Tasked with planning, spearheading and completing projects on time and on budget, project managers have a lot on their plates as they push their teams to get things done.
Even so, is it possible that the project manager job title is actually overvalued? Intense School recently talked to Alan Willett, president of Oxseeker Inc., to get his take on whether or not the project manager job title means as much today as it might have in the past.
A leader in the software industry, Willett created his consulting company with the core purpose of propelling software development organizations to world-class performance.
Intense School: In your opinion, is the project manager job title overvalued?
Willett: The title is overvalued, but the skill set is not. The skill set is undervalued. What is the role of project managers? One, we want them to deliver great projects successfully. Two, we want them to build the skills and talents of their people while creating the projects. Project managers, what they’re responsible for, is critical. And the skill set to do these things is critical.
Project managers – their role, their goal – is to deliver highly successful projects. That means that they’re high quality, that they’re on cost, that they’re on schedule, that they delight their stakeholders, their customers. The second thing that I think is equally important is…using the project to build the talents of the people…so that they can do better and better projects in the future.
Here’s why I think the title’s overvalued now… A project manager, in my view of the past, they’re trying to manage all the parts, and it’s getting more and more difficult for project managers to be successful because they understand less and less of their work.
What we’re talking about here is knowledge workers, people who are working with lots of different types of information. And they have the skill set and ability to create programs, customize commercial off-the-shelf software, or bring together diverse sets of ideas and knowledge in a meaningful way. Knowledge workers have this amazing ability to pull together these disparate sets of ideas with all these high technologies that they specialize in.
Here’s my premise. I believe that the project management skill set [is something that] every single knowledge worker should be getting because each knowledge worker should have an understanding of their own processes and techniques so that they can consistently create high-quality projects and deliver on time.
Intense School: Are project managers required, in the here and now, to cover up for bad leadership structure?
Willett: They’re both to blame – both management and knowledge workers, leadership and knowledge workers. Let me tell you why. Managers often put extreme pressure on people, but they actually do really want to know when it’s going to get finished. But if they don’t understand the knowledge worker’s skill set, they don’t understand what it takes. When management asks for something, they should be doing another thing as well. They should be saying, ‘Give me a plan that I can trust.’ And then the management should be asking questions.
Intense School: What specific questions should be asked?
Willett: The Software Executive’s Field Guide helps execs and leadership to know what questions they should be asking when they’re reviewing plans: to make sure they’re smart, to make sure they’re aggressive, to make sure that the teams are making commitments that they can keep.
Even if executives are not asking those questions, the knowledge workers should have project management skills. If the executives say, ‘I need something and I need it by this date,’ the knowledge workers’ immediate response should be to make a plan. That means they need project management skills.
Even if they’re a team of one, they should be able to sit down and say, ‘This is a complicated thing. Let me think through all the things that need to be done.’ They should make a detailed plan and say, ‘This is going to take six weeks,’ for example, even though it’s asked for in one. The knowledge worker can then say, ‘It’s going to take six weeks, but you could reduce these requirements and I could deliver it to you in one week or you can give me another two resources and I could deliver it to you in two weeks or you could accept my six-week plan and I’ll be able to deliver it to you on schedule.’ That’s why I say it’s a two-way street.
A skill set that includes project management know-how is important for all knowledge workers rather than for just a select few. These knowledge workers will be able to effectively communicate with executives, informing them of whether or not expectations are realistic given desired timelines, and in so doing improve the odds of getting projects done on time and on budget.