The project manager
what it takes to be a good one
Joseph R. Weintraub
and Babson College
Today's technology requires that firms operate in an extremely competitive, ever-changing marketplace. State-of-the-art hardware seemingly disappears overnight, replaced by a new generation of products. New firms emerge daily, stocks split, and fortunes are made. The present growth of high technology firms in America is nothing short of spectacular.
Growth and survival of these firms depend not only on their innovative abilities but also on their management expertise. In fact, the rapid growth of many of these organizations is the very factor that can threaten their survival. The inability to manage this growth effectively results in waste, higher costs, and gross inefficiency.
Because of the need for extreme flexibility and rapid responsiveness to new product development and market changes, many high technology firms have been pushed into a matrix or project management type of organizational structure.
The merits of these types of organizational structures are numerous. Specifically, the project manager has direct and sometimes daily interactions with team members. This contact allows for the quick exchange of ideas, rapid decisions, the monitoring of progress and a very flexible use of resources. An engineer, for example, may be used simultaneously by two project managers on two separate projects. Thus, this expertise is shared, as opposed to guarded. Additionally, one person is given ultimate project responsibility, thus increasing the probability that the project and its subsystems will be coordinated and functional expertise integrated.
There are also some inherent difficulties in project management as well. Perhaps the greatest difficulty deals with the relationship between power or authority and responsibility. Project managers usually evolve from a functional area but once they become the head of a project their identity and focus must be with the project. They are held both responsible and accountable. Their authority, however, is not commensurate with their responsibility and, therefore, they must learn to function in a world where power and influence are achieved in non-traditional ways.
From the preceding discussion it is obvious that project management differs significantly from management in a traditionally structured organization. Unlike project management, traditional structures generally equate authority with responsibility and give managers clear guidelines and policies regarding their relationships with other functional areas. In project management, however, responsibility is usually greater than authority, ambiguity is inherent, and crossfunctional team efforts are a necessity with few guidelines available on how to accomplish this teamwork.
Much has been written regarding the skills and abilities necessary to succeed as a manager in a traditionally structured organization    . Precious little, however, is available to the new project manager or the engineer with project management potential to help him/her succeed in this role.
The purpose of this study, then, was to examine a sample of project managers to determine the fundamental skills and abilities necessary for project management success. To date, no such studies have been found which examine this question empirically. It is hoped that the identification of these skills will help organizations more effectively select and train their project managers.
One hundred and ten male project managers from a cross-section of eight high technology firms in and around the Boston area served as subjects. They were chosen through referral by their managers on criteria of proven performance as project managers. Of those who were asked to participate, all participated in the project. No female project managers appeared in the sample due to the dearth of female project managers in the area. The age of the sample ranged from 27 to 41 with the average being 32.5. All of the subjects were engineers either holding terminal or associate degrees.
In order to assess project management skills and abilities, several different data collection methods were used. Subjects were asked to maintain a time and activity log for two weeks. From these logs it could be determined where, how and with whom the project managers spent their time.
A second methodology involved personal interviews with the sample of project managers. The critical incident technique was used. In this instance, project managers were asked to describe in detail a successful incident in which they were involved as a project manager. They were also asked to describe a failure incident to discover what skills or abilities differentiated between success and failure.
In conjunction with the critical incident techniques, subjects were asked what skills and abilities they thought were necessary for an individual to possess in order to be an effective project manager.
Finally, a personality test, the 16 PF , was given to participants to determine if they had certain traits in common which would predispose them to be successful as project managers. The 16 PF measures sixteen statistically different personality traits (e.g., “tough-minded” vs. “tender-minded” and dependent vs. autonomous).
Analysis of the data showed that each of the measurement methods added in some way to the understanding of project management skills and abilities. For this reason the evaluation of ability areas reported in this article represents a synthesis of data from interviews, critical incident analyses, time logs, and the 16 PF.
Five core dimensions have been identified as necessary for effective project manager performance. Following each dimension is a brief description of effective performance on that dimension.
1. Oral Communications
Time log studies conducted suggest that much of the project manager's day is spent in oral communications with various individuals and groups. Communications were typically oral (i.e., face to face or by the phone) and usually involved one or more of the following: information sharing, monitoring, evaluating. The project manager's skills in communication were directly related to project performance. Effective project managers were found to be articulate, concise, straight-forward, good listeners, and able to read and understand the unstated (nonverbal) as well as the stated messages. They were good at giving directions and distilling information into the crucial components. They made the abstract concrete.
2. Influencing Skills (Leadership)
Effective project managers seemed to know how to influence others even without much formal authority. They knew when and with whom to use various sources of power and influence. They were able to read the needs of others and use this knowledge to gain their help. They were positive manipulators in the name of project completion. Much of their influence over others was derived from their interpersonal skills and abilities. They were liked and respected. Project managers who are disliked are unlikely to gain cooperation freely and are most likely to use their limited formal power to gain cooperation. The effective project managers rarely forced cooperation but used negotiation and persuasion (selling) to accomplish their goals. One of the most effective strategies used by project managers was their use of obligatory influence. In other words, their philosophy can be summed up in the words of one project manager, who stated, “I'm going to do what I can to be helpful to others so that when I need a favor, they'll help me. I try to build bridges, not tear them down.”
3. Intellectual Capabilities
Effective project managers, by definition, are bright. Those sampled were capable of processing (i.e., taking in and sorting out) great quantities of information. They were able to handle complex issues and change their mental focus and attention quickly. They were logical and analytical and kept emotion in their thinking to a minimum. They had a “big picture” perspective, but also an eye toward small details.
4. Ability to Handle Stress
Project management is rarely a 9 to 5 job. It requires a great deal of energy and stamina. Physical and psychological stamina are requisites. The ambiguity of the project manager's job, by definition, creates conflict which inevitably leads to stress. Effective project managers controlled their stress by managing time effectively, depersonalizing and defusing conflict, accepting ambiguity, and by using humor. They also demonstrated high stress tolerance on the personality measure.
5. Works Skills
Planning and Organizing – The project managers were organized. Their environment was, by nature, chaotic. They had to structure and organize their environment in order to succeed. They also had to prioritize, set objectives, timetables, and facilitate action plans to accomplish goals. They were also able to shift priorities and reorganize quickly when confronted with unpredicted constraints.
Follow-up - The project managers demonstrated good follow-up. They could not afford to leave loose ends or procrastinate. Procastination and lack of follow-through lead to mistakes and project cost overturns. Many respondents mentioned “follow-up problems” as the cause for the failures of so many of their colleagues.
Delegation - Effective project managers delegated. Ineffective ones were described as clinging to the “individual contributor” mode, doing the technical things they knew best and felt most secure in. This trap is deadly. A project manager must delegate work and focus attention on managing the people who do that work.
Decision Making - Project managers were good decision makers and risktakers. They had to gather data, refine the problem, deduce causation, develop alternatives and analyze the costs/benefits of each alternative. Equally important for project managers was their ability to foster good decision-making in their team members. They also had to be adept at seeing and integrating various tradeoffs and alternatives in their decisions.
Discussion and Summary
The above findings are of pragmatic importance to many organizations using a project management or matrix mode of operation. The five core dimensions seem to be consistent across high-technology organizations in the sample. They are also measurable in present project managers and in engineers who are moving toward project management responsibility. The ability to measure these skills has important implications for both the selection and training of project managers. A company cannot only identify engineers who possess these skills, they can also provide targeted training for those individuals who need help in making the transition from engineer to project manager. Many of the participants in this study felt that they had little preparation or training before they became project managers. Most were forced to learn on the job. This approach is not only anxiety provoking, it is also risky for both the organization and the individual. Organizations using project managers should determine whether the five core dimensions identified are relevant to their particular needs.
There is one relatively new and extremely powerful tool presently available to help organizations assess these skills and abilities in a current or potential project manager. It is the assessment center approach, pioneered by the U.S. Government , and used by American companies such as AT&T, Sohio, etc. .
The assessment center approach involves the evaluation of management skills through the use of various exercises and simulations which represent or mirror critical job elements for which the person is to be assessed.
Our own work with project managers indicates the usefulness of the assessment center approach in selecting and, more importantly, developing project managers. Individuals are interviewed and asked to complete individual and/or group exercises and tests. For example, planning and organizing skills could be measured by asking the individual to complete an in-basket exercise, a set of memos, letters and telephone messages with which the individual reponds as if he were a project manager. Negotiation skills could be assessed by observing how an individual attempts to negotiate a conflict between two subordinates in a role-playing situation. Stress tolerance may be evaluted by watching an individual deal with a critical assignment under conditions of time pressure and various interruptions.
The validity of these procedures depends primarily on the accuracy with which they reflect the skills and abilities of the actual job. As a result of the above findings, the authors have constructed several assessment exercises which mirror some of the important skill dimensions of project management. The Project Manager Assessment Program (P-MAP) is the result of these efforts. The P-MAP is a series of simulation exercises which reflect, in an intense short period of time (1-2 days), the content of a project manager's job. Because it is a work sample of what project managers do, the P-MAP allows for a more objective evaluation of a person's project manager potential than traditional evaluation procedures.
Results from this assessment are very useful in making placement decisions as well as providing developmental feedback of strengths and weaknesses. When used developmentally, organizations can help point individuals in a more specific direction.
The authors have validated the P-MAP on two samples of project managers (who have attended training seminars at Babson College). We now have some initial data supporting the validity and usefulness of P-MAP. The authors believe that the assessment approach for identifying individuals with project management capabilities can profoundly influence the effectiveness of a company's project management organization as well as the company's profit picture by making better placement decisions and providing developmental feedback for change.
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3. Hellriegel, D., & Slocum, J. Management: Contingency Approaches, Reading, MA: Addison Wesley, 1978.
4. Mintzberg, H. The Nature of Managerial Work (New York: Harper & Row), 1973.
5. Mintzberg, H. The Managers Job: Folklore & Fact, Harvard Business Review, 1975.
6. Sayles, L.R. Managerial Behavior (New York: McGraw-Hill), 1964.
7. Sixteen Personality Factors, (16 PF), Institute for Personality and Ability Testing, Champaign, IL, 1973.
“Typical ULTRA-TRAK Schedule”
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