Why project managers fail--and how to help them succeed!


Project failure! These are the words that strike fear into the hearts of project managers. The title of the well-known CHAOS report on software project failure says it all. Much research has focused on how and why projects fail. One repeated finding concerns the critical importance of qualified project management professionals—with one Gartner Group study attributing 60% of project failures to the lack of a qualified project manager (Gartner Group, 2002). According to Boston University, a project manager for a mission-critical project should be hired as carefully as a key executive (Freeman & Gould, 2005). Yet most organizations have no process for choosing project managers, and little idea what skills and personality traits are needed to help them succeed.

Recently, research from the Center for Business Practices examined troubled projects (CBP, 2006, p.8). The primary reasons identified for projects to run into problems included several specifically attributable to poor project management leadership:

  • Expectations were too high, unrealistic, not managed, or poorly communicated.
  • Planning was based on insufficient data, missing items, insufficient details, or poor estimates.
  • Risks were unidentified or assumed and not managed.

Most problems are related to poor communication and processes—areas in which a good project manager excels. Therefore, it shouldn’t surprise us to learn, also from the CBP study, that one top strategy for recovering troubled projects is to change project leadership. However, this strategy only works if the organization has ompetent project managers on hand—or the processes in place to hire or develop someone with these critical competencies.

The Competency Pyramid

Exhibit 1. The Competency Pyramid.

Caption: Personal traits are refined through education, experience and the acquisition of skills. This results in workplace behaviors, which are further influenced by the organizational environment. Source: J. Kent Crawford and J. Cabanis-Brewin, Optimizing Human Capital with a Strategic Project Office, Auerbach Books/CBP, 2005, p.60.

Project Manager and Team Competencies: An Overview

What Is Competence?

In competence, the concepts of ability, skill, knowledge, and qualification are combined. For our purposes, the legalistic definition suits best: “The quality or condition of being qualified to perform an act.” In a competency-based environment, you determine the result you need and work backwards from that goal to pinpoint the skills and behaviors that individual players must possess to arrive at it. That sounds simple, but because people and organizations are complex, it never is. There’s more to encouraging productive behaviors than making sure everyone has a certain educational background or certification. Competence in the work setting is the result of an interplay between several factors: Knowledge, skills, experience, personal qualities or traits, team dynamics and organizational culture (Frame, 1999). Certain aspects are inborn or come naturally, a function of talent, aptitude, preference for processing information (Meyers-Briggs Type), or learning style. Others are a matter of education, practice, and socialization. The factors that contribute to team and organizational environment are just as crucial as individual competencies, but are often overlooked. (See the Competency Pyramid, Exhibit 1.)

Dimensions of Individual Competence

Various writers on the theme of competence in business have broken down competence in different ways. The following four dimensions seem to be universally acknowledged:

Knowledge can be defined—as the dictionary does—as the “familiarity, awareness, or understanding gained through experience or study; the sum or range of what has been perceived, discovered, or learned.” For project managers, the “body of knowledge” contains more than simply specific knowledge about how to plan and control projects. There’s also knowledge in their chosen discipline; knowledge of other disciplines that come into play in the industry in which they work; and knowledge of the business side.

Skills are learned behaviors that require practice to perfect. For a project manager, such skills may fall into any of three areas: 1) Their area of subject matter expertise (engineering, marketing, information systems); 2) project management skills related to planning and controlling; and 3) human skills (influencing, negotiating, communicating, facilitating, mentoring, coaching).

Personal Characteristics. Attributes from the intangible side of the ledger—energy and drive, enthusiasm, professional integrity, morale, determination, and commitment—provide the potential to succeed.

Experience. When knowledge can be applied to practice, and skills polished, experience is gained. Experience also increases knowledge and skill.

The combination of these four dimensions forms the workplace behaviors that can be identified with competence in a particular role. The quality of competence is more specifically described in terms of competencies. Competencies are statements about the characteristics, in each of the areas listed above, that result in effective or superior performance at work. For example, a competency statement for a project manager might be: “The project manager is able to facilitate a team to produce a WBS.” Defining competencies for critical jobs helps identify criteria that can be used to assess employees for recruitment, in performance appraisal, and in making professional development choices. Pay and other rewards are also linked to competency, as are training opportunities and other forms of professional development.

Assessing Competence

The first step toward competency-based management is to understand the patterns repeated by the most effective employees in their knowledge, skills, and behaviors. This “architecture” of effectiveness for a given position is a competency model. Studies show that using a competency-based system results in the selection of higher-performing individuals, and lowers the costs from bad hires (Warner, 2002). Monitoring the performance of 98 candidates for roles in a Fortune 50 company over three years, Craig Russell calculated that general managers selected using a competency-based process each generated an additional $3 million in annual profit as compared with recruits who were selected using a process that was not based on competencies (Russell, 2001)

There are many advantages in using competency models to manage project managers. First, they are constructed around tangible metrics—behaviors, outcomes, or activities. Second, they send a clear message to an organization about the attributes that are considered valuable. Third, they provide a framework or checklist for both individual managers and their organizations to benchmark themselves—in other words, to see which competencies are strong or weak within the individual and within the management ranks of the organization (Carter et al, 2001).

Interview the job. In order to derive descriptions of competence from them, job descriptions should be accurate and complete. A well-written job description weeds out those not suited for the position; helps candidates evaluate job opportunities and assists the manager in evaluating employee performance once the person is on the job. Naturally, this requires thoughtful analysis of the position. Develop a list of required tasks, personal traits required. If the list is not both realistic and manageable, analyze your expectations and the roles of related jobs to see if the “job family” can be adjusted to make success achievable. Many companies collect wish lists of personality traits, qualifications, and potential tasks and projects such that they are unlikely to find real human beings who can measure up. This sets both company and candidate up for failure. (HRStrategy.com, 2004)

One way to test the validity of a model before implementing it in the organization is to evaluate the most successful employees to determine if they have more strength in these competencies than those who are not as successful. Questions to ask: What the most important results, or outcomes, from the job? What characteristics are most likely to lead to successful performance? Who is most successful in this role in my organization? Who is least successful? How do their behaviors, traits, and knowledge/skills differ? Note :One of the advantages of adapting a standard competency model, such as exist for project managers, is that such validation has already taken place.

What Do the Best Project Managers Do?

The project manager’s challenge has always been to combine two distinct areas of competence:

The science of project management—Plans, WBS, Gantt charts, standards, CPM/precedence diagrams, controls variance analysis, metrics, methods, earned value, s-curves, risk management, status reporting, resource estimating and leveling, This is the project management we think of as being “traditional” or “classic.” However, it probably simply represents an early evolutionary stage in the life of the discipline. More recently, project management is being used in nearly all industries, and across all functions. Also, organizations have flattened out and become matrixed and information technology has allowed people to communicate more effectively. The role of project manager now requires an expanding arsenal of skills, especially those pertaining to …

The art of project management—Effective communication, integrity, honesty, sociability, leadership, staff development, flexibility, decision making, perspective, sound business judgment, negotiations, customer relations, problem solving, managing change, managing expectations, training, mentoring, consulting, and the like.

Why Do Project Managers Fail?

Often, project managers fail because they are set up to fail. Organizational structures to support good project management and the people who perform it simply do not exist in many companies. Within any organization today, there is a wide range of experience in project managers. At one end of the spectrum are project managers who are new to the practice, or who fall into the category of the “accidental project manager.” At the other end of the spectrum are the experienced project managers. These individuals have either learned to manage projects by the “seat of their pants” or through an ad hoc training program, but their results are often “heroic” and not repeatable. Because there are varying degrees of capability, competence, and confidence among project managers, organizations experience inconsistency in the quality of how projects are managed.

Most organizations adopt a “just-in-time” mentality when it comes to developing the skills of the project managers. As a result, organizations lack an effective approach to identifying and delivering the right training to the right people. Even if employees are given classroom training, they are not given appropriate job assignments to practice those skills. Then they are expected to utilize their training without the benefit of a mentor to guide them.

The role of the project manager has expanded in both directions: becoming both more business- and leadership-oriented on one hand, while growing in technical complexity on the other. The result has been that the title “project manager” often falls to an individual who is not only poorly prepared for the role, but carries a “kitchen-sink” job description that ranges from strategic and business responsibilities to writing code. Poor role definition—for all the roles in a project, but especially for the project manager—places even qualified personnel into situations where they are doomed to failure by requiring them to do too much and be expert in everything.

Technologists are often forced into an unwanted manager role. Technical project managers tend to focus more on details, while business project managers are more concerned with business results. Ideally, a balance between the two is required, determined by the project type, organization culture and systems. Confusion would be averted if the various, and very different, roles related to project manager were not all referred to as “project managers.” (Comninos & Verwey, 2002).

And there are other roles that can be broken out, further streamlining the leadership work of the project manager. Many tasks that have long been part of the project management landscape feature elements of administrative work, for example.(Mochal, 2002). The now-widespread use of the project management office means that companies can develop specialized project roles and career paths, defining specific competencies for these roles, and providing “a fork in the road” that allows individuals who are gifted strongly either on the art side of the ledger to flourish as program and project managers and mentors, while allowing those whose skill lies in the science of project management to specialize in roles that provide efficiency in planning, analyzing, and controlling.. On the surface, an enterprise project office may seem to add more bureaucracy, but in fact it can simplify project management by making it possible to break out, cluster, and create specialties from many project management tasks that have up until now often been lumped together into one near-heroic role (Crawford & Cabanis-Brewin, 2005).

What Makes a Good Project Manager?

Expert opinions vary, but most agree that the “perfect project manager” displays a mix of human, business and technical skills (Brandel, 2001). According to research conducted by PM College in conjunction with Caliper International, 70% of the competencies of a project manager overlap with the competencies of a mid-level functional manager in Global 2000 organizations (West, 2004). These are:

Leadership: While management focuses on systems and structures, short range goals, and supervision of when and how work gets done, leadership focuses on people and relationships, takes a long-range view, and seeks to communicate why the work is worth doing. Leaders focus on developing people, creatively challenging the system, and inspiring others to act. Areas of competency related to leadership include:

  • Communication, written and oral, as well as listening skills, is a critical component of leadership. Skilled project managers know when to speak, when to listen, and how to resolve issues in a calm and professional manner, and are sophisticated enough to serve as the liaison between the project team and executive team.
  • Negotiation is a daily feature of the project manager’s life. Among the issues that must be negotiated with clients, executives, contractors, functional managers and team members are scope, changes, contracts, assignments, resources, personnel issues, and conflict resolution.

Problem solving skills include proactive information gathering/strategic inquiry and systematic/systemic thinking—project managers must be able to both focus on the details of a problem and see it in the context of the larger organizational or business issues.

Personal self-assessment. Best-practice project managers are able to consider their actions in a variety of situations and critically evaluate their performance. This introspective ability enables great project managers to adjust for mistakes, adapt for differences in team members, and remold their approaches to maximize team output.

Influencing ability. The ability to influence others’ decisions and opinions through reason and persuasion; the strategic and political awareness and the relationship development skills that are the basis for influence: the ability to get things done in an organizational context.

In reviewing other sources of information on competence in leaders and managers, we find additional or related areas that apply to the role of project manager.

Efficiency. The best project managers work efficiently, completing only what’s necessary to deliver projects. They follow the simplest possible methodologies, procedures, and templates. They have good prioritization and organization skills. They are flexible “task jugglers,” able to shift direction when the situation requires. Effective project managers rely on collaboration tools to facilitate communications, increase understanding, and finish projects on time.

Technological savvy. Virtual or Web-based collaboration tools are necessary to bring together project teams that are geographically disbursed and in different time zones. Effective project managers are proficient in project management support tools —not only traditional project scheduling tools, but e-mail and calendar tools, and virtual meeting tools. And of course, they must have a working familiarity with the technology important to the industry within which they work.

Project skills. The superior project manager displays a high degree of expertise in applying structured project management methodologies and procedures. He or she understands how the methodology of project selection, planning, implementation, and termination are applied to different projects in a variety of cultural environments. He or she knows how to apply character, leadership, and management skills to optimize team performance. Finally, the superior project manager knows how to align project goals with corporate strategy.

Personal attributes. Effective project managers display certain personal traits that contribute to success as well. Here are a few of the most crucial:

Honesty. Project managers are role models for the project team. They must conduct themselves honestly and ethically to instill a sense of confidence, pride, loyalty, and trust in their project team. An trustworthy project organization leads to greater efficiency, fewer risks, decreased costs, and improved profitability (Toney, 2000).

Ambition. Ambition is an important factor in business goal achievement. However, a successful project manager leaves his or her own ambition at the door, and concentrates on what’s good for the organization. Achievement orientation, comprises a focus on excellence, results orientation, innovation and initiative, and a bias toward action, and is very desirable in project managers (McClelland, 1961).

Intelligence. The project manager should possess strong analytical skills, good judgment, and strategic thinking capabilities. The respected project manager will acknowledge the limits of their knowledge and will know who in the organization possesses the needed knowledge.

Confidence. The most confident project managers believe that they have full control of their actions and decisions, versus the belief that outcomes are due to luck, fate, or chance. Superior project managers are confident in their decisions, proactive rather than reactive, and assume ownership of their actions.

Emerging competencies. Having said all that, the definition of the “good project manager” is a moving target. As economic and cultural factors change, the project manager role alters in response. And, as project managers expand into new industries, additional areas of competency will emerge. Field research in biotechnology suggests that good project managers are skilled in “polarity management,” a technique for managing those organizational dilemmas that we must manage going forward, rather than resolve once and for all. For example, the skilled manager of a team is aware that she must constantly tack back and forth between focusing on the team’s performance as a whole and on each individual team member’s performance. Exhibit 2 describes five “polarities” project managers must manage. (Hirschorn, 2001; Johnson, 1992.). These provide a look at how the project manager’s role is evolving away from technical, tool-based project management (especially in knowledge-based organizations such as R&D), and towards a broader “art” of leadership. But, that doesn’t mean the science can be left behind. Equally as important are competencies that many companies are sorting into supporting and complementary roles, such as Project Controllers, Schedulers, Planners, Business Analysts, Estimators, Systems Analysts, Communications Planners, Project Administrators, and Methodologists (Crawford & Cabanis-Brewin, 2005).

Project Managers and “Polarities”

Exhibit 2. Project Managers and “Polarities”

Project Manager Competency Assessment

Let’s look at an existing model in detail. The model co-developed by PM College and Caliper International, a leading human resources assessment firm, The Project Manager Competency Assessment Program (PMCAP), provides a ready example.(For more details, PM College can be accessed at www.pmcollege.com; Caliper at www.caliperonline.com). Like other effective competency assessment systems, the PMCAP has three components: a multi-level knowledge test, a personality and cognitive assessment, and a multi-rater survey reviewing the current workplace performance of project managers. These three instruments address three aspects of competence:

Knowledge. The Knowledge Assessment Tool measures the level of an individual’s project management knowledge. It tests the candidate’s working knowledge of the language, concepts, and practices of the profession with questions based on the Project Management Institute’s (PMI®)A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide). On an individual basis, candidates can see how they scored on each knowledge area, how they compared to the highest score, their percentile ranking, and how many areas they passed. For the organization, an aggregate table provides insight into the areas of strengthened areas that need improvement for their entire population. This information is used to begin developing a targeted education and training program designed to meet those needs.

Behavioral Assessment. Behaviors exhibited in the workplace are scored using a multi-rater tool (sometimes called a 360-degree tool), which allows the acquisition of feedback on the project managers’ behavior from a variety of sources—typically peers, subordinates, supervisors, and/or clients, but always someone who has first-hand knowledge of the candidate’s behavior in the workplace. This assessment should focus on the desired behaviors that effective project managers exhibit in the execution of their jobs. For example, it might examine the creation of a stakeholder communication plan, or the execution of a risk management plan.

Potential to perform the Project Manager role is evaluated through questions that test the ability to solve problems. Factors to consider include the abilities to handle stress, be flexible, negotiate, deal with corporate politics, and manage personal time; organization skills; and conflict management. The candidate’s score is compared to high performers (project managers who show the highest level of competency). The instrument for measuring potential in the Project Management Competency Assessment Program (PMCAP) is the Caliper Profile. Extensive research and interviews have been conducted to validate the project manager competencies being measured. Caliper has performed 2 million of these profiles across multiple industries and multiple professions. The results of this assessment indicate an individual’s potential to survive and thrive in the role of a project manager.

Together, the knowledge, potential, and behavior assessment profiles determine the individual’s suitability for the project manager job, or if he or she should be redirected in another career path; potential to become a project manager; skill area strengths and weaknesses; and need for training/type of training needed.

The assessment of this information is done through gap analysis. The knowledge gaps are determined by examining the differences between the demonstrated level of knowledge and the level of knowledge that is required. The behavioral gaps are identified by examining the differences between the self-rating of the project manager candidate and the rater’s score. The gaps in both knowledge and behavior, based on the size of the gap, are targeted as developmental opportunities. The results of this integrated assessment are used to create professional development plans for project manager candidates (West, 2004; West & Bigelow 2003).

We should note that what may be “unsuitable” in a project manager is often exactly suitable to the role of project planner, controller, or methodologist—important support roles in the drama of project management.

Enhancing Project Manager Success

Emerging support competencies

The Project Planner works directly with the project manager and is skilled in the science of project management. One insurance executive characterized the role in this way: “We like to think of the project manager as the CEO of the project, and the Project Planner as the CFO. Like the CEO and CFO, both the project manager and project planner carry out crucial duties, and both need to possess significant, albeit different, skill sets and experiences in order to bring the projects in on time, within budget, and at agreed quality levels.” (Wourms, 2004)

Developing the planner position as a set of complementary competencies to the project manager allows project managers to take on additional projects, reduces risk in schedule slippage, allows for more consistent and accurate status reporting, and increases morale in both project managers and planner/controllers.

Resource Manager/ Role Steward prioritizes resource requests, manages the “fit” of resource skills to project requirements, manage and balance scarce technical resources, forecast and aid in planning for acquisition of resource shortfalls, and secure assignment of key resources to projects according to the project’s relative rank on the organization’s prioritized project list (Crawford & Cabanis-Brewin, 2005)

Organizational Development Analyst is another project human-resource management role. In some organizations, the ODA “floats” among projects identifying the human issues that often derail projects before they become a problem and working to resolve them. ODAs are a liaison between projects and the HR department. Establishing a boundary-spanning role such as the ODA can help to alleviate tensions with corporate HR, while making sure the project personnel needs are addressed (Agarwal & Ferratt, 2002).

Knowledge Management Coordinator, formerly known as the “librarian,” this role includes the maintenance of project records, standards, methods, and lessons learned stored in a project database/repository. In a large organization, the maintenance of such a repository can be into a full-time job. Once a clerical task, a project office librarian is evolving into a sophisticated knowledge-management function and will be of value to the entire organization for historical data, successful practices, and effective templates, by coordinating knowledge that was previously lost with changes in and transitions of personnel.

Measuring improvement

The real value of competency assessment comes from aggregating the results of all three assessment areas (knowledge, behavior, and potential), and using the outputs to develop a comprehensive view of the project manager population. One candidate may have adequate knowledge, poor execution behaviors, and solid potential. Using the combined information, the organization can determine where the gap really exists. It may be a matter of education, adding a mentoring relationship, or providing more directed experiences to improve performance. Another possible scenario is that the candidate has high knowledge, poor performance, and low potential. Analysis of this situation may determine that the candidate may be best suited to a specific role such as methodologist, rather than as a project manager. Using these assessments together allows the organization to more effectively develop and deliver targeted professional development interventions for their project management population.

“Behavioral success”—as indicated by such project environmental attributes as openness and honesty among the stakeholders, an atmosphere that encourages healthy competition, adequate funding, informal lines of communication and a flat organizational structure, prompt decisions and close working relationships—is the outcome when organizations are competent at supporting competence (Kerzner, 1998).

Brandel, M. (2001.August 6). The perfect project manager. Retrieved from http://www.itworld.com/Career/2019/CWD010806interview/ July 30, 2006.

Carter L,, Goldsmith, M. (Ed.)& Giber, D. J.(Ed.) (2001)Best Practices in Organization Development and Change, San Francisco:: Jossey-Bass,

Center for Business Practices, (2006) Troubled Projects: A Benchmark of Current Business Practices Boca Raton: Auerbach Books/CBP.

Comninos, D., Verwey, A. (2002, January) Business focused project management, Management Services46(1) 14-22.

Crawford , J. & Cabanis-Brewin, J. (2005) Optimizing Human Capital with a Strategic Project Office, Boca Raton: Auerbach Books/CBP.

Frame, J. D. (1999) Building Project Management Competence. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Freeman B., Gould, J. (2003) The Art of Project Management: A Competency Model For Project Managers, white paper. Retrieved on Jan. 5, 2004 from http://www.butrain.com/mdp/CompModel.asp.

Gartner Group Research Note, 2002.

Hirschhorn, L. (2001, September/ October) Manage polarities before they manage you. Research Technology Management 44(5) 12-17.

HR Strategy. (No date). Performance-based Selection. Retrieved on Jan. 23, 2004 from www.hrstrategy.com.

Johnson, B. (1992). Polarity Management: Identifying and Managing Unsolvable Problems. Amherst: HRD Press, Inc.,

Kerzner, H. (1998) In Search of Excellence in Project Management. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Mcllelland, D. (1961). The Achieving Society. New York: Van Nostrand Reihhold.

Mochal, T. (29 Nov. 2002) Is project management all administration? Retrieved May 2004 from TechRepublic.com.

Russell, C.J., (2001) A longitudinal study of top-level executive performance, Journal of Applied Psychology 6. 510-517.

Toney, F. (2000). The Superior Project Manager, Havertown, PA: CBP.

Warner, J.(2002, March) Interview. Workforce Week e-mail newsletter. (): p 1.

West, J. (June 2004). Building Project Manager Competency, White Paper. Retrieved Dec. 2004 from http://www.pmsolutions.com/articles/pm_skills.htm.

West J., D. Bigelow. (May, 2003). Competency Assessment Programs. Chief Learning Officer (clomedia.com). Retrieved Jan. 2004 from http://www.clomedia.com/content/templates/clo_webonly.asp?articleid=175&zoneid=78.

Wourms R. (2004).A New Way to look at PM Roles: Where do you fit in? Presentation, April 28, 2004, Great Lakes (Detroit) Chapter of PMI Symposium.

© 2006, J. Kent Crawford
Originally published as a part of 2006 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Seattle Washington



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