How To Start A Project As An Accidental Project Manager

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Help! I’m an accidental or new project manager. How do I get started?

In this article we’ll help you understand what to focus on as you take on your first projects.

Simon Harris wearing a jazzy tie
Simon Harris

What is an accidental project manager?

Definition: An Accidental Project Manager is a subject matter expert and/or someone who is known for getting things done. Managing projects is a secondary part of their role, at least to start with. Many accidental project managers end up managing projects full time, but they don’t start out with a formal route into PM such as a project management degree.

(Do you need one? Here’s what I think about project management degrees — Ed.)

I guess most accidental project managers have had a conversation along these lines:

  • “Oh, you’re not so busy can you just…”
  • “We should treat this as a project so that…”
  • “You’d be the ideal project manager…”

Is this familiar?

If the initial conversation happened a bit like that, then a few conclusions are safe-ish.

  • You’re a subject matter expert in some discipline relevant to the end result and/or a respected ‘organizer’.
  • You have to coordinate a variety of people to get the result delivered.
  • There is probably an oversight or approvals or other sort of committee structure to ask permission from, perhaps to start, to continue and to end.
  • There are a variety of people who have an opinion on what you’re doing.
  • There is a mix of stuff you know and stuff you suspect and stuff you need to find out.

I’ll also point out right now there will be stuff that you can’t know now and will have to be reacted to when it becomes obvious. At that point don’t beat yourself up about it, don’t allow anyone else to brow beat you about it either but do recognize now that you need to create the capacity to react when called upon to do so.

How to create a shared understanding

The activity to build shared understandings is what really matters at this point. How it is recorded should be what suits your organizations norms and maybe covers your back as well.

My recommendation is that you create the following two understandings.

1. Get an agreement with management

Create an understanding between your ‘boss’ – the commissioning authority – and her/ his peers about what your project will deliver and the constraints that must not be breached. “Faster, better, cheaper, pick any two” is a good mantra at this stage.

The key is to focus on “What will we have achieved?” not what will we have done. Get them to think about results, not actions. Specifying the result leaves you free as the project coordinator/manager to harness the team’s best ideas.

If the boss and peers are either unsure or in disagreement, then your job is to reflect back to the boss (often called a ‘sponsor’) that you’ll deliver to their vision – when they can articulate it clearly enough for you to pass on.

It is often sensible to facilitate their public expression of the target and your authority – loudly is best!!

2. Get agreement with the team

Then create the understanding between you and the ‘team’ – the delivery folk.

When the boss (and the rest of their management population) specify the ‘what result’ (e.g. we can bake and sell bread and cherry pies in our new high street bakery) you should bring the team into discussion about the ‘how’.

How means: “Who will do what actions? When? With what resources and other inputs to create what intermediate or final outputs over what time-scales?”

Align the team’s thoughts to management’s thoughts

At this point the “Pick two” from your conversations with the people in charge may have to be repeated.

“Boss, to open the bakery in those timescales needs a team twice the size. Or with the currently assigned team it is going to be twice your preferred duration – which way do you want to play it?”

The reality is they don’t always listen well at this point. Having specified your target previously and loudly, and with authority will help you negotiate a realistic commitment now. You should also include an allowance for those unknowables as well as the ‘definitely needs to be done’ tasks.

What information you should collect

Project management methods often call the two collections of information at this early point in a project: a Charter and a Plan. Some people might call them names like Terms of Reference and Road-map.

The ‘What’ might be called the Goal or Objective and its detail described as a ‘Product Backlog’ or described as a list of Deliverables or Requirements.

The ‘How’ is a list of resources, activities and dependencies and perhaps start dates and delivery dates. It’s always crucial for all deliverables to have a clear definition of what defines ‘Done’. Don’t start until you know how you will prove you’ve finished.

The journey is not guaranteed to be smooth because the world moves on! However, the points above are desirable for a firm foundation to start from.

Get support if you need it

One more point. If the above is tending towards impossible for you, for whatever reasons, then you have a right and duty to raise your need for support with the boss.

Without help that enables you to see success as viable, you must recommend drafting in a ‘professional’ project manager, or get yourself a great mentor or delegate back to the boss!

“How to get started as an accidental project manager” was one of the questions asked in Project Management Café, our Facebook Group (what, you’re not a member? Hop over and join us now!).

A version of this article first appeared in 2017.