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Industry based challenges for project managers

Ammar Naqvi
July 30, 2015

Public, private and non-government enterprises are all project-managed now or adapting fast toward project management best practices globally. The performance of project managers, in lieu of their cumulative identity as members of professional associations such as the Project Management Institute (PMI), needs to remain in the limelight.

On one hand, a performance at par is acknowledged at wide. On the other hand, an underperformer starts a debate not only about oneself as a practitioner but, in a less project management friendly environment, towards the entire project management practice.

A case in hand is my personal experience with a multinational organisation in the telecommunications industry. The firm was founded with the merger of two large European pioneers of the telecom industry. The firm’s Middle East Asia office formed project teams in the earlier years of the last decade. The executive management had combined two significant pools of resources that were project/program managers and technical resources such as engineers and technical architects in a strongly projectised setup.

Besides these, the teams had support functions such as cost accounting, logistics, administration, procurement and dedicated seasoned sales personnel for each project. Each large project earned by the sales team was assigned a separate dedicated project team with an independent pool of resources borrowed from across the regional countries’ organisations.

An executive manager from this company shared his experience about recruitment of project managers across the region. According to him, project managers from a pure project management background fell short of organisational expectations.

Also, at times, these project managers were not able to impress the clients either. Being part of the firm, I had closely watched the organisational happenings for a few years. Here I reflect upon this premise about project management performance, and here I break it down to comprehend and share the experience with readers.

The teams of project managers were each looking after an individual project under the umbrella of a program. Program managers, for projects of a similar nature, were designated to report to project directors. Project directors or program managers were assigned on the basis of project size.

The executive regional management did initial recruitment of project managers from non-telecom backgrounds. This brand of project managers did not have a technical background considered essential to the telecom industry. The performance evaluated was based not only on customer satisfaction but also on the capability to drive technical teams in a purely technical environment.

In fact, each project had technical leads responsible for their respective technical areas. Even then, the firm’s executive management had the impression that project managers who were not technically literate fell short of the expected mark.

In my opinion, this image was cast largely due to three aspects. First, project managers were evaluated for specific the industry background they lacked rather than solely on their deliverables. Secondly, individual project managers were then assessed on how they performed while tailoring the science and art that we call project management practice, with respect to the specific industry and environment. Lastly, the home
market region of project managers differed in corporate culture to Middle East Asia.

After the startup, the organisation made an effort towards betterment using 360° feedback from peers, bosses, clients, business partners and subordinates. Executive management reshaped the project management layer of the project organisation deputed for individual regional projects with new project management recruits. This time around, project managers were brought onboard from hardcore telecom backgrounds and a lot of them were from the same region.

The forthcoming cycle of project performance was far more encouraging. It even dispelled the image cast in previous rounds of under par performance. On the face value of the sequence of events, the conclusion across the board was that the project managers from the telecom industry outperformed the project managers with no telecom background. No one can dispute the authority of experience from the same industry. However, this needs a deeper analysis rather than the shallow conclusion based on the three aspects already highlighted.

How technical should project managers be?

It is worth highlighting the first aspect, that a project manager is surely not responsible in his or her personal capacity for technical details. Of course a project manager is responsible for both the deliverable and its quality. A project manager is supposed to execute the deliverable as it is planned, through available technical resources. At the same time, a technical riddle may not be under a project manager’s sole ownership. Rather, the project manager may set the direction or help resources find a solution or alternates for the riddle in question.

The second aspect raises the ability of project managers to assimilate to the specific industry and its underlying requirements. It is attainable, keeping in view the flexibility offered by the Project Management Body of Knowledge framework. A milestone with a summary schedule may suffice for a social sector’s primary school project. However, this milestone schedule may not satisfy the complexities involved in engineering deliverables. Rather, a detailed schedule with logical relations and interdependencies need to be grasped for engineering deliverables.

The third and last aspect is of corporate culture and the business environment giving rise to difference in attitudes from region to region, even in the same industry. The initiation of a project can be an email note from the CEO in an African country. This is in contrast to the highly structured requirement of a project charter, identifying stakeholders and their expectations leading up to a scope of work for project initiation in a project managed environment.

In its endeavour to promote and signify project management practices, PMI alone is not expected to achieve the end goal. Project managers are expected to come up with flexible project management models tailored to the needs of individual industries and particular regions.

The project management community has a big responsibility to gain acceptance by traditional corporate enterprises. With the evolution of project management across the globe, the corporate acceptance of project management practice is deemed to be the way going forward.

Ammar Naqvi
Ammar Naqvi is an engineering graduate matured to a project management practitioner working as a telecom professional who has witnessed the telecom industry revitalise in the past decade. He has worked on three continents, Asia, Africa and Europe. [Contact Ammar]
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2 thoughts on “Industry based challenges for project managers

  1. The article is very nicely described the case study. in that case, what I think is, the role of the of the project managers were more than to manage the project, rather it required the involvement of PM in technical aspects. In an ideal environment, where technical decisions are made by the functional managers, rather than PM, it is possible for PM to me non technical.

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