Project Management Institute

The misused project manager

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by David Perkins, PMP

ARE YOU BEING ASKED to perform a significant number of tasks outside of your project manager role? Are you expected to execute many of your own project's tasks? Are you performing activities that require little intellectual or managerial stimulation? Do you feel a lack of organizational sponsorship in pursuit of additional project management skills? If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, you may be a “misused project manager.” Good project managers have a reputation for getting things done, whatever it takes. However, even project managers have limits. Abusing their skills or not providing them training to enhance their skills can have detrimental effects on project managers, on organizations, and even on others' perceptions of the project management profession.

How does one define a misused project manager? A general definition could be “a project manager whose skills are improperly utilized or misapplied by functional departments, senior management, or both.” Mistreatment of skills primarily occurs because organizations lack an understanding of and respect for the project management profession. When misuse is prevalent, a misuse life cycle is initiated, as shown in Exhibit 1.

David Perkins, PMP, has over 10 years of experience in project management and systems engineering disciplines in both commercial and defense industries. He is a senior project manager for a software development company.

The misuse life cycle begins when elements of misuse exist. Associated consequences to project managers, the organization, and the project management profession will result. If pursued solutions are accepted and achievable, all parties benefit; if these solutions are not accepted or acheivable, the same or additional consequences will impact relevant parties

Exhibit 1. The misuse life cycle begins when elements of misuse exist. Associated consequences to project managers, the organization, and the project management profession will result. If pursued solutions are accepted and achievable, all parties benefit; if these solutions are not accepted or acheivable, the same or additional consequences will impact relevant parties.

Ultimately, misuse results in consequences to the project manager, to the organization, and to the project management profession. The project manager or the organization may pursue solutions to eradicate the misuse. If the solutions are accepted by the organization—project managers, senior management, executive management—and are realistically achievable, the benefits include retained project managers and more efficient organizational utilization of these managers. If the solutions are not accepted or even attainable, the same consequences could be amplified or more negative consequences could result. An unfortunate consequence is that misused project managers may leave the company, while proper corrective actions could have prevented this from happening.

Elements of Misuse

Too Many Skills. The first element of misuse is exploiting a project manager's skills within other departments. A successful project manager is a seasoned, knowledgeable worker and has a superb suite of skill offerings. In fact, demonstrated proficiency in prior positions most likely leads to one's promotion to a project manager position. However, a project manager's skills may be so exceptional that organizations could be enticed to leverage those skills in other areas, often to the disadvantage of the project manager.

A popular example is requiring a project manager to be a resident technical expert outside of normal project activities. In general, being a technical “jack of all trades” and an effective project manager combines the best of both worlds—an especially successful combination in highly technical or specialized environments. Unfortunately, when the organization knows that a project manager is a technical expert, there is a temptation to lure him away from normal project management responsibilities. This can be a trap for some former engineers who have the reputation for “being technical.” Moreover, this type of project manager may be suffering from technical skills exploitation and not even realize it! Whether the exploitation is forced or voluntary, the distressing result is that the project manager may become so entangled in the technical cobwebs of the organization that he could lose sight of the specific projects being managed.

Other examples of skills exploitation abound. This area of misuse generated much feedback (or “venting”) from correspondence with selected project managers. One project manager for a computer manufacturer is expected to create bill-of-materials orders, request part numbers, and even pull stock from the warehouse! A project manager at a distribution company is at risk of being relegated to line-management roles because of her abilities and prior experience in this type of work. If trapped in these roles, the number of “projects” she would be allowed to manage would diminish over time. Another project manager, a former technical trainer, is still expected to conduct training classes, provide technical support to clients, assist with writing or updating training materials, and support product demonstrations at trade shows. These situations illustrate that it can be difficult for a project manager to shake off previous roles, especially if considerable expertise had been demonstrated. The result is the organization's tendency to misapply a project manager's skills to these former roles.

In virtually all cases, misuse inhibits the project manager's ability to effectively manage projects

Exhibit 2. In virtually all cases, misuse inhibits the project manager's ability to effectively manage projects.

Taking the Plunge. A second element of misuse is forcing a project manager to become buried in his project. How many times have you as a project manager been required to “dive into” your project in order to save it? One project manager at a small, family owned company was required to write a 150-page user's manual in support of a project that he was managing. The result was 70-hour workweeks for nearly a month! Another example is in product development, where project managers are sometimes required to write product test specifications and conduct validation tests for projects they are managing.

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I do not want to imply that project managers are conceited or that they want to avoid specialized work. Many project managers enjoy immersing themselves in a project—perhaps longing for the days of previous occupations such as writing software or designing circuits. Also, it is good for the project team to occasionally see the project manager “in the trenches” with them, especially after normal hours, as this can help create team unity and mutual respect.

However, if a project manager is consistently mired in the details of his project, and is expected to perform project-related tasks that would normally be assigned to functional departments, general oversight of the project could be lost; the result can be a failed project. Good project managers do not want to fail and will do whatever it takes to save a project. If project managers are subjected to this type of misuse over a long period of time, the unfortunate result could be increased stress and, ultimately, burnout.

Those Basic Tasks. As a project manager, how many times have you grumbled under your breath as the copier jams after the 200th copy? Or how about the transparencies that you have to run out and purchase because the presentation to your customer is to be delivered in one hour? I believe it can be safely assumed that most project managers have suffered from another element of misuse: expecting a project manager to consistently perform basic tasks. This appears to be a common Achilles' heel in most project management careers.

Elements of misuse also result in consequences to the organization, negatively impacting other departments, project teams, and even the organization's efficient utilization of project managers

Exhibit 3. Elements of misuse also result in consequences to the organization, negatively impacting other departments, project teams, and even the organization's efficient utilization of project managers.

The general strategy for dismantling misuse is for project managers to prove that misusing their skills results in negative performance and cost impacts to the organization

Exhibit 4. The general strategy for dismantling misuse is for project managers to prove that misusing their skills results in negative performance and cost impacts to the organization.

Professionals at almost every level have to perform basic tasks on occasion—make their own copies, send faxes, and so forth; with the proliferation of electronic devices, this is expected. However, where is the line drawn for project managers? When does the project manager stop being a gofer and start being a manager? A project manager will make the 200 copies and send the 50-page fax, but the issue is that the professional project manager generally doesn't have the time to perform these tasks. These jobs can take the project manager away from managerial responsibilities. The result can be neglected projects. Efficient assistants are worth their weight in gold—project managers need their support in executing these basic tasks so that managers can devote more time to managing projects.

Not Enough Skills. Thus far, I have presented elements of misuse that relate to a project manager's existing skill set. But, what about the situation in which a project manager is not supported or encouraged to attain the proper project management skills in the first place? This leads to the final element of misuse: hindering a project manager's skill development. This element can be separated into two subelements: absence of company-sponsored project management training and lack of a defined project management career path within a company.

Warning signs related to misuse when pursuing a new position can be derived during the job interview. Additional indicators can be ascertained from general company information

Exhibit 5. Warning signs related to misuse when pursuing a new position can be derived during the job interview. Additional indicators can be ascertained from general company information.

One of the most disheartening aspects of any position is when an organization does not value an individual's position, especially when the organization is unwilling to sponsor training to enhance that individual's professional skills in that position. The project manager position is no exception. Since the profession is only recently becoming part of the mainstream, many organizations simply do not see a need to improve their project managers' skills.

Lack of organization-sponsored training exists when other elements of misuse already are present. If an organization does not respect the role of project management, why would it want to improve the skills of its project managers? One project manager at an IT company is expected to perform project management tasks, but the company is unwilling to sponsor any related skill-enhancement training. Out of necessity, she is required to purchase most of her own books and autonomously seek out training courses. It's not surprising that this same project manager mentioned being subjected to areas of misuse previously discussed!

How about the situation where an organization is willing to enhance its project managers' skills, yet not provide a logical career path for these same project managers? Project managers need a predefined and logical (from a project management profession perspective) career path so that they are motivated to enhance their project management skills on behalf of the organization. It may be difficult for smaller companies to provide a realistic path, but larger companies that have many project managers on staff have no excuse. One project manager recently was offered promotion from senior project manager to director of operations for a product assembly area. He rejected the offer because it did not represent a logical progression within the project management profession. Not surprisingly, the company did not have an established career path for its project managers.

Consequences of Misuse

The consequences to the project manager are obvious. Most likely a project manager will develop a sense of inequity if it is perceived that her peers are not as severely misused. If the project manager cannot tolerate the misuse, and if management is unwilling to rectify the situation, the obvious result could be apathy, high stress, or, ultimately, separation from the organization. If separation occurs, both sides lose—although the project manager may gain if a better position is found at another company.

Also, when prevalent over time, the element of “expecting a project manager to consistently perform basic tasks could severely taint the image of a project manager. As an example, consider a functional manager that you know (perhaps your boss) and imagine him consistently performing basic tasks. Over a period of time, wouldn't this manager lose some of your respect and the respect of other subordinates? Project managers are “managers” and deserve the chance to gain the organization's esteem. Performing basic tasks on a consistent basis prevents this from happening. Exhibit 2 lists the primary consequences to the project manager for each element of misuse.

The organization suffers when project managers are misused. If the pattern of misuse permeates the organization, a continual exodus of project managers could occur, resulting in a clearly negative organizational impact. Even the attitudes of those project managers who remain in the organization may suffer, resulting in lower team morale, possible team dysfunction, and overall project team disarray. Another way the organization suffers is that project managers—as resources—are inefficiently applied. The organization does not get the bang for its buck! This condition is especially true in another misuse situation: “expecting a project manager to consistently perform basic tasks.” It is like compensating a certified auto mechanic at a competing level, then asking him to frequently pump gas and wash windshields. Also in the instance of “technical exploitation of skills,” project managers who are too technologically focused may lose sight of their organization's larger business goals. Exhibit 3 lists primary consequences to the organization for each element of misuse; note that some consequences can apply to multiple elements of misuse.

The overall perception of the project management profession also suffers when project managers are misused. This is especially true for those entering the profession. When new project managers observe their peers doing a significant amount of work outside of the department, being inundated with detailed project tasks, consistently performing basic tasks, or not being trained properly, an inaccurate first impression will develop. This could cause newcomers to doubt their project management career choice and pursue other careers. If misuse is widespread, even members within the organization who interact with project managers on a daily basis will develop a negative perception of the project management profession.

Breaking the Pattern of Misuse

Breaking the pattern of misuse can be a daunting task for the project manager, and it largely depends upon the characteristics of organizational culture, politics, and so forth. One approach is to educate your immediate supervisor and your immediate supervisor's supervisor about the true benefits of project management. This can be easier said than done, particularly if your management is unwilling to learn about project management practices. Another strategy is to identify someone in senior management who may be open to implementing project management practices, request confidentiality, and submit a business plan showing the return on investment as a result of implementing such practices. Since executive management will be concerned with the value added to the company, showing ROI is critical. An unfortunate last resort is to realize that there is no hope for change, and leave the company. (Exhibit 4 makes recommendations for breaking the pattern.)

Warning Signs
When Pursuing a New Position

When seeking a new position, avoid being placed in a misuse situation by looking for warning signs, as outlined in Exhibit 5.

At the individual level, the job interview provides a good opportunity to look for warning signs. Notice if the interviewer is asking you detailed questions about your professional project management skills. Also observe whether the interviewer is focusing more on your specialized experience and less on your project management experience. If so, this could imply that you would be drawn into more specialized work as opposed to managing it. Attempt to ascertain if the interviewer (to whom you would be reporting) is demonstrating a lack of project management knowledge.

At the organizational level, investigate prospective companies, and try to determine if they have documented and implemented business practices specifically related to project management. If so, attempt to determine if the practices have been institutionalized, and for how long. If not, this could indicate a lack of formal project management structure—a major red alert! Determine if the organization has (or is obtaining) formal certifications (for example, ISO 9000 or Software Capability Maturity Model Level 2) and then relate these certifications to accepted project management practices. Finally, ascertain if the company's organizational structure formally empowers its project managers.

ORGANIZATIONS NEED sound project management practices! Eliminating the elements of misuse will allow companies to retain project management professionals, minimize adverse effects to their departments, and create a climate that draws others to the profession. As the project management profession continues to gain prominence, the likely (and hopeful) result will be a continued downward trend in the misuse of project managers. ■

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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.

PM Network September 2000

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