The Project Management Pivot

There is a subtle but important distinction that often goes unnoticed when it comes to professional certifications. Does having a certification in something mean that you are good at that thing? Not necessarily…

For nearly two years, I have been attempting to make a career pivot into the field of Project Management. While I have been managing projects in some aspect for nearly all of my working career, I wanted to focus on managing projects exclusively. It’s a subtle but important distinction. Instead of working on assigned tasks and using Project Management Methodologies to accomplish those tasks (which made Project Management a secondary aspect of my career), I wanted to be in a position where I could focus exclusively on managing projects. There are a myriad of reasons why I wanted to this, and I discussed some of them here.

Project Management, like a lot of other professions, has an advocacy organization which oversees and manages a professional certification process. Though there are many to choose from, the gold standard certification within the Project Management field in the US is being certified as a Project Management Professional (PMP). Like all certifications, the PMP is seen as sort of a Good Housekeeping seal. It’s a stamp of approval that you, a certified Project Management Professional, know the best practices and methodologies to manage projects and gain the best results for your business, and that you agree to abide by a professional Ethics Code.

However, just because someone is a certified PMP does not mean that they are a good project manager.  

One thing I quickly discovered as I attempted to make this career pivot is the Catch-22 that is Certification within a professional field. As I was attempting to make my pivot into a Project Management position, I ran into may businesses who, through either laziness or ignorance of what a certification represents, demanded the PMP certification as a baseline requirement for even entry level Project Management jobs.

On the one hand this is understandable. Having a Project Manager with a PMP provides some reassurance that the person in question knows Project Management. However, the danger that so many of these companies were running straight into was this: Having the PMP does not necessarily mean that the person in question would be a good Project Manager.

A Little Honesty

Let’s be honest about the certification process: In order to obtain the certification, you need to pass a Standardized Exam. This is no different than the millions of standardized exams being taken by students at any school across the US. As with any standardized exam, there are some things that are extraordinarily difficult to measure. Being a Project Manager relies a lot on communication and building relationships and teams, things which are nearly impossible to measure on a standardized exam.

Several weeks ago I attended the Region 6 gathering for the Project Management Institute, the body which administers the best practices and the PMP exams. I have been active with a local chapter for some time, and attending the Regional Chapter Meeting allowed me to meet many more Project Managers and discuss some of these issues. During breakfast one day, I was speaking to a member from another chapter who also teaches Project Management classes at a local university. He noted that he always includes one question in his exams to students:

True or False:    Your project was completed on time, under budget and it met the established requirements and needs the stakeholders had asked. Was the project manager successful?  

The answer, the PMI Chapter Member said, is False. He went on to explain that while the project being on time, under budget and meeting the established needs of the stakeholders meets the technical definition of project success, it does not tell you whether the Project Manager was successful. In order to determine whether the Project Manager is successful, you are missing a key piece of information: Whether the Project Team and Stakeholders were happy working with the Project Manager and would work with them again. 

If, in order to make sure the project was successful the Project Manager had become a little dictator, demanding that their team met unrealistic expectations, forcing them to use shortcuts to keep the budget numbers where they should be, and generally being a tyrant, then the Project Team and Stakeholders would not want to work with that Project Manager again. The project being successful in the end does not justify the means it took to get there. If this is the case, then the answer to the question is obviously that the Project Manager was not successful. They built enmity across the team, and the team would not want to work with them again. With no team, the odds of the Project Manager in question being asked to manage another project, and thus continue to have a job, would be non-existent.

Successfully answering questions on a standardized exam cannot tell you whether someone would become a mini-dictator as a Project Manager. It tells you they know the technical side of managing projects…but it cannot give you any insight into whether that person can actually work with a team and build the relationships necessary to get the most benefits out of Project Management for a business.

After nearly two years of trying, I recently started a new job as a Project Manager for conversion projects at a new company. They understood that my experience working within software conversion projects for the last five years, my demonstrated dedication to the Project Management profession and its methodologies, my communication skills and client-facing focus was more important than whether or not I have the letters PMP after my name.

One day I will have the letters after my name. But regardless of whether I have those letters or not, I’m bringing the value of Project Management to my new company every day.




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