No, a patent does not make your engineer a Project Manager!

I love being a Project Manager!  My wife is always amazed at how much I enjoy Monday’s or how I come home from 9-10hrs of work and start reading about PM best practices.  “Don’t you get enough?’ she asks me.  With this great excitement and appreciation for the PM discipline, also comes great frustration.  The misconceptions as to the value that project management brings to an organization, their role in the organization, and who should lead projects gets me burned up.  There are a lot of great posts on the characteristics of a PM, so this is not going to be a top 10 list of great PM traits (some links below for that).  Instead, I want to discuss the practice of taking a strong developer or engineer and turning them into a PM… “the accidental PM”.

Before I get into my rant, I mean post, here is the video of the week…ever wonder how some folks got their job?

Through the years, I have seen phenomenal developers take on a project management role and then watched the project tank.  All to often, I see wonderful communicators and very smart people take on an initiative and watch as it never gets off the ground or a project gets spun off to fix the last mess.  I think there are three key factors that cause failures of this sort…

  1. Lack of Awareness: Many corporate executives aren’t aware of the role a project manager plays.  Many organizations view the PM as a task master to track dates and provide a status update.  They aren’t seeing the PM as someone that manages people (maybe not from a functional perspective), resolves conflicts, negotiates with internal & external resources, manages a budgets, and balances between technical/business/legal/etc facets of the project life cycle.  In turn, I don’t believe the majority of organizations are giving the PM sufficient authority to make decisions in order to keep their projects within budget, on-time, etc.  I have seen it countless times…a functional member of the team feels their request deserves some fast-track approval and lobbies their managers help.  A meeting happens over lunch or golf and I am getting a phone call that something needs to change.  Often times I can share some of the concerns and risks as to why we need to go through the ‘approved’ change request process so everyone can way in on how it affects their respective functions, but not often enough.  Because of this lack of respect for the profession, we are often seeing a top performer turned into ‘accidental project manager’.
  2. Poor PM Assignments: Top performers should get a shot if they want to go down the road of Project Management, but they should be given the training to do so.  One of the biggest issues with taking your star developer and having them lead the Customer Interface Redesign Project is that they are too close to the work.  We see it all the time…job postings for an Infrastructure PM who needs to have 10 years of Network Engineering Experience and a PMP nice to have.  (PMP is an example…could be Prince2, Scrum Master, etc for all I care).  My point is that the lack of understanding from my first point bleeds into this space.  Does the developer for your Interface Redesign know what the business units want? Does he/she know what the competition is doing in this space?  Do they understand any legal ramifications of content they may post?  Do they know what Corporate Security will expect of the portal and encryption keys?  For your infrastructure project, does your Systems Engineer know legal aspects of what is required for SOX/HIPAA compliance?  Do they know what language version are need for software on the app server?  Okay, you get my point.  There is value in having someone with the background or aptitude in the product/service, but I am not convinced it is a must-have and certainly not the number 1 item on my list.
  3. Double Dipping: Not only is a functional superstar not trained to work across functions, their time and attention will naturally gravitate towards those activities in their comfort zone. I know this first hand.  I was in the Service & Support for years, so when I was assigned to develop a global PC deployment solutions I got way too deep in the process development efforts.  I became the SME on selecting the workflow tool, creating the workflow, identifying resource utilization rates, etc etc etc.  While my contributions in that space were valuable, that is not what I was hired to do.  I was the PM and should have been pushing on my client (internal business unit) to complete their requirements of the offering, working with our finance rep to complete the Unit of 1 P&L for the justification, and so on to get Executive sign-off of the Concept.

Doctors are very intelligent, but you would not see a Physician performing brain surgery.  A general attorney is tremendous at contracts, terms & conditions, and such but they probably wouldn’t lead the organization’s next big M & A transaction.  So why is it then that companies will spend millions of dollars in market research or process optimization (lean) to find the next great break through  or cost reduction strategy and then turn it over to ‘strong performer’?


Project Smart’s – The Top Five Project Management Traits to Master “the How”

PM Tip’s – 3 Part Series on Characteristics of a Project Manager 123

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4 thoughts on “No, a patent does not make your engineer a Project Manager!

  1. It is amazing how organizations can put people in a box…whether it is the entry point into the org and a set career path for that position or someone’s personality/skill-set from 5 years ago.

    As for my post, I do believe project managers grow from other roles…it is the assumption that it can happen without training or mentoring. Almost as though it is a personality and not a career.

    As for your friend, it is difficult not knowing the full situation…
    1) Are you in a position to help give your colleague a break as a project coordinator or such?
    2) Could his/her feelings of not ever being able to… be coming out in their confidence or ability to show they are capable of such a position?
    3) Unfortunately, some people need to move on from their organizations if it is simply not in the cards
    4) Lastly, besides yourself is there anyone that sees this potential. Have you made such an observation with colleagues and they agreed “Oh, you’re right – John/Jane would be a good PM”. Introducing them or trying to facilitate some networking may be able to help your friend.

    Elisabeth, thank you so much for your comments!

  2. This post strikes a chord within me. Mainly because it is my favourite rant. I absolutely agree with you.

    So here’s a question I have for you. Someone I know well, who I think would be an excellent Project Manager–I have seen him in action and he has the skill set down pat–told me that he could never be a Project Manager in his current organization “because I am not an Engineer.”


    I think this is absurd.

    What do you think?

  3. Raj:

    First off, thank you so much for taking the time to post a comment. I really do appreciate it!

    You are right, top performers need a shot being the manager/lead…that is how I got my start. I was a desktop technician and asked to run a department migration from Windows NT to XP, while migrating data to new hardware. But I was under the study of a Sr. Project Manager who I reported into almost daily and received great guidance from.

    Even more then that is the training. I did very well as a PM for so many years – as per customer reviews :) but it was based on raw talent (mostly softskills). It hasn’t been until the last few years where I got formal training on methodologies, tools, & techniques have I really started to optimize project resources and go beyond simple tracking and communicating.

    I agree with you 100%…a top performer is tried ad true, you know what you are getting, and they definitely understand the arena they are working in. However, without a strong development plan of a mentor and/or formal training classes then Jr PMs will never reach the full potential and complex projects have a greater risk of failure.

    Raj, thanks again and have an awesome day!


  4. Robert,

    A well written and thought-provoking post. I think a lack of understanding of a manager’s roles and responsibilities is the primary cause. It is common to hear jokes that developers or non-managers make about how easy it is to be a manager, that all we do is delegate. In a way, the best way for top performers or the likes to find out what it takes to be a manager, is to have them try it out and get their fingers burnt. How else can we weed out the rest? :-)

    Good post.

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