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There Are Project Managers and There Are Project Managers

Paul Naybour Paul Naybour

Published: 10th November 2011

There is a wealth of information, advice, articles and blogs out there about the emerging profession of project management and these all, invariably, refer to project managers as if they were one breed. There is little distinction between the industry the project managers work in, or the levels of complexity in the projects they manage. And yet some types of projects are considerably more difficult to manage successfully than others.

One of the reasons that all sorts of project managers, in very different fields, are all classified together under one title is that fundamentally they are all doing the same job even if the details of what they do are very, very different. They all deliver something a customer wants by planning and managing a series of tasks aimed at delivering the product within a specified time and for a specified budget.

But, of course, the first point to recognise is that not every “product” is a physical thing. Some projects are established in order to change the processes by which a certain task is achieved (didn’t that use to be called Business Process Re-engineering?) or to enable a service to be provided more efficiently, or to move premises for a large organisation.
These types of project are very different from those that deliver a recognisable product such as a new technology gadget or a new building, which are again different from projects delivering a less tangible product such as new software.

So a project manager may be very successful in delivering simple projects in, let’s say, the manufacturing industry but may not be able to transfer those skills successfully to complex software development.

So what are some of the factors that distinguish a simple project from a complex project?

Financial Impact – Projects with a large budget will be inherently more complex because of the higher costs involved. Simple projects usually have relatively small budgets controlled and contained within a small department or division of a company.

Number of different departments, divisions or companies involved – A project being undertaken in-house by one department is likely to be a simple task. Whereas a project that involves deliverables from a number of different departments or companies will have interdependencies that generate complexity.

Legal or Environmental Implications – Projects with a significant impact legally or environmentally, the stakes are higher and so, consequently, is the complexity. There will be more requirements to satisfy, beyond the business requirements, than in a project with no such implications.

Range of Stakeholders – Any project with one or two stakeholders, with equivalent aims, is likely to be simple. Where many stakeholders exist, particularly where their aims may be competing, the project is bound to be complex, such as projects designed for a large community, a broad spectrum of users, or even a country.

It seems obvious then that the label of “project manager” can represent individuals with a wide range of different skills, training and experience. So how can a potential employer know that an experienced project manager actually has the right experience? How can they compare 10 years of experience managing simple projects with 3 years on complex projects? Fortunately the major project management associations have increasingly recognised the need for professional credentials that certify project management expertise at all skill levels.  Project management training is available for entry level qualifications such as the APM Introductory Certificate right through to the highest level credentials such as the Association for Project Management Registered Project Professional (APM RPP).

  1. Dora says:

    Thanks for pointing out that not all project managers are the same. However, I do think that you use the same skills no matter what size the project is. You also do not mention the differences between a PM with one project to manage, and a PM with multiple projects on the go at once. At any rate, any project manager can be helped with a good Task Management program, such as Clarizen > A good task management program should be flexible enough to handle a simple project or a complex one, exactly like a good project manager.

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