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Predicting Future Success for a Project Manager November 20, 2012

Posted by Tim Rodgers in job search, Management & leadership, Project management.
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If you were interviewing people for a project manager job, what criteria would you use to make the decision? What results or characteristics differentiate an above-average project managers from the rest? Today it’s relatively easy to become a certified Project Management Professional (PMP), and that may be a reasonable minimum requirement for many positions, but you would surely also want to hear something about the candidate’s recent achievements.

“Successfully completed the project” doesn’t tell you much since a project may fail or be abandoned for reasons that have nothing to do with the project manager’s performance. Only slightly better is a statement that the project was completed “on-time and under budget.” That sounds good, but it’s easy to claim and usually impossible to verify.

So, what exactly does a project manager do, and how can we tell if they’ve done a good job? Can we isolate the performance of the PM from the rest of the team? What information can we use to assess the probability of the PM’s success in the future?

I think it may be impossible to isolate and quantitatively measure the performance of a PM, primarily because of the many unforeseen and uncontrollable factors that can lead to schedule variances, budget variances, and other high-level measures of a project. Certainly a closely-monitored project with effective risk management and contingency planning may be less susceptible to these factors. However, unless the PM is guilty of failing to incorporate key inputs to the project plan, or failing to plan altogether, it’s not necessarily the fault of the PM if the project doesn’t meet its objectives.

The basic process of project management is pretty straightforward. Any assessment of a PM should include how well they respond to things that are not part of the standard process or the original plan. Can they cite examples of adaptability and creativity when managing the inevitable changes that happen in any project?

The length of the project, the number and variety of stakeholders, and the degree of leverage from previous projects can provide an indication of the project complexity this PM has handled in the past, and what they will be more likely to manage successfully in the future.

I also believe that past failure is better predictor than past success, specifically what the PM has learned from past failures. Certainly I would want to hear about the candidate’s experiences in overcoming obstacles and solving problems, but I also want to know what they learned about avoiding those obstacles and problems in their next project.

Those are three indicators of future success for a PM: adaptability, familiarity with complex projects, and a commitment to learning and continuous improvement based on experience.

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