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How behavioural competency can affect your project

Stephen Burnell
June 30, 2011

This is the first in a series of articles that will explore how project manager specific behavioural competency can have a tangible impact on the effectiveness of project delivery.

This series will provide detail on the specific behaviours that are common to superior project managers across industries. Most organisations do not possess the right tools and experience to objectively measure their project managers’ behavioural capability however, using a more scientific approach, we can make a tangible connection between behavioural capability and improved project effectiveness.

Choosing the right driver

Each year Ferrari reportedly spends close to $500 million on its Formula 1 operations, including more than $100 million on testing alone. As far as the car is concerned, every box that can be ticked has been ticked.

Now consider this. Rather than putting Fernando Alonso in the cockpit, they instead let me drive in the Melbourne Grand Prix. I have a clean Australian driving licence, I am physically able, I am a go-karting enthusiast and I know the Albert Park track like the back of my hand. On paper I’m a decent candidate.

The truth is it would be a disaster. Not to suggest that I couldn’t drive the car. It’s only a car, after all. More that successful Formula 1 drivers need a combination of the right technical skills, the right race strategy, motivation, respect for their car, team and their opponents, and a complete lack of fear!

I would accelerate away with childish abandon, and crash out at the first corner. No strategy. No podium celebration with French champagne. No luxury yachts in Monaco. Oh, and maybe a tiny bit of negative publicity for an iconic global brand??

We all know that this is an extreme example. Ferrari would never consider making such a decision, because it lacks common sense. There wouldn’t be a lot that they don’t know about their driver’s technical skills and behavioural capability, before they allow them to take the reins of their half-billion-dollar investment. So why, when it comes to everyday project management, where the size of investments can also run into the tens and hundreds of millions of dollars, is the same level of due diligence not applied?

People and investments

How much do you really know about the people chosen to deliver returns on your project investments? Ask a room full of business leaders, and a majority will tell you that project management certification and tenure are only tickets to the game.

Put simply, project managers with the same qualifications and same number of years experience can produce vastly different results. The new frontier of thinking around successful project delivery is that project manager behaviour is a key driver of project effectiveness.

Just like the Ferrari example, it is common sense that the way in which project managers use the tools at their disposal will significantly influence project success or failure. There is also a wealth of research which supports this argument (including the pivotal 2007 PMO Executive Council study Attributes of a High Performing Project Manager). Governance, process and systems are important, no doubt, but they need the right driver.

So why are a majority of decisions still made on the technical skills of project management? Knowledge of the ‘technical’ aspects of project management (scope, risk, budget management etc) is traditionally seen as straightforward to assess. There are numerous frameworks and accreditations available through the various industry bodies that provide black and white information with right and wrong answers.

However, when it comes to assessing and developing behavioural capability, we typically rely on subjective opinions of the untrained eye. This is fraught with danger and can lead to decisions being made that benefit neither the organisation nor the individual.

Stephen Burnell
Stephen Burnell is the managing director of Touchstone Projects, a project management capability consulting company that integrates behavioural science with established project methodology to create a suite of tools to lift project delivery capability. He has international experience in talent management, and has consulted to some of Australia's leading organisations on their approach to the assessment, selection and development of their people.
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