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A project management paradigm shift

Neveen Moussa
May 12, 2011

If, like me, you occasionally browse through project management job advertisements then you may have come across descriptions like this: This is not a job for a candidate who has had some exposure to tunnelling projects but rather the perfect role for a tunnelling expert who has only focused on tunnels for the last 20+ years.

Despite the continued focus on the leadership and business skills of project managers in project management competency standards and frameworks, a fatal assumption prevails in recruitment efforts that only an individual who understands the technical aspects of a particular discipline can successfully run a project delivering that technical work.

A lot of project owners will focus on selecting such technical experts to lead their projects. For the smaller projects it might be relevant, but on larger projects the key attributes are the relationship-building skills, leadership, and managing people—particularly stakeholders—and an understanding of the business and community needs.

Technical people do not always think business. What makes a good technical person achieve in their technical discipline does not always make a good project manager; mostly they tend to focus on technical excellence and overlook time and budgetary constraints and stakeholder issues.

With pressures on companies in the current environment resulting in higher scrutiny by stakeholders and increasingly tighter margins, the main focus of project management has shifted from the achievement of the ultimate project objective.

Once, project outcomes were defined by the stage where the design was frozen, the asset built and performance tested to specifications. Now, projects must remain aligned to the broader strategic, business and operational objectives of the owner and stakeholders. Project success and outcomes are described in business benefit terms that are measurable and linked to key performance indicators.

The continued skill shortage in professional staff that prevails despite the economic downturn places further emphasis on the necessary skills of staff selection, role identification, team building, communication, motivation and team leadership. While an understanding of the scope of work is necessary, it’s managing people and managing business expectations that sets good project managers apart. The general business acumen that is required to manage large projects does not always stem from a technical background.

Today’s project manager is no longer the technical expert delivering a technical solution as per specification, or managing the basic aspects of planning, scheduling, controlling cost, and resource allocation. To undertake projects today, the project manager is expected to possess a mix of technical, business planning, leadership, commercial, and delivery skills.

Project management competencies are becoming more about delivering best value outcomes, allowing real benefit realisation and the best possible returns within the constraints of scare resources, tighter budgets and time frames, higher expectations, higher market uncertainties, and the need to achieve more with less.

A new breed of project manager is continuously evolving and project management is becoming a key element in strategy implementation, investment decisions and portfolio prioritisation and selection. Understanding these trends in project management and reflecting them in job descriptions and selection criteria is the next paradigm shift this fine profession needs.

Neveen Moussa
Dr Moussa is a principal at global consulting firm Sinclair Knight Merz and an Adjunct Professor of Project Management at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology and Queensland University of Technology. She is a past National President, and current Fellow of the Australian Institute of Project Management.
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