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Aaron ShenharIs Project Manager a Job, or a Profession?

by Aaron Shenhar

July 2015


Is project manager a job, or a profession? If it’s a job, what do you have to do? If it’s a profession, what do you have to know?

If you are like most people, you’ve got the job first. Most likely, you became a project manager because you were good at your previous job. Does that mean you will be good as manager? Probably not! But you’ve got the job anyway. Now what? In other professions such as law, medicine, or accounting, you won’t get a job unless you studied the knowledge first. In project management, however, it’s in reverse. What’s event worse, in many cases your new job wasn’t even defined well, and your career path wasn’t planned for you. Yet, whether you like it or not, this transition represents the start of a life-long self-learning process.
While these questions seem fundamental and maybe obvious, I would like to dispute the common belief, and offer a longer-term perspective about a project manager’s role and his or her life-learning process. Traditionally, a project manager is supposed to deliver the project’s product (the output) on time, budget, and scope – what is commonly known as the “triple constraint.” And he or she needs to learn a collection of knowledge areas and skills such as scope management, risk management, time management, etc., as well as initiation, planning, executing, monitoring, controlling, etc.
I contend that this is a myth, and only part of the picture. In fact, in today’s dynamic and demanding project environment, effective project managers are often required to do a lot more. Furthermore, in spite of the well-known and established tools, most projects today aren’t even meeting their time and budget goals, while there is something more important than meeting short term delivery goals. I suggest that the major goal of any project is to create real and new value and/or achieve the project’s expected business results and deal with the project’s outcome. Based on this belief we may be standing at the gates of a new era in the profession that would simply demand aligning project execution with business and turning managers into business leaders. This era will transform the profession in the next few years.
To put things in perspective, even when projects are meeting their time and budget goals, quite often this does not translate to successful business results. In contrast, there are quite a few projects that did not meet their planned schedules, but turned out to be huge commercial successes. If you think about it for a moment, you may agree that every project is initiated with some business idea in mind. It may be the introduction of a new product, the improvement of a product, the creation of a new product line, the solution of a pressing problem, or the improvement of a company’s process. Simplistically, almost all projects are initiated either to make money, save money, or just create new value. Collectively, we could define each one of these goals as the “business objective” of the project.
At this time, however, many project teams are still not really concerned about meeting business objectives during the execution period. Normally, they receive the business goals and requirements as determined prior to the project, and they keep focusing on the traditional (and of course important) elements of planning, executing, monitoring and delivering.
But this is about to change. While initial business objectives will still be determined prior to the project, today’s fast pace of change in technology, competition, and markets, suggest that unless project teams look and understand the project’s business objectives, and more important, continue to improve the value imbedded in the final product or even modify it, completed projects may end up irrelevant when they reach the market. This is what we call “strategic execution,” and it will become more and more a significant part in any project manager’s job.
Thus let me redefine the project manager’s job and responsibility: Project managers should be made responsible for achieving the project’s business objectives, in addition to timely delivery. Project managers should start running their projects with a business-focused mindset, and adopt the tools to do that. Furthermore, based on this perspective, I suggest to redefine a project as follows: “A project is a temporary organization and leadership process set up to achieve business results and maximize value of the outcome.” By adopting this view, project managers will not only be more attuned to the outcomes to their projects, but their teams will also be more engaged, while learning to contribute to the creation of final value.
Many who read this may question: Since when do we require a project manager to be responsible for the business results, and if we do, what is the role of the sponsor, the owner, or the executive? Isn’t it contrasting the traditional hierarchy and separation of roles between sponsors, and project managers? Well, not really. The right way is to see it is to still consider the sponsor accountable. If the project makes or loses money, the project manager does not enjoy the gains or suffer the losses. The company does. However, he/she is still responsible to achieve the results, which follow the execution period. An analogy may be a ship’s captain. A captain is always responsible to bring the ship safely to its destination. But if the ship is late, he/she is not paying the price.
Finally, what about the project management profession? By adopting this approach the profession may grow bigger. It is time to extend our knowledge and skills into new domains, while still preserving all the traditional knowledge and tools such as work breakdown structure, scheduling diagrams, and Gantt charts, among many others. So what are the new domain skills that may be needed in the extended profession? To answer this question, we may turn to research. From studies on the most successful and “great projects,” we learned that these projects engage three “new” elements that are currently not listed among the traditional skills. The first one relates to business side. Every great project manager has typically mastered the capabilities of strategy, business vale and the creation of competitive advantage. In other words, these projects have learned to strategize their activities. The second element suggests that managers of great projects know how to adapt their project to its specific environment, technology and innovation. That is, they understand that “one size does not fit all,” and they need to employ the concept of adaptation to run their projects more effectively. And the third element relates to leadership. Project managers need to become better leaders, who know how to inspire, motivate and set the right vision and spirit among their team members. Accepting this responsibility will build highly energized teams, and proud, and motivated people. Obviously these new domains will require adopting some new and more advanced tools, which will be reviewed in later articles.
To sum it up, I predict that the new era will bring with it better project results, more profitability, better customer satisfaction, and more happy teams.