Every business has projects even if the management is aware of them or not. This is so because every business is facing complex change and the adaptive effort required is normally organized as a project. Simply put every business has operations (this is the part that generates value for its customers) and a development part (this is the part that creates value generation capability). Most companies, most of the time do very well with operations because of their repetitive and therefore more predictable nature. Operations seem to be more tangible and structured normally run by a set of very well-defined KPIs.
It is the development side of the business that poses more interesting challenges. The development is driven by projects, programs, and portfolios which are normally assigned for execution to project and program managers. There are two fundamental approaches towards the execution of projects – you can assign project work to your operations people or to a dedicated/ professional project manager. While both of these could be a viable options, in this article I will share three situations when you may need the help of a professional project manager vs. a regular employee from operations. Let’s dive right into it.
#1 – Project complexity is high
Project management is a high failure industry. Numerous studies show that more than 70% of the projects fail. Once a project exceeds a certain complexity level, the only way to increase your chances of success is to assign that project to a professional project manager. What is considered a “complex project” may vary significantly from company to company but some of the main complexity drivers of a project are:
- Project scope value – This is perhaps the most reliable complexity driver. Projects are investments and the size of the investment determines their importance and complexity. Are you building a house (250K EUR) or a shared service center for 100 employees (several million EUR).
- Single function project vs. Cross-functional projects – As a rule of thumb if the project involves more than one function (cross-functional), it is a good idea to assign that to a professional end to end project manager. For example, if the project is about improving a single process within the finance function you may assign that to a non-professional project manager, say a capable senior accountant within that function. However, if you are implementing a company-level payroll optimization project, this is likely to affect more than one business function e.g. finance and human resources. In this second case hiring a professional project manager is a better option.
- Single geography project vs. Global projects (multi-geo) – Coordinating multiple project teams across different time zones is more complex than managing a colocated team. Global project management requires better planning and stronger communication skills. This is why if you intend to kick off a project that will impact multiple locations it is a good idea to hire a professional project manager.
#2 – Project performance is critical
To put it quite simply, professional project managers perform better than operations folks. The performance here means that you should expect that a professional project manager can work on more projects simultaneously and have a higher chance for project success. If project performance is essential for the business then going for dedicated project managers is a must. This is relevant for situations when you prefer to work with a lower number of people on the payroll, you do not have time to “develop” the resources so that they can grow into the role or when you have urgent projects to deliver and mistakes are not an option.
There are two main reasons why professional project managers perform better
- Methodology, Knowledge, Tools – All professional project managers are certified in one or several project management methodologies (PMP, PRINCE 2, IPMA, SCRUM). I think about these as martial arts of some sort. Each methodology is normally associated with previous proven practical experience, a specific body of knowledge (e.g. PMBOK by PMI), and specific tools. All this gives the professional project manager an edge over a regular subject matter expert.
- Project experience – Professional project managers normally do only project work, which means that they tend to accumulate significant project experience in comparison to a subject matter expert from operations who does functional work as well (operations) and projects constitute a small fraction of their experience. As we all know there are some things that you only discover through practice, things that are not in the books – it is precisely in this domain that a project manager with significant practical experience excels. Another very important aspect of project experience is the ability to “tailor” a methodology to a specific project. Tailoring is one of the most important project management skills and it can be developed only through application. Tailoring basically means the ability to adjust your project approach to the complexity of the project by selecting what level of documentation should be maintained and the overall granularity and rigor of the approach. Being a certified project manager is not a big deal. When we first get our driving license we are not professional drivers – we become a better driver by driving and being exposed to different situations.
#3 – Special projects that require strong personal skills
Not all projects are the same and some are clearly more complex and challenging than others. In point #1 we discussed the main complexity drivers and we said that for more complex projects it is recommended to hire a professional project manager. A complex project normally requires a comprehensive personal skillset as well. There are three specific aspects that I would like to highlight here.
- Leadership – Professional project managers are normally good leaders. They cultivate that skill because they operate in an environment where they have to convince their teams to deliver when they do not have a formal line-level hierarchical authority over them. Operations managers generally are used to the convenience of hierarchy and when put in an environment where they are not formally in charge they feel out of place.
- Ability to establish a productive relationship – Generally speaking, professional project managers have cultivated a skill to quickly establish productive professional relationships. This is a natural consequence of having worked on a large number of projects and therefore integrating within many different teams. This is especially valuable when working in a cross-functional environment (e.g. teams within different functions that have never worked together or traditionally “do not like each other”). Another critical aspect is the ability of the project manager to “face” a client. If the project has a client-facing component then the ability to establish trust as early as possible is fundamental.
- Mental toughness – Complex projects are difficult and each project poses a unique set of issues. Generally speaking, professional project managers are used to that. Subject matter experts are exposed to less stress due to the repetitive nature of operations. This is like driving a car. If you drive a car several days straight – this feels quite tiring. However, projects feel like learning how to drive a car every week, because every project is different and has a unique set of challenges. Mental toughness is developed through gradual exposure and adaptation. This is not something that you can read in a book. It becomes part of your character as you do the job. This is especially relevant in areas like handling conflict, escalations, working long hours in a row/ during weekends, spending time away from family, etc.
Professional project managers are expensive resources and their utilization should be managed intelligently. It is very difficult to recruit, develop, and retain them. This is why many companies have hybrid project management teams. They have a core team of project managers on their payroll and during times of transformation or intensive project work they hire senior project managers temporarily to augment their development efforts. Flow logic project management practice maintains a team of top-of-the-range project professionals that can be hired on a need-to-have basis.