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Jan Underdown – Project Manager Interview

Jan Underdown Jan Underdown

Published: 14th February 2022

Recently I had the opportunity to speak to Jan Underdown, one of the Associates and a Project Management trainer with Parallel Project Training. She told me something of her background, how she got into project management and some of her thoughts on what skills are important for a project manager.


Jan has over 20 years’ experience in project and change management via consultancy, training and education, having started her career within human resource management in the hospitality industry during the eighties.  During this time Jan developed, implemented and managed Trainee Management Programmes for the De Vere Group of hotels.
Jan’s project management career evolved through managing the development and implementation of EN ISO9001 Quality Management standards across a wide variety of business sectors including Ports Authorities and Chambers of Commerce, and also in Education.  Jan developed and managed the Dorset Quality Club which assisted several SMEs in gaining relevant accreditations.  Her main interest being the implementation of standards within the service sector with emphasis on Total Quality Management and Customer Service.
Building upon her experience, Jan is very keen on the development of governance structures and processes that effectively support Portfolio, Programme and Project Management environments enabling the implementation of organisation’s strategic change initiatives.  The key being the development of knowledge, competencies and behaviours that enable teams and individuals to perform effectively and meet their objectives.  Jan is currently working with high profile international  and national NGOs enabling the development of their P3M3 capability through the utilisation of tools and techniques that support best practice  via facilitated workshops, coaching and mentoring.

How long have you been working in project management?

Over 20 years but, in the early days, much of my work was not described as projects but assignments.  I started to realise that what I was doing was project management when I joined Park Place Training, the directors of which were originally employed by Hoskins, one of the leading project management training providers at that time.  Ken Bradley who founded SPOCE was one of the directors of Park Place Training.

Was project management a specific career choice or did you progress into it from a different role?

My original career choice was to become a lawyer, but circumstances dictated otherwise and I drifted from one career to another, looking for something that would provide the challenge, the constant learning experience and the interest that would get me up in the morning!  During later studies I wrote a dissertation on Total Quality Management and quality standards applied within the service sector.  The thinking back then was that quality approaches/standards could only be applied to manufacturing/engineering organisations as they produced a tangible product.  At this point I had to choose between a PhD or setting up my own business. I chose the latter and Southern Quality Services and my project management career were born.

When did you begin training others in project management?

When I joined Park Place Training in 1991, training PRINCE before it became PRINCE2.  We used to carry around a boxed set of four manuals and armfuls of acetates.  I was involved in developing and delivering a range of project management workshops, focussed on customer business requirements.  This was before project management qualifications were well established, and programme management hadn’t really been heard of.  During that period, I carried out a range of consultancy assignments focussed on the design and implementation of business management systems.

Have you seen the project management profession change over the past 10 years?

Absolutely!  The first qualifications were launched in 1996 with PRINCE2 and the Association for Project Management APMP, which I felt marked the first steps in the development of project management becoming a profession.  We then saw years of organisations trawling their people through these qualifications, expecting their investment in training to be realised on their bottom line; and those having gained the qualification claiming to be fully-fledged project managers.  As we know, training is only one part of the story in the development of competent project managers.
Over the past few years, more focussed qualifications have become available which has provided clearer understanding around programme, portfolio, benefits, risk and change management.  The future project manager will have to have a working knowledge around all of these disciplines to become a well-rounded professional.
The emphasis is now on application of knowledge and gaining practical experience, together with emotional competence.  Organisations are looking for a more rounded individual who can deliver a range of initiatives in an increasingly complex world.

How do you see the project management profession evolving in the future?

There are two aspects to this; the individual and the organisation.  The individual will have to be responsible for their own career development as few organisations provide a project management career path.  Individuals need to develop a portfolio of project management experience and gain the relevant qualifications to provide evidence of their competence and actively look for emerging opportunities.  The APM’s Registered Project Professional (RPP) provides an excellent standard to aim for and Parallel are well placed to provide support for this.
Organisations on the other hand need to develop more competence and capability in house to be able to deliver the required projects that enable the strategic changes desired.  They will develop their portfolio, programme and project framework structures and then identify the competence required to effectively deliver different levels of complex initiatives.  They will have clear governance structures, clear line of sight and effective information management and reporting strategies, which will enable good decision making.  In effect, they need to build the career path we mentioned earlier, providing opportunities for their aspirant workforce, with excellent coaching and mentoring support.  Recently the APM launched their Project Management Apprenticeship scheme, which is a good start.

What has been your greatest project success story?

The one that springs to mind was a small project but it had a huge impact on the organisation involved.  This was a Dorset engineering company, providing services and products to a large Midlands based manufacturing company.  Over 70% of their turnover was provided by this customer, who one day threatened to withdraw their business if the quality of their output didn’t achieve zero defects within six months.  The level of defects at that stage was very high.  The project scope included a complete review of their management and production processes to identify opportunities for improvement and also to achieve ISO9001.
With the commitment of the entire workforce this was all achieved within the timescale and their customer was delighted.  They provided more business opportunities by investing in new processes and plant, which extended their business scope and much needed capacity.  The Dorset based company went on to achieve industry based awards.

What, in your opinion, is the determining factor in the success of a project?

It is people that make projects happen.  Ensuring that each member of the governance structure understands their roles and responsibilities and having real commitment to the success of the project.   Applying effective management of stakeholders and really understanding their concerns and providing appropriate communication.  Changing a blocker to an active backer who champions a project can be quite satisfying.  The development of the project management team through learning and experience within the project environment.  Really understanding the team member and their place within the team, and providing focus on the task in hand.

What are your favourite project management tools and why?

The APM Competence Framework.  Its structure covers the technical, behavioural and contextual competence elements of project management and can be applied to all levels of project management personnel.  Each of the elements is broken down into topic areas which detail a range of indicators, focussed on knowledge and experience.
This was launched in 2008 and I was involved in the development of an online tool that could assess the competence of an individual, providing 360o analysis.  The tool provided each candidate with a learning programme designed to enable them to ‘fill the gaps’ to achieve their desired level of competence.  The tool could also provide analysis of groups of individuals, and we used the results to benchmark the organisation.
This tool is very flexible and can be tailored to reflect the target organisation’s business context and level of project management maturity.  We have also done work to apply the competence framework elements to support programme and project support personnel.
Being familiar with other competence frameworks, the APM is currently head and shoulders above the rest.

Is there a certain type of person best suited to project management?

Good question.  You could turn this around and state that certain types of projects would suit different people.  We have carried out development work and have identified that the more complex the project, the more the project manager has to be a competent and accomplished leader.  Most people have project management elements within their day to day work (although they may not be called projects) and project management is becoming a key competence of all managers as changes within the business world continue to pick up pace.
Personal attributes that we look for are ‘can do’ attitudes, high energy, flexibility, good communication skills, client focus, self-motivation, resilience, not afraid to make unpopular decisions, able to manage conflict and so on.  We can teach the tools and techniques that support project management, and to some degree make people aware of the behavioural aspects, but I still feel that project managers are born, not made.  You have to want to do it.

Can you give us an example of the benefits have you seen in organisations that have improved their project management framework?

I have seen a range of project management frameworks applied in many different organisations, providing varying degrees of benefits.  Appropriate application of a project management framework can provide organisations with a ‘clear line of sight’ ensuring that each project is supporting their strategy; each project investment is justified via its business case; providing levels of governance and accountability; providing information on project status and early warning indicators; ensuring that there is a clear beginning, middle and end of a project lifecycle.  Frameworks can provide an individual with support, knowledge, understanding and confidence and can be quite empowering, knowing that they are doing the rights things, at the right time, in the right way.
Thanks to Jan for taking the time to share some of her insights into the project management profession. She makes an interesting point that project managers are born not made – do you agree with her? Why not let us know and share your own thoughts…

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