Roberts & Roberts Associates


Lon Roberts, Ph.D.

Champions of project management often laud the profession by recounting the visible accomplishments of mankind throughout history: the Egyptian pyramids, the Roman viaducts, the Great Wall of China, to name a few. Yet, while their artifacts may remain, for projects beyond even a couple of centuries ago there is scant information on how they were managed, let alone how well they were managed. Given what we know about the history of "civilization," it is plausible to assume that captives and conscripts were often used to populate the teams supporting these projects. To that extent, what we think of as project management today would have little in common with the methods used to manage projects in antiquity.

What we do know about these early projects is that they were often the handiwork of vast armies of tradesmen. We're told, for instance, that 24,000 workers - stone masons, woodcarvers and the like - were dispatched to build the original temple of the Israelites, while another 6000 served as "officers and judges" (I Chron. 23:4). Though we have little knowledge about how these ancient projects were managed, we do know that prior to the past 100 years or so a system of apprenticeship was used extensively. Ostensibly the concept of apprenticeship declined dramatically with the advent of automation - a time when mass production largely displaced the need for artisans and skilled craftsmen, including those in line to take their place.

Circumstances are different in today's world, of course, and project management methods have had to change with the times. I do believe, however, that in our quest to modernize our methods we may have forgotten an important lesson from the past: how to groom employees for the job under the tutelage of an acknowledged "master."

As a whole, project management has suffered so badly from this condition that it has been dubbed by some as "the accidental profession." What this implies, of course, is that project managers are often appointed by decree, or perhaps default, rather than "earning their stripes" through guided preparation and demonstrated ability. Make no mistake, this is not an issue of "paying one's dues" - there's no guarantee that "years of experience" equates to competence anyway. But there is something to be said for grooming project managers for the role rather than following the all too common practice of appointing them from among their peers, often based solely on their technical abilities, and then anointing them with the title.

Experience tells us that 75 to 80 percent of the "challenges" that project managers face involve people issues as opposed to technical issues. Technical specialists, of course, can often be transformed into project managers but there's little in their role as a technical specialist, per se, that prepares them for the preponderance of challenges that stem from conflict, politics, personality clashes, and a host of other human-related issues. Training and certification are certainly steps in the right direction. To this I would add a contemporary form of apprenticeship to give would-be project managers the opportunity to hone their skills before being thrown to the wolves and putting projects at risk. The contemporary form of apprenticeship for project managers that I advocate would share the intent but be distinctly different in form from its earlier counterpart. (To make the concept more palatable to those troubled with the term "apprenticeship," we could just as well adopt the term "intern" or "resident" in following the lead of the medical profession.)

As we have already noted, contemporary projects involve considerable finesse in dealing with the human factors. While the admonition to "just do it" may have worked in a time when people performed rote tasks under the condition of forced labor, it's a lousy tactic for trying to manage projects that are populated by today's fiercely independent knowledge workers - the latter being a creation of the 20th century and the so-called "information age." It lingers, nevertheless, in organizations that adhere to a "sweat shop" mentality - more specifically, the captains within those organizations who haven't figured out the difference between time-on-task and task-on-target.

The preeminence of the human factor in contemporary projects would necessarily require the project management apprenticeship process to be weighted accordingly. This would require considerable care in choosing a mentor who is adept at handling the elusive human side of project management - not an easy role to fill. Furthermore, since the human factor is significantly more complex in today's projects than projects of old, it is also a distinguishing factor between the nature of the mentor/protégé relationship then and now. In other words, we are talking about a concept of apprenticeship that is much different from that of the traditional approach which is rooted in transferring the skills associated with learning a particular trade or handicraft.

In the place of eye-hand coordination, the emphasis in this case would be on heart-head coordination if you will - skills in handling delicate situations involving the project team, customers and suppliers, the internal politics of the organization - skills in leading, not just managing, a high-performance project team - skills in dealing with values, interests, biases, emotions, turfdom, and any number of other "soft issues" that test the mettle of a project manager who's worth her salt. The project manager who is project manager in-name-only will often recoil at the mere thought of such issues, taking refuge in the 20 to 25 percent of the job that deals with the technical aspects of the job. This person can often be recognized by the disproportionate amount of time that he or she spends "toying with" analytical tools compared to the time spent on communicating with the various stakeholders of the project. Needless to say, this individual is not the best candidate for coaching and grooming would-be project managers. Likewise, not to diminish the role of formal certification, but there is little that any paper-and-pencil test can do to evaluate anything other than the analytical aspects of the job. The process of attaining certification from an independent source has merit, but it is not a substitute for the kind of mentor/protégé relationship needed to prepare project managers for the greater challenges of the job.

The job of managing projects is much too important, much too complex in today's world to be left to chance. Project management certainly shouldn't be an "accidental profession," if it in fact is. On a personal level, I would challenge you to consider what's at stake with your projects and then take a closer look at how your organization prepares its project managers for the challenges they will face. If your projects persistently experience problems, especially during the execution phase - delays, cost overruns, stall-outs, political battles - this could be a proximate indication that your project managers are ill-prepared for the job. Viewing the situation from this perspective I believe you'll discover the wisdom of "succession planning" for your project managers, possibly supported by a contemporary version of apprenticeship that fits your circumstances.


© Copyright 1999

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Lon Roberts, Ph.D.

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