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Popular Opinion Says Project Managers Lack Basic Skills

What’s the most common mistake that project managers make? The responses of 78 professionals who answered that question through my LinkedIn poll surprised me. I expected, maybe idealistically, that miscalculating project risks would top the list. However, after categorizing the responses according to the nine PMBOK knowledge areas (integration, scope, time, cost, risk, HR, quality, communications, and procurement), the tally was that communications and quality management cause 48% of the most common project manager mistakes. Add scope management and the total became 65%. (Click here to see the analysis and responses.) This is good and bad news. The bad news is that project managers appear to lack basic skills like communications, quality and scope management or technical know-how. However, the good news is that the right training can remedy these deficiencies.

 

A common response was that project managers lack technical expertise. 22% of poll respondents cited it as a major source of serious project manager mistakes. It makes sense: Would anyone expect a project manager who successfully builds bridges to competently deliver a complex software project? Would it be a surprise if a project manager who deploys large-scale fiber optics networks failed when restructuring an accounting-system for a multi-national corporation? Neil H., a software expert from the UK, said that “the role of a PM is a collision of several very differing disciplines, and quite often a PM is hired (by less than technical leaders/managers etc. who have no ability to judge whether they are suitable or not) for their administrative abilities way over their technical knowhow or understanding”. Silvio B., a video engineer from Italy commented that “some PMs lack or underestimate the knowledge of everyday work”. David M., Operations Manager from the US, added that the responsibility to identify the project manager’s level of expertise lies with the boss and that it is hard to find a PM that has “the charisma of a salesman and the analytical skill set of an engineer.” Organizations often choose between training a skilled project manager with technical expertise and training a technical expert to become a project manager. There are countless factors that influence the best choice, but a successful decision should mitigate the gaps with the appropriate training to create knowledge and skills.

 

To state the obvious: project managers require project management expertise. 23% of responses cited project communications errors as a major source of serious project manager mistakes. Darlene S. a Project Coordinator from Canada said that a common error is “assuming instead of confirming that communications are clear to all the project team and/or stakeholders”. Seamus O., a Director from Ireland, says that “it is important to spend the time early on with the stakeholders to get their buy in.” A lack of communications and buy-in is a common thread through the responses. Scope management is the next-largest project manager failure. According to the poll, 18% of serious mistakes originate from scope assumptions, lost focus, and scope creep. There is no PMBOK knowledge area that was not a source of big project manager mistakes, even though budgeting and procurement were the least blamed.

 

However an organization decides to bridge the knowledge gap, it is critical to provide the right training to create job skills. Adrian D., a project management Fellow from the UK emphasized the point. He said: “They had all been on the basic courses and knew what they should have done.” Ineffectual training can provides poor return on investment, particularly if it creates false confidence rather than real skill. For example, a project manager who memorized formulas to calculate earned value may have no idea how to use them to mitigate a budget overrun on a real project. On the other hand, on-the-job training is usually very effective because a project manager learns while solving project problems with immediate feedback from a mentor. In this example, a project manager may not know the textbook-definition of “schedule float” but practice the concept to calculate the critical path and to avoid schedule mistakes.

 

Assuming that the opinion of 78 professionals accurately reflects reality, then the solution to big project manager mistakes can be solved with diligent training. Imagine if the most common sources of mistakes were risk and uncertainty–it would be difficult to change it. Luckily, good professional development programs with on-the-job training and formal classroom education could improve project manager performance. To end with a famous quote: “If you think training is expensive, try ignorance!”

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