Dear Accidental Project Managers, This Is A Survival Kit For You.



CEO | Performance Coach | Instructional Design Specialist

Imagine this. You’re a bus driver and people are waiting for your bus to arrive. They need to go home after a tiring day in the office. It’s the final bus for that day. When you arrive at the bus stop, quickly you open up the door. Then you tell the passengers that you don’t have a driving license. Yet you tell them not to worry, you know how to drive this bus. In your opinion, will those passengers remain on the bus and take the risk? If I am one of the passengers, I will quickly step out. For me, the risk isn’t worth taking. There’s no way to know that I’ll be reaching home safely. If you don’t have a driving license, I will never travel on your bus. Not in a million years.

Now in a similar scenario, you are a project manager. You’re tasked to deliver a project but you don’t have any formal project management training. What would be the chances for you to delivering that project successfully? The chances are almost zero.

Let me tell you a true story. Back in the year 2000, I was a project manager responsible for the Instructional System Design for a multi-billion ringgit New Generation Patrol Vessel (NGPV) project. I had a formal training, certification and experience in the Royal Malaysian Naval Training System (RMNTS). Since the NGPV contract clearly mentioned the requirement of RMNTS, I believed that I had the skills to manage the training project.

Reality struck me hard when my boss suddenly gave me a very thick contract document. It has more than 1000 pages altogether. I realized that many terms and concepts in the contract document were new to me. I also realized that I needed to know more than just RMNTS to manage the training requirements of this NGPV mega project.

Quoting from Darrel V in his Project Management Journal dated back in December 2010, his article titled ‘Demystifying the Folklore of the Accidental Project Managers in the Public Sector’ revealed that most project managers were selected based on their technical expertise and thus lacked the required competency to deliver a project. These untrained project managers are known as ‘Accidental Project Managers’.

What are the implications of being an accidental project manager?

2018 Pulse of the Profession published by Project Management Institute or PMI highlighted that 9.9% of every dollar is wasted due to poor project performance. Well, that would be 99 million dollars for every 1 billion dollars invested. Besides financial loss, poorly managed projects often fail to achieve the desired objective causing frustration to the project owners and end users. Untrained project managers are among the reasons cited for project failure. Many of these project managers are not even aware the existence of project management tools and techniques to enhance the probability of the project success. As the saying goes, ‘If you don’t know what you don’t know, how do you know that you don’t know?’

Project management professional bodies like Project Management Institute have developed comprehensive guidelines for project management called Project Management Body of Knowledge. PMI also has a formal certification process for project managers. However, the reality is, very few project managers are taking this opportunity to attend formal training and certification programs before being assigned the role of project managers.

If you are an accidental project manager, here’s my personal advice. Take advantage of these 3 steps to navigate the complexity of managing your projects.

Acknowledge that being a subject matter expert is not sufficient to manage a project. The first step is to realize your competency gap.  Like I shared earlier, I seriously thought with vast experience, formal training and skills accumulated during my stint at the Royal Malaysian Navy, I can handle the Instructional System Design for the multi-billion ringgit New Generation Patrol Vessel (NGPV) project. Indeed I was wrong. The 1,000 pages contract handed to me by my superior indirectly sparked me that the project was beyond my capability. I also realized that I needed to know more than RMNTS to manage the training requirements of the NGPV mega project.

Meetings with more experienced project managers especially with our consultants from Scientific Management Associates Melbourne, Australia helped me to understand my project management competency gap. I bought my first book on Project Management titled ‘Mastering Project Management by James Lewis in May 2000 itself. This book and the guidance from more experienced project managers were my survival guide to manage the project. I learned my lesson the hard way.

Be an avid learner. Realizing your competency gap is the first step in learning. As the saying goes, when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. Besides the book by James Lewis, every project management meetings and interaction with project managers were amazing learning experiences. My pre-meeting preparations included reading contract documents involving the new body of knowledge in the field of project management such as finance, legal and procurement. The pre-meeting preparation was a great platform to learn from other professions like lawyers, engineers, accountants. These meetings helped me realize that project management is a multidisciplinary field.

I was lucky to be introduced to Project Management Body of Knowledge ( PMBOK) in the early stage of my project management career. Some of the learning experience was unpleasant. At times, learning happened in the form of scolding, shouting and blaming. After all, good medicines hardly taste good. NGPV project provided me with the opportunity to attend meetings and negotiations with representatives from Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEM) from more than 20 countries. I also had the privilege to work with and learn from very experienced project managers during my attachment at Blohm + Voss in Hamburg, Germany. The informal learning experience was very valuable.

Professional Certification. Despite the fact that hands-on project experience, reading project management books and learning from experienced project managers are valuable, formal certification will provide you with the professional recognition required to perform the role effectively. For me, I was very lucky to have supportive bosses who realized the benefits of the project management certification. I obtained my Project Management Professional (PMP) certificate in 2008 and PMI-Risk Management Professional certificate in 2011. Preparation for these exams was tough, yet it gave me the opportunity to learn everything about project management in a very structured manner.

Now you know that accidental project managers may not survive long if you unable to acknowledge your own competency gap. However, these 3 steps will be sentimental for you to navigate the complexity of project management and improve your survival skill. The combination of both formal and informal learning experiences will certainly bridge that competency gap in your favour.  Contrary to common belief, project management does not have to be stressful. You can easily reduce the constant ‘fire-fighting’ if you learn and apply the well-established project management tools and techniques. Continuous learning is a must.

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So, if you think that you are an accidental project manager, don’t tell anyone yet. Quickly acquire the skills needed and formalize them with certification. You will notice that your project results will speak for your credibility, showcasing to the world that you are indeed a professional and not an accidental hero.

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