Back in the 00s when transitioning out of a role in post-sales consulting for a technology vendor, I decided to get my PMP credential. It opened doors for further contracts in project and program management. And in some ways, it gathered my mix of management and leadership skills under an umbrella term.
Yet, more recently, I’ve come to realize that project management is a competency of mine, rather than who I am. I’ve grown into a next career phase as an entrepreneur and senior leader of my own company. Along the way, I’ve let go of the label. I think that is true for a lot of people who hold management level jobs in SMB companies. They have project management skills, but don’t call themselves project managers.
Especially outside of technical departments. And certainly, outside of enterprise.
For example, you rarely see a posting for Marketing Project Manager. If you do, it’s often a low salaried administration role that is being dressed up a bit. (Though I’m willing to be proved wrong). In non-technical departments you do see the title Program Manager more often that Project Manager. But that can mean a myriad of things too.
Why project management as a general business skill
I think it is because when people hear the term project management they think of the administrative side of things. Not the leadership or strategic business side of things.
When I first heard about project management, it was in comparison to operations management. A project is defined as a temporary endeavor focused on achieving a unique result. Where an operations is something that you do repeatedly, with no defined end. This described what we did as professional services consultants. We came in. Changed operations by changing software and processes. Handed over the keys and left. A sorta techno vedi vini vici.
The world has changed in many ways since those days. Lines have blurred. Continuous change and uncertainty mean we don’t wait for a project to be defined to deal with the need to change. Operations teams drive their own change initiatives. Seeking innovation, we morph towards an unknown result. As well the project world has changed. With Agile, Lean and Kanban methodologies also emerging.
Still, I think a case can be made for looking at what is under that umbrella of project management skills that the PMP pulls together. Because they really are general business management skills. The framework in many ways is a guide to making sure that coverage is complete.
Being certified has also meant I’ve maintained that certification by earning PDU (professional development units) in ongoing 3-year cycles. Each unit represents an hour in education or giving back. With minimums needed for education. The education credits divided into three categories: technical, leadership, and strategic & business management. To me, these three categories are a great description of what I call the umbrella.
Not to be confused with technology. What is meant by technical is the how-to of project management. Quoting the certification renewal requirements: “Knowledge, skills and behaviors related to specific domains of project, program and portfolio management. The technical aspects of performing your job/role.”
This is the stuff that we often think project management is. The mechanics really. The nuts and bolts. Practices around managing scope, cost, schedule, risk, issue management, among others.
The things that gave rise to the expression “on time and on budget” that PMs use on resumes. Though it’s been my experience that most complex projects rarely are. Its how you deal with these in the face of uncertainty and risk that shows the skill level of a PM. But I digress.
The certification renewal requirements define the leadership as the “Knowledge, skills and behaviors involved in the ability to guide, motivate and/or direct others to achieve a goal.”
The key difference of a PM and a functional manager is the need to manage through influence rather than authority. PMs are rarely line managers. They rarely have authority.
I’ve often worked with teams that are pulled together cross functionally. Often given the team, rather than selected it myself. I’ve also managed projects where the people reporting into the project were more senior to me. Representing the business areas in a company wide change project.
In truth, line managers need to develop influential leadership skills as well. Most senior leaders led through inspiring people. Most workers don’t respond well to authority. But then I am speaking from working in knowledge-based collaborative industries.
The world is awash with business books on leadership. It is one of those things where people have differing opinions on what good leadership is. And everyone can tell you what bad leadership looks like and that they have experienced it.
I believe leadership is not so much a skill as a competency we develop. And as senior leader, I focus on the team executing a vision rather than achieving a goal. Maybe that just represents my own inclinations. I don’t easily separate leadership from strategy – the next PMP knowledge pillar.
Strategy and Business Management
“Knowledge of and expertise in the industry/organization, helping you align your team in a way that enhances performance and better delivers business outcomes.”
While I see the need for this pillar, I think this definition misses the mark a bit in terms of defining strategy. But then I’m a strategy person. And a vision person. And think of strategy as the way we execute on vision.
Again, the world is awash with business literature on strategy. It’s a core competency to be developed in a leader. Considering it as a knowledge area in in the PMP lays down the context for it in projects.
The point is that projects, functional/operational departments as well, are not islands on to themselves. They sit in a business context. They need to deliver within that. It is the manager that leads the team towards achieving business value. And is in the end responsible for that happening. Even when the whole team is working towards it. Like a pitcher gets the win or the loss of a game.
As an aside, in Agile this is the product owner representing the customer. Even though teams are self-organizing, they still need to deliver on customer value. Often when organizations go through an Agile transformation, the traditional project managers often move to roles as product owners rather than scrum master.
Even CEOs need to align their vision to what customers want. I love the old military saying that no battle plan survives first contact with the enemy. Military campaigns are where strategy came from. Only, hopefully, in business we have lost the mindset that the other is the enemy.
As leaders, we need to need to adapt and change to uncertain conditions. Strategy is the how we do that. Bringing our teams along with us.
Finally, the case for project management
The thing people sometimes have trouble getting their head around is that project certifications are not really standards in the sense of being something that people strictly adhere to. That’s true both for the PMP and Agile. They are standards in the sense of trying to achieve a common level of professional capability. They are interpreted in context.
Methodologies are frameworks or guides that need to be applied in context. In the sense that true mastery means that you understand the rules well enough to break them. More like jazz than the blues.
For me, I must admit certification was a means to an end. As a continuous learning, I absorb things regardless of whether there is a certification or credential behind it. Often doing formal education to fill in gaps learnt along the way. Or to demonstrate to others the learning achieved.
For me project management is so much more than the technical elements. Which is why I believe, even if it’s not your title, it’s valuable to explore the certifications. To help you develop competencies that you can use in other leadership roles.