure the organization is undertaking the right projects at the right time. The organization focuses on continuously improving project management and promoting project management across the entire organization.
Yet all too often, projects are still late, over budget, or are cancelled and never delivered. Sometimes work is incomplete, does not meet requirements or expectations, and does not deliver the benefits or returns on investment expected by the organization. Was the project really unsuccessful or were the organization’s expectations for success unrealistic? Even project-based organizations can exhibit dysfunctions rooted in its systems, subsystems, or culture that undermine the efforts and actions of competent project managers. For example, a project-based organization with a conservative, risk-averse environment will experience different outcomes than one with a creative, higher risk-tolerant culture. Mature project-based organizations leverage project manager and organizational improvements to achieve optimal performance.
It’s All About Improving Project Manager Working Capability
Capability is defined as, “having the needful ability, power or fitness for some specified purpose or activity” (Simpson & Weiner, 2004, p. 856). Competency, on the other hand, is described as the knowledge, skills, and characteristics needed to perform well in a job (Lucia & Lepsinger, 1999). The subtle difference between these two concepts sets the tone for the remainder of this paper. Traditional project manager assessments provide information to managers and project managers about competency—what needs to be done to effectively manage projects along with one’s level of competence with each; but these assessments lack the ability to predict capability—how well the project manager will perform with his or her given level of competency in the current organizational environment.
Jaques and Cason (1994) separate human capability into three categories: Current Potential Capability (CPC); Current Applied Capability (CAC); and Future Potential Capability (FPC). Project Manager CPC (PM-CPC) equates to the person’s current level of competence with the knowledge, skills, and abilities necessary to perform effectively as a project manager. PM-CPC is assessed with a typical project management skills assessment and recommendations for improvement are generated based on the project manager’s weaknesses identified in the assessed competency areas. PM-CPC is influenced by the project manager’s education, training, and professional experience. Measuring PM-CPC is where most project management competency assessments stop.
Project Manager CAC (PM-CAC) equates to the level of capability the project manager is actually able to apply in his or her current position/role in the organization. PM-CAC is influenced by a person’s outcome expectations along with the organization’s project management maturity level, and other factors in the organizational environment. A project manager’s CAC is never greater than his or her CPC, and is usually less (Jaques & Cason, 1994). What this means is that a competent project manager could have a diminished project management capability in certain organizational environments. For example, how is the capability of a project manager affected when the organization’s project management environment limits the project manager’s authority to make critical project decisions? If senior and mid-level managers do not effectively support project management best practices?
Finally, Project Manager FPC (PM-FPC) describes the predicted level of future project management capability that a project manager can possess as one’s competency level increases and/or the organization implements changes and improvements. PM-FPC is affected not only through personal development and training efforts, but from changes in the overall organizational environment as well as an increase in project management maturity. Providing training for project managers, who then return to an organization low in project management maturity or one that does not support project management best practices, may increase the project manager’s potential capability (PM-CPC), but may result in little improvement in his or her applied capability (PM-CAC) or future potential (PM-FPC).
What is needed is an integrated assessment approach to examine how factors in the overall organization and project management maturity affect a project manager’s current applied capability and project outcomes. This will help organizations answer questions about how effective project managers will be and what level of project outcomes the organization should realistically expect.
The Integrated Approach to Project Manager Competence
Managers and executives often have the inability to “see the organizational woods for the people trees” (Jaques, 2001, p. 69).
When executives and managers experience project failures, they may reflexively attribute the failure to the project managers and their team members. At a consulting engagement to conduct a project manager competency assessment in a large telecommunications organization, during an executive briefing, this author asked the participants why projects failed in their organization. A key senior executive quickly responded,
“Our PMPs can’t manage their way out of a paper bag, so we need to train them how to manage projects.”
An even higher ranking senior executive added, as the group was reviewing the project management process displayed on a flow diagram that spanned almost the entire perimeter of the room,
“We have a standard project management process and our project managers still can’t get it right.”
And finally, the CEO stated in response to a question about organizational project management maturity,
“Our project management maturity is high and promotes creativity. In fact, last night I came up with a few new projects I added to our portfolio of IT projects that we a going to start working on right away.”
These statements are interesting in that the blame for project failure was directed at the project managers. Yet the root cause of project failure in the organization was not really due to untrained or unskilled staff, but to a lack of true support for project management best practices at all levels, ineffective portfolio management, and an over-allocated staff. The organization was operating at a Level 1 organizational project management maturity but management perceived that the organization was operating at a more mature level. In addition, many organizational factors external to project management were preventing the project managers from being successful, such as a change resistant culture and a highly political environment. In the end, the organization implemented project management training alone. After the training was complete, the organization did not experience significant improvement in project performance and many frustrated project managers left the organization.
What can be learned from this situation? Project manager competence and organizational project management capabilities can not be viewed or assessed separately if an organization wants to experience true project performance improvement. The organizational environment inevitably enhances or detracts from a project manager’s ability to apply the knowledge, skills, and abilities to be successful; this in turn impacts the overall organization’s ability to successfully deliver projects to its customers. In addition, the degree to which each factor influences a project manager’s applied capability will vary not only in different organizations, but between project managers within the same organization as well.
The Effective Outcomes Quotient™
As noted earlier, organizations typically begin their quest for project management improvement by sending project managers to training. Unless the organizational environment is supportive of project management, the newly trained project managers will have difficulty practicing what they were taught (Englund & Graham, 2004). It is interesting that organizational project management maturity assessments originated back in the late 90s, yet almost 10 years later, organization’s still have not grasped how to create an environment that supports effective project management. And frustrations are still expressed by project managers, sponsors, and managers about poor project performance.
How can leaders and managers in organizations better understand the impact of their actions or inactions on the performance of project managers? By understanding the impact of their organizational system on the performance outcomes of project managers, or Effective Outcomes Quotient™ (EOQ). The EOQ is a model that integrates PM-CPC (current potential capability) with PM-CAC (current applied capability). The PM-CAC represents the project manager’s EOQ and takes into account those organizational factors that detract from or enhance one’s performance and project outcomes.
When a negative gap exists between PM-CPC and PM-CAC, the project manager’s efforts may not result in the intended outcome, and may not meet the expectations of management and project stakeholders. When managers send project managers to training, they expect performance improvement and more successful project outcomes. Unfortunately, these performance expectations may be unrealistic given the organization’s overall environment and project management maturity level. On the other hand, organizations with a creative climate, mature project management practices, and support programs such as formal mentoring and coaching programs can enhance PM-CAC to a level where a project manager could potentially achieve project performance outcomes superior to what would be expected from someone with a higher level of skill and expertise.
To date, limited quantitative research has been conducted to examine the influence of the organizational environment on project manager capability. Many assessments provide results that are not tailored to the organization so managers may be unable to find relevance and meaning in the results, which may undermine the value of the assessment process itself. To provide value, assessment results must be linked to business and project outcomes so executives can see the link between the organization and specific results instead of just hoping for the best (Fisher & Alford, 2000). This information will help managers make a deliberate choice to accept current project performance levels or take action to address the key factors that will significantly improve project manager performance.
Factors that influence project manager performance are grouped in three categories: project management (e.g. project management processes, sponsorship, portfolio management), organizational (e.g. hierarchical structure, culture, creative climate, change readiness), and the external (customers, competition, globalization, political climate). Most organizations are aware of these influences, yet few attempt to address them or consider many of these factors beyond the organization’s control. What should managers do with this information? The first step is for the organization to realize that investing in training alone without minimizing the key detractors or leveraging enhancers will not create significant project improvement. What it will create is a staff of well-trained project managers who will leave to find an organization more supportive of project management, or create a high-stress culture of project managers just doing the best they can do.
Increasing Your PM-Current Applied Capability
Understanding one’s EOQ is not an excuse for ineffective performance nor is it intended to encourage helplessness or resignation to apathy. In spite of the organization, a project manager must continue to build personal effectiveness and capability, which involves developing one’s self-efficacy and seeking organizational environments that are responsive and reward valued accomplishments, foster aspirations, productive engagement in activities, and a sense of fulfillment (Bandura, 1997). When a competent project manager works in this type of environment, he or she is able to exercise substantial control over personal capabilities and project outcomes.
Project Manager Self-Efficacy
Self-efficacy is defined as one’s belief that he or she has the knowledge, skills, and experience to achieve the defined goals (Bandura, 1997). These efficacy beliefs are a key factor in PM-CAC (current applied capability); hence, different project managers with similar skills, or the same project manager under different circumstances, may perform poorly, adequately, or extraordinarily, depending on fluctuations in his or her beliefs of personal efficacy. The project manager’s circumstances may be different because of organizational factors, project complexity level, or influences external to the organization.
Self-efficacy has three dimensions: magnitude, strength, and generality (Bandura, 1997). Magnitude applies to the level of task difficulty the project manager believes he or she can attain; strength refers to the project manager’s conviction about completing the task; and generality indicates the degree to which the project manager’s expectation is generalized across other situations. Skilled project managers who have a great conviction to be successful managing a complex project, will most likely experience a level of success which will increase self-efficacy in other situations
Project managers seek to improve their self-efficacy through:
- training and new project experiences
- comparing and modeling their behavior after others
- performance feedback
- seeking organizations and experiences that activate desired physiological and emotional states
Exhibit 1 – Locus of Control - Efficacy versus Outcome Expectancies (adapted from Bandura, 1997)
Outcome Expectancy Affects Project Manager Self-Efficacy
A project manager’s belief in his or her self-efficacy is critical to adaptive functioning and affects one’s thinking, motivation, feelings, and behaviors (Bandura, 1997). These feelings of self-efficacy are then influenced by generalized expectancies that outcomes are determined by the project manager’s actions or by external forces beyond the project manager’s control. The belief about whether actions affect outcomes is called locus of control.
Exhibit 1 depicts locus of control and the interaction of a project manager’s efficacy beliefs with outcome expectations. Each quadrant presents the initial effects of different patterns of efficacy beliefs and performance outcome expectancies on behavior and affective states. A project manager in Quadrant 1, could be an experienced project manager with high self-efficacy who works in an environment that rewards and supports project management. The project manager feels he or she has control over project outcomes, will perform at a higher level of competence, gain personal satisfaction from performing work, and may aspire to continuous improvement.
The same experienced project manager, who works in an organization that is less supportive of project management and he or she not able to effectively control project outcomes, may experience the feelings and behaviors in Quadrant 2. The project manager may initially intensify his or her efforts to change things in the organization. If the organization continues to be unresponsive, the project manager may experience resentment or dissent, may leave the organization, or choose to adapt work behaviors to work within the system.
What Can You Do Now?
In your current organization, what can you do as project managers to exercise greater influence over what you do and increase your locus of control? Most human behavior is determined by many interacting factors; therefore, project managers are contributors to, rather than the sole determiner of, what happens to them. Most actions are performed in the belief that they will bring about a desired outcome, but may actually produce outcomes that were neither intended nor desired (Bandura, 1997). The key is for project manager to distinguish between performing an action for an intended outcome and the effects that carrying out that course of action actually produce.
First of all, get used to it, senior managers and leaders in the organization will continue to blame project failure on unskilled project managers and lack of training. Because organizational environments take three forms: imposed, selected, and created (Bandura, 1997), project managers may not have much control over many factors in the organizational environment, but they do have control of how they perceive their environment and react or adapt to it.
The following three steps will help you increase your PM-CAC and enhance your personal competence as a project manager. The actions included in each step are not meant to be all inclusive and should be tailored to fit your personal situation and organizational environment.
Step 1: Assess your locus of control:
- Determine the interaction between your self-efficacy and expected outcomes (Exhibit 1)
- Examine the current feelings and behaviors you are experiencing
- Determine the root cause of your feelings and behaviors (personal or organizational)
Step 2: Increase your project management self-efficacy:
- Take control of your training and development efforts
- Improve your influence and negotiation skills
- Seek out project opportunities that you can effectively apply your skills
- Align your level of competence with the complexity of your projects—ask for what you need
- Help management establish realistic project success criteria
Step 3: Improve your outcome expectancy:
- Build or participate in an organizational project management community
- Build your team’s collective-efficacy—the belief that the team has the capability to solve the problem through a concerted effort (Maddux, 1985)
- Be a project management advocate to increase organizational project management maturity
- Educate middle and senior managers on effective project management
- Apply project management best practices and standards
- Provide project decision options for your sponsor and manager that include quantitative outcomes
- Develop effective work-arounds for those areas you are not able to control
This author’s consulting experience supports that the reason projects fail may not always be due to unskilled or incompetent project managers. Even the most recent Standish Group (2004) study, which found that over 70% of projects fail due to ineffective management of projects and inadequate requirements, STILL appears to blame project managers. Aren’t you tired of being the scapegoat for dysfunctional organizations, I know I am? If project management assessments are going to provide any value to organizations, it is time that executives in organizations realize that the project failure rate may be due to unrealistic expectations of project manager performance and project outcomes. In the meantime, do what you can to personally improve and enhance your personal project management capability and build your organizational project management community, while trying to educate, influence and guide your organization’s project management improvement efforts.
Building the EOQ model is the subject of this author’s upcoming dissertation and continued post-doctorate research. Practitioner feedback is the key to obtaining valuable and meaningful research results that organizations can use to improve performance and to advance the practice of project management. This author would appreciate feedback that would help further develop this model. If you think your organization would be interested in participating in the associated research studies, please contact the author at [email protected].
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© 2007, Lori Lindbergh
Originally published as a part of 2007 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Atlanta, GA, USA