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So You Think You Want to be a Project Manager?

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Super_Agile_PMI ran across an online discussion recently that posed the question: What would make you quit your job as a project manager? What would make someone not want to be a project manager?

As I considered this, it didn’t take long for things to come to mind. I got to thinking about my students’ and colleagues’ experiences with absent, disinterested, or unsupportive sponsors. I hear this a lot. If you felt like you weren’t supported by a sponsor, that would surely make you want to do something other than project management.

Then I got to thinking about the statistics I had seen reporting on the rates of project success. I couldn’t remember what I had read exactly, but I seemed to remember that they weren’t so good. When I spent a little time digging around for project success rates, I was right. It’s not good. Some of the numbers I found include:

  • 75% of project participants lack confidence that their projects will succeed (Geneca 2010-2011).
  • 17% of large IT projects go so badly they threaten the very existence of the organization. McKinsey & Company in conjunction with the University of Oxford
  • According to various CHAOS reports from the Standish Group, success rates for projects are somewhere in the mid-30% range.
  • A survey conducted by Ambysoft comparing the success rates of various development approaches, e.g., iterative, agile, traditional, etc., found that 64% of iterative projects were considered a success, while 50% of traditional projects, and about 48% of ad hoc projects were successful.
  • A typical failure rate I ran across that gets bandied about without reference is 40-70%.
  • The PMI® Pulse of the Profession reported in 2012 that 36% of projects do not meet their original goals and business intent, costing the US economy $120,000 for every $1,000,000 spent.

One could argue about the validity or meaning of these numbers, but when I tried to remember the last time I read something that heralded the overwhelming success rate of projects, nothing came to mind. Who would want to stay in a profession that gets such consistently negative press?

I also thought about what’s required to be a good project manager. If the practice standard in the discipline is any indication, it requires competence in 47 processes, as well as the ability to properly use the inputs and tools for each process to generate the necessary outputs.

Some tools aren’t so hard to use or understand, like meetings. But the tools required to be effective at dealing with people are considerably more daunting: negotiating, facilitating, problem-solving, partnering. You have to be competent at doing these with people who, as often as not, have conflicting agendas and political interests. After managing a project or two, I would think many project managers could easily come to the conclusion that they are cut out for some of the job, but not all of it.

The list of things that might send someone looking for a different line of work started to seem endless:

  • Team members with conflicting priorities who don’t report to us.
  • Vendors with hidden agendas working under contracts over which you have little control.
  • Being at the center of the maelstrom of competing interests with the impossible task of managing expectations and keeping issues at bay all while escorting the stakeholders and organization through the pain of changes brought about by the project with your name on it.

Honestly, project managers should augment their closets with a good inventory of red capes to wear into the office. It’s like the job description for a super hero. In fact, the more I thought about it, the less I wondered about why someone would leave project management and the more I wondered: Who signs up for this?!

Of course, there are as many answers as to what makes project management a great profession as there are reasons why you’d want to do something else. Delivering results that make an organization better, improving how stakeholders work or live, and always learning something new are a few of the reasons why I suspect most PMs wade through the tough times and stick around for the next project. 

On the days when you’re wondering why you put on the red cape, remember that being a project manager is a tall order. It requires a cornucopia of skills that few people have without a lot of practice and commitment to professional development.

To those who have the tenacity to work through the obstacles and see things through to the end, I say “good for them.” And good for the stakeholders who benefit from their effort.






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