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    Survival Skills For Accidental Project Managers

    According to the Project Management Institute or PMI, 11.4% of every dollar is wasted due to poor project performance

    Imagine this.

    You’re a bus driver and people are waiting for your bus to arrive. They need to go home after a tiring day in the office. It’s the final bus for that day. When you arrive at the bus stop, quickly you open up the door. Then you tell the passengers that you don’t have a driving license. Yet you tell them not to worry, you know how to drive this bus. In your opinion, will those passengers remain on the bus and take the risk? If I am one of the passengers, I will quickly step out. For me, the risk isn’t worth taking. There’s no way to know that I’ll be reaching home safely. I will never travel on your bus if you don’t have a driving license. Not in a million years.

    Now in a similar scenario, you are a manager. You’re entrusted to manage an organization in a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) world, but you don’t have any formal management training. What would be the chances for you to manage your organization successfully? Have you experienced the consequences of poor management skills?

    Let me tell you a true story. Back in the year 2000, I was a project manager responsible for the Instructional System Design for a multi-billion-ringgit New Generation Patrol Vessel (NGPV) project. I had formal training, certification, and experience in the Royal Malaysian Naval Training System (RMNTS). Since the NGPV contract specifically mentioned the requirement of RMNTS, I believed that I had the skills to manage the training project.

    Reality struck me hard when my boss suddenly gave me a very thick contract document. It has more than 1000 pages altogether. I realized that many terms and concepts in the contract document were new to me. I also realized that I needed to know more than just RMNTS to manage the training requirements of this NGPV mega project. I am glad I realized my project management competency gap very early in my project management career. This realization inspired me to embark on a learning journey to be a Project Management Professional (PMP) and Project Risk Management Professional (RMP) by Project Management Institute. 

    Quoting Darrel V in his Project Management Journal dated back in December 2010, his article titled ‘Demystifying the Folklore of the Accidental Project Managers in the Public Sector’ revealed that most project managers were selected based on their technical expertise and thus lacked the required competency to deliver a project. These untrained project managers are known as ‘Accidental Project Managers’.

    What are the implications of being an accidental project manager? 

    2020 Pulse of the Profession published by the Project Management Institute (PMI) highlighted that 11.4% of every dollar is wasted due to poor project performance. Well, that would be 114 million dollars for every 1 billion dollars invested. Besides financial loss, poorly managed projects often fail to achieve the desired objective causing frustration to the project owners and end users. Untrained project managers are among the reasons cited for project failure. Many of these project managers are not even aware of the existence of project management tools and techniques to enhance the probability of project success. As the saying goes, ‘If you don’t know what you don’t know, how do you know that you don’t know?’

    Project management professional bodies like Project Management Institute (PMI) have developed comprehensive guidelines for project management called Project Management Body of Knowledge. PMI also has a formal certification process for project managers. However, the reality is, very few project managers are taking this opportunity to attend formal training and certification programs before being assigned the role of project manager. 

    If you are an accidental project manager, here’s my advice. Take advantage of these 3 steps to navigate the complexity of managing your projects.

    Acknowledge that being a subject matter expert is not sufficient to manage a project.

    The first step is to realize your competency gap. As I shared earlier, I seriously thought with vast experience, formal training, and skills accumulated during my stint at the Royal Malaysian Navy, I can handle the Instructional System Design for the multi-billion-ringgit New Generation Patrol Vessel (NGPV) project. Indeed, I was wrong. The 1,000 pages contract handed to me by my superior indirectly sparked me that the project was beyond my capability. I also realized that I needed to know more than RMNTS to manage the training requirements of the NGPV mega project.

    Meetings with more experienced project managers especially with our consultants from Scientific Management Associates Melbourne, Australia helped me to understand my project management competency gap. I bought my first book on Project Management titled ‘Mastering Project Management by James Lewis in May 2000. This book and the guidance from more experienced project managers were my survival guide to managing the project. I learned my lesson the hard way.

    Be an avid learner.

    Realizing your competency gap is the first step in learning. As the saying goes, the teacher will appear when the student is ready. Besides the book by James Lewis, every project management meeting and interaction with project managers was an amazing learning experience. My pre-meeting preparations included reading contract documents involving the new body of knowledge in the field of project management such as finance, legal, and procurement. The pre-meeting preparation was a great platform to learn from other professionals like lawyers, engineers, and accountants. These meetings helped me realize that project management is a multidisciplinary field. 

    I was lucky to be introduced to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) in the early stage of my project management career. Some of the learning experience was unpleasant. At times, learning happened in the form of scolding, shouting, and blaming. After all, good medicines hardly taste good. NGPV project provided me with the opportunity to attend meetings and negotiations with representatives from Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEM) from more than 20 countries. I also had the privilege to work with and learn from very experienced project managers during my attachment at Blohm + Voss in Hamburg, Germany. The informal learning experience was very valuable.

    Professional Certification.

    Even though hands-on project experience, reading project management books, and learning from experienced project managers are valuable, formal certification will provide you with the professional recognition required to perform the role effectively. I was lucky to have supportive bosses who realized the benefits of the project management certification. I obtained my Project Management Professional (PMP) certificate in 2008 and PMI-Risk Management Professional certificate in 2011. Preparation for these exams was tough, yet it allowed me to learn everything about project management in a very structured manner.

    Project Management Skills: Why does it matter to you?

    Now you know that accidental project managers may not survive long if they cannot acknowledge their competency gap. Why does it matter to you? Many people manage projects even without realizing it. In a mega project, we have dedicated job titles as project managers. However, almost everyone is a project manager. Let’s explore the definition of a project by the Project  Management Institute (PMI).

    A project is a ‘temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique project service or result. A project is usually deemed to be a success if it achieves the objectives according to its acceptance criteria, within an agreed timescale and budget. Among the key characteristics of a project are:

    • Every project is unique.
    • Projects are temporary activities.
    • The project is a process of working to achieve a goal.
    • The Project is not continuous or something that keeps on happening.
    • Multiple resources from internal and external organizations are involved in the projects which require close coordination.
    • Projects involve unfamiliarity

    Considering these characteristics, what seems to be routine activities like managing a marketing campaign is a project. In fact, life is a project. Our date of birth is the start date, the date of death is the end date, and our contribution is the quality and scope of the project called life. Thus, every one of us is a project manager. Some project managers are lucky to be trained in project management.

    However, there are too many accidental project managers. I must thank my lucky star and supportive organization for the learning experience to be a project manager. 

    No matter what your project is, the project management competency gap is a major barrier to success. These 3 steps were valuable for me to navigate the complexity of project management. I believe, the combination of both formal and informal learning experiences will certainly bridge that competency gap in your favor. Contrary to common belief, project management does not have to be stressful. You can easily reduce the constant ‘fire-fighting’ if you learn and apply the well-established project management tools and techniques. Continuous learning is a must.

    So, if you think that you are an accidental project manager, don’t tell anyone yet. Quickly acquire the skills needed and formalize them with certification. You will notice that your project results will speak for your credibility, showcasing to the world that you are indeed a professional and not an accidental hero.

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    Major Dr. J. Prebagaran (R) is a passionate Learning Experience Designer who helps people to be inspired learners for personal and professional growth. He is currently the CEO of SMC Trainers Malaysia and a Post-Doctoral Fellow at UTM in the field of Learning Effectiveness. Major Praba was responsible for the competency development and Technology Transfer of the Multi-Billion Ringgit New Generation Patrol Vessel Crew from 2000-2014. His hands-on experience in this mega project is a great asset to creating impactful learning. He is a project management practitioner with Project Management Professional and Risk Management Professional qualifications from Project Management Institute.

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