Project Expert: Prepare your project managers for success

Recently, I was asked to mentor a newly promoted project manager who was having problems keeping his e-commerce project on track. I asked him to draw his project's organization chart. He began with an inverted pyramid, which he divided into five slots and filled these with the following titles, starting from the top: sponsor, CIO, functional manager, team manager and project manager (PM). Then he inscribed the acronym SOE to the side of the pyramid at the very bottom and drew an arrow from it to the box containing PM. I asked whether he meant to write SME (subject matter expert), but he said, "No, SOE stands for 'scum of the earth.' That's how they treat me here."

Do any of your project managers feel this way? When was the last time you checked?

Most IT project managers are technical people who are often promoted to the position with little training and no mentoring. They jump, ill prepared, into the chasm that is their project. They hope for the best. Next to the sponsor, the most important person on the team is the project manager, yet IT management continues to largely ignore the needs of project managers. A nationwide survey of 175 IT organizations, conducted by the Center for Project Management last year, shows that only 16% of those companies had well-structured project management education and training programs (and only 4% had a mentoring program). The rest simply acquire site licenses to project management software. They might as well mount afterburners on a mule.

Becoming strong communicators

Beyond the routine responsibilities of planning, estimating, scheduling and tracking, the more important responsibilities of a project manager include having a clear understanding of the project's objectives, understanding organizational politics and being a strong, capable communicator.

Project objectives are the end game, and a summary list of them should become the project manager's "elevator speech." I consistently advise project managers to post the list of objectives prominently in their offices, and start each project meeting with a quick recitation of those objectives. The next time you come across a project team member, ask that individual to state the project objectives. You would be surprised how many don't have a clue.

The most difficult project managers to mentor are those who declare, "I don't like project politics." Their projects are doomed because their isolation will make their projects fall off the radar scope of sponsors and key stakeholders. They should be donning their PR hats and getting out to talk with key stakeholders. Successful project managers have to leverage their champions. But even more importantly, they should be inviting the naysayers to lunch, as this will likely provide valuable insight into the reasons behind the opposition.

Successful project managers also use aggressive communications. This does not mean typing e-messages in all capital letters. It means being assertive and crystal clear. Project managers with this skill anticipate the need for communicating, take the initiative to send a well-structured message and follow up to ensure that it was understood by the addressees. My best advice on communications is this: "Call your customer before they call you, and call often."

As CIOs, you must make sure your organizations are developing educated, well-trained and properly mentored project managers. If you're not paying attention to this vital component of project management, your own project managers could end up feeling like that SOE label is their own.

Gopal Kapur is president of the Center for Project Management in San Ramon, Calif. Write to him at ProjectExpert@ciodecisions.com. This column originally appeared in the June 2005 edition of CIO Decisions magazine.

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