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Is Everyone a Project Manager Now?

Is project management a full-time role for a specialist and select subset of an organization’s human resources, or a key skill set that all leaders, executives and managers need to have for the job? Real Project Management author Peter Taylor shares his findings from a set of recent surveys.

Back in 2011, I asked a simple question: ‘Is project management no longer a niche capability but just a core skill that everyone needs in business these days?’

The results I saw from a survey using a LinkedIn poll were quite surprising to me; they showed that the answer to this question radically changed as you moved through the generations of project managers. I expected a difference of opinion, but I didn’t expect the poll to demonstrate such a vast variance between ‘older’ and ‘younger’ project managers.

The poll showed a fairly even split between ‘core skill,’ (43%) and ‘both a core skill and a niche capability’ (36%) with a smaller number (19%) believing that it is a ‘niche capability.’ However, nobody in the 18-24 years’ band thought of project management as purely a niche capability, and there was a steady progression from the views of young project managers through to the over- 55- year- olds, with the ‘older’ generation seeing it more as a ‘niche capability,’ (45%).

I re-ran the poll in 2013, looking at different criteria, but then taking ‘years of experience,’ as a benchmark, rather than ‘age.’ Results were similar. The ‘newbies,’ saw project management as a core skill, rather than a specialization. At 21-30 years of experience, the rise in the consideration that project management was a ‘niche capability,’ was interesting, and at 31-40 years there was a polarization of opinion between ‘niche capability,’ and ‘core skill.’

Let me argue as an agent provocateur from each of the three angles:

Niche Capability: It’s the skill and experience of the individual project manager that make or break a project. General managers will never have time, and executives do not need project management skills so much as an appreciation of project activity along with ownership competence.

Core Skill: Most evidence now suggests that we are moving to the projectification of society, where work is less and less a line activity. Therefore it is vital that all managers need to understand the dynamics of projects in order to make the most of their organization’s investments.

Both: Project management methodology is a core skill that all managers need to be aware of, but project management activity is still a niche capability that requires additional training and experience in order to be successful. Most people manage small projects with a reasonable degree of success, but large, complex projects with diverse stakeholders, substantial risk and multiple constraints are perhaps best reserved for real full-time ‘niche’ experts.

Perhaps what I’ve seen in the ‘years in project management,’ results particularly is a maturing of appreciation of what a project can be and what a project demands from each person. At the start of a project career, it may be thought that all is possible and a ‘project is a project,’ but once experience hits home and the project journey continues, there is a growing realization that certain projects needs a project manager and nothing but a project manager, whilst other project activity can be handled as part of the general management role.

This is an extract from Real Project Management, published December 3rd 2014 by Kogan Page.