How to Thrive as an Accidental Project Manager [Video interview]

accidental project manager

In this video I talk to Simon Harris about how to thrive as an accidental project manager.

We discuss how people find themselves in a project management role, why stepping up can give you new opportunities, building accountability and how to make project management valued by your management through linking it back to the things executives are worried about.

There’s a transcript below if you prefer to read.



Elizabeth: Counting down.

Simon: I can’t see anything counting down.

Elizabeth: Well, I can, so we’re live!

Simon: Fantastic.

Elizabeth: Hello everybody, and welcome to Project Management Cafe and our normal Facebook Live slot. And today it’s not just me. Today I’m broadcasting to you from a different room at my house where hopefully the light’s a bit better than my dark and dismal office downstairs. And, on this side, no. On this side of me, you’ll be able to see Simon Harris who is a project management trainer with years and years of experience and a consultant, as well, who runs, which is a training firm and, I don’t know, do you want to say a bit about yourself, Simon?

Simon: All I will add to that is consulting.

Elizabeth: Yes.

Simon: Lots of consulting and training to fill in between times.

Elizabeth: Perfect. So, what we’re talking about today, the theme of this week. So Simon’s been our resident expert in the Facebook group this week, and we’ve been talking all things to do with accidental project managers. So what happens when somebody says to you, “Can you just…,” “Can you just run this project?” And perhaps you started your own career like that. Or, perhaps, you have chosen to go into project management, like me. So, that’s been kind of the theme of the week. I know that Simon you helped me with the input into coming up with that theme. So, hopefully, we can go through some of the questions today and hear your thoughts on it. And I thought I would start with, my handy list of things to ask you, why do you think people become accidental project managers?

Simon Harris
Simon Harris

Simon: I think the main two reasons are either they’re standing in the wrong place at the wrong time, or actually they’re trying to get themselves into project management and they see an opportunity to grasp it. So, two different motivations, I suggest.

Elizabeth: Mm-hmm. Yes, I suppose I always think of it as someone who’s had project management thrust upon them by someone else. But you’re right, you could actually choose to step up and say, “Now’s the time to advance my career,” and take on project management yourself.

Simon: Yeah, slightly broader than project management, but I’ve always found the best way to get promoted is to already be doing the job.

Elizabeth: Yes, that helps.

Simon: And if you’re already doing the job, it makes it so much easier for the person who’s slightly sticking their neck out to give you a different title. They can already see that you’ve got the competence. So, grabbing the opportunity when it’s available is something that, I’ve done that consistently in the evening contract realms. You can get promoted to contractor simply by taking the opportunities around you.

Elizabeth: Okay, so looking out for an opportunity and going for it might get you into a position where you’re managing a project. And I suppose that could even be, for someone who is currently a project manager, but who wants to take the next step to programme management or sideways onto a bigger project, or into portfolio role or programme office or something like that. So, yeah, look out for the opportunities. You’re pulling a face.

Simon: Yeah, well, I think you can step project to programme, and I think you can step programme into say programme office, I wonder about portfolio a bit. Just because of where it’s positioned in the organisation and the like, but I think you can step into a portfolio role, but I’m not sure that it’s necessarily from a project and programme, certainly don’t think people–

Elizabeth: Not from a project role, no. No, that’s a fair comment. So, when you are picking up a new project, whether it’s something that you’ve chosen to do because you think it’s a good thing for your career, or whether someone’s just said, “Here you go. Now it’s your turn, you manage all of this.” What are the things that you can do to get started quickly?

Simon: I’d reiterate what I put in the post on the page earlier. The key thing is to have some perspective on where you’re going. And where you’re going if you’re in a project role is where whoever’s paying the bills wants you to go. So, the stuff to do to get started is to find out where the person who’s paying the bill wants to end up. And you get one of several responses from that. One of which is, “This is where I want to end up,” which is always nice and clear. Another is, “This is where I want to end up,” but when you look around you can see that there’s plenty of other people with an opinion, in which case you need to go out and talk to them because otherwise you’ll get tripped up somewhere where you didn’t expect to. Or when you get out and say, “Where do we want to end up?” They say, “Actually, I don’t know. I thought that’s what you were going to tell me.”

Elizabeth: Go away, do the planning, and tell me what the answer is.

Simon: Yeah, yeah. So, what are the inputs? “Oh, I don’t know, you work that out, too.” Okay, where do I start? “I don’t know, you work that out, too.”

Elizabeth: That’s what we pay you for.

Read next: How to Engage Stakeholders With Your Project (Beyond the Power & Influence Grid)

Simon: Yeah, so the question to then ask is, “Well, so either, what’s keeping you awake at night? So what’s biting at your heels that somehow is a problem you want me to solve”. Or, equally, “What opportunity have you seen that when we grasp it, it’s going to make us all much better off?” So I think those are the two questions to rely on at the end of the day. What was it that caused you some concern? Or where is it that you think there’s a benefit? And if they can’t answer either of those, I suggest you just take two days holiday, merge it into the weekend and see whether or not it’s still flavour of the week on the following Monday.

Elizabeth: Okay, thank you. Tarik’s asked a good question actually. “What do you think about the resistance that’s raised by most of the C-Suite against project management?” And he’s made the point that PMOs are vanishing. So is that a trend that you’ve noticed as well?

Simon: I think there’s a lot in that. First of all, let’s take the PMOs are vanishing. I don’t think that’s the case at all.

Elizabeth: Oh, right?

Simon: I think poorly constituted PMOs have always had a real struggle and having run several reasonably large ones as well as small ones, it’s exactly the same question I think is at the root of that as the other half of the question here, which is, the C-Suite raising objections against project management. And it’s value–

Elizabeth: I’m just going to move that comment because it’s right over your face.

Simon: Ah ha, well, okay, well I couldn’t see that. I mean, I’m in glorious technicolour here.

Elizabeth: Sorry, carry on.

Simon: It’s a question of values. So, I think as a person being asked to consider a project, I have an absolutely clear, crystal clear, view of the fact this is going to cost us a resource, people. And people are busy. So I can see there’s an absolute certainty of cost. And then I get a whole bunch of promises and other exultations that suggest value. And typically that value is not clearly delineated. It’s not well-linked to how the organisation delivers value for money for its customer base or its constituency. So profit for its shareholders or whatever. I think if you want to overcome the C-Suite concerns, then you really need to be asking for any project or PMO how does this link to the incoming expenditure or profit loss? And if you can’t answer that question because you don’t have the skill set, you need to go and knock on the finance folks’ door and say, “Look, this is the initiative, the change that’s being talked about. And this is where it’s being sponsored from. And this is how the benefits are being described. Now, how do we turn that into an expression of value in recognisable terms for the people at the top table and the people who own the organisation, the voters or the shareholders?” If you can’t do that, then you should expect the resistance because you’re not addressing the right, you’ve not got somebody addressing the right questions. And somebody addressing that question should typically be the sponsor if you’re an accidental project manager. If you’re a career project manager, you should have that as something that was at the beginning of your activities anyway.

Read next: How to Present to the C-Suite (And Everyone Else)

Elizabeth: I think when I see resistance from the C-Suite in organisations, it’s come about because they don’t really understand the value that a project manager, in particular, can bring. They might be able to see that there’s value in doing the project because we launch a new product or we make loads more money and all the rest of it, but actually, the tangible value of having somebody in control of that beyond a department head or director who might be sponsoring, championing the change. So I think there’s an education piece as well around the fact that it is someone’s full-time job, especially on bigger pieces of work, to do the organising, the coordination, the management of resources, the flagging of the risks, the reporting. Otherwise it all just falls apart. It can’t just be absorbed into somebody’s day job.

Simon: Well, yeah, I had that debate with somebody recently, and they said within their organisation that they were trying to promote the idea that if it was a project it needed to be dealt with by a project manager. And my analogy for that was to say, well, if you want to go and get the groceries or pick the kids up from school, you don’t have a chauffeur. You just get pop in the car and drive down there. And project management and driving are equal skills. Now, I wouldn’t try and drive an 18-wheel truck or a Formula 1 car, but I do expect to be able to hop down to the shops. And I think the same thing applies with projects. I think if you give somebody a change initiative within their day job that’s sufficiently linked, doesn’t cross lots of boundaries, doesn’t require–

Elizabeth: That’s it there, isn’t it?

Simon: Then there should be the sort of accidental project management that has been quite legit.

Elizabeth: Yes.

Simon: Then it’s boundaries, that’s different.

Elizabeth: Tarik’s left another comment now, let me bring that up. It says, “They see the PMO as a Panadol, not an antibiotic.” Yep, “So trying best to introduce “a business PMO to many organisations.” So it is just a case of slap a PMO on, and instantly, pain goes away, everything is fine. But actually, that’s a nice analogy Tarik around antibiotics taking a longer period of time to actually do anything. You have to take the whole course before you start to see any benefit, whereas if you just take paracetemol you expect your headache to go within half an hour. And I think that’s, PMOs take a while to come to maturity, would you say that was true?

Simon: Well, I think the only thing less understood than the word programme is the initials PMO. So, first of all–

Elizabeth: Wonder why that is, though? They’ve been around a long time.

Simon: Yeah, but they’re both misdefines, but that’s another conversation for another day, perhaps. If we take the concept of some form of C-Suite support, then PMO as with M for management, it about conform us to baselines. And it’s about reporting, and the folk below the PMO see it as a drain on their morale because what it’s doing is it’s imposing consistency of process in order to get good aggregation of data for decision-makers. And the other dimension that we need is the PSO, where whatever the P stands for, portfolio, programme, or project, the S is support. And now it’s the sort of project manager’s confidante. And I think too many organisations just talk about PMO, they don’t really think about the M as meaning police force, as opposed to help, assistant. So, now, lots of different communities are being expected to contribute and draw service from that group that’s the PMO, and it’s got too many different hats to wear simultaneously, too many different sources where it’s supposed to promise trust, and can’t really. So I like the analogy, antibiotic versus painkiller, but I think if we actually identify what project, programme, and portfolio support management officers should be doing, we see there’s about three or four different beasts there. And they all have a different role description. And then we can constitute them, give them a charter that actually defines them with a role that adds value and then they don’t have a short-term existence.

Elizabeth: Yes. I think, I’m feeling that PMO and PSO and all things to do with MO, or whatever, project offices might become another whole theme week topic because Marcel’s left another comment about that. Tarik’s left another comment about the work that he’s on. So, I think there’s a really interesting conversation, but I did want to ask you about, sorry.

Simon: PMO conference in London last, was it last week? Or the week before?

Elizabeth: It’s such a topical thing. I mean, the PMO conference in London is a really, it’s a great event, and–

Simon: Yeah, so you didn’t go, did you?

Elizabeth: I wasn’t there, no. But let’s park PMO for a moment, because I know that we’re about halfway through our time and I just wanted to ask you something else, as well, which is how do you build accountability? Because one of the things that I think, you don’t have to be an accidental project manager to struggle with this, but you get given a team, or you get asked to find people, and then they say they’re going to do a job or a task, and actually you check back in later, and they’ve made zero effort to get started. So, how can you encourage your team to take responsibility for things and just when you’re not in a position of authority, get them to take a little bit of responsibility and accountability for the work that they’re doing?

Simon: Yeah, it’s a tough questions, isn’t it, to answer how do you get people to do what they’ve said they will do? And that’s the real challenge because almost everybody when you ask them, “Will you do this for me? Can you do it by this time?” Gives a yes with–

Elizabeth: Yeah, yeah, yeah, of course I can.

Simon: Yeah, but they give it with good intent, but then we get bombarded by too many pressures and so it’s the most recent request for many people that’s the one that’s being worked on. So, actually, one of my techniques as a project manager is just to remind people frequently. Another technique is to say, for example, can you get this done for me by end of week, end of month? Or, can you get this done for me? When can you deliver that? And let’s say the response is, “I can deliver that for you by a week Friday.” Then I’m going to say, okay, and let’s have a couple of check points. So I’m going to divide that time into three. And then I’m going to go back just before the first of those divided into three and say, so are we ready for our check point tomorrow, this afternoon, or whatever? Because that makes me the last person, the last puff of wind to have blown past them and set their direction. And then I’m going to go back the next two or three times. And by the time I’ve done that for about three times in a row, people get used to the idea that I’m going to follow up.

Elizabeth: How do you stop following up being nagging? Or is that just a woman issue? There is a thought that if I asked somebody too many times, it would be nagging. Or maybe that’s, I don’t know. So how can you, is it about how you phrase your request?

Simon: I think it is about how you phrase the request, but crucially, it’s about recognising when people are reliable, and then backing off. So, and it’s also about recognising when people are unreliable and upping the level of, call it support. The other dimension here is what questions you ask. So I’m always careful when I’m going to go and nag, because that’s basically what it is, I’m always careful when I’m going to go and nag the first question that I’ll ask is about something from previous conversations about the person. Maybe they were going off for a picnic at the weekend or something, so how did that go? Second question I’ll ask is about what do they need me to do in order that they can succeed? It’s only the third question which is then about what do we still need to do in order to deliver successfully? So I think what you ask in terms of questions is important and how you approach things. So if people are letting me down, I let them know that this is a process of tracking back to baseline because that’s part of the project management role and it’s about keeping people from not letting you down. And if people are performing well, it’s about saying “Thanks for that, that’s great. Shout if you need my help. Otherwise I’ll expect delivery.” I mean that’s the place where I want to get to.

Read next: The Ultimate Guide to Getting People to Take Responsibility at Work

Elizabeth: That’s fair enough.

Simon: So, yeah, so I think those are the dimensions.

Elizabeth: Mm-hmm, okay, thank you. Sam’s made a point that actually as project management becomes more compulsory subject in MBAs, the people who are coming through the pipeline, we should expect greater project management maturity levels or at least awareness in the C-Suite execs in years to come. So, I think that harks back to what we were talking about earlier, but that’s a good point.

Simon: Yeah–

Elizabeth: There was–

Simon: Add on to that, which is that the regulators of most regulated industries are now getting much tougher about organization’s ability to cope with change, and so I’m seeing regulatory pressure in organisations for people to be PMP-certified, for example. So that was a change in the right direction.

Elizabeth: There was a question in the group as well from Dinesh that was around what does, he said, “What does managing an IT budget mean to you?” And I thought that was quite an insightful question, actually, because there’s lots of different points of managing a budget. So, I thought I would ask you the question, and then I’ll, if there’s time, I’ll tell you what I think it means to me.

Simon: Okay, well in which case, how much time do we need?

Elizabeth: We’ve got six minutes.

Simon: Okay, so I won’t fill all six. The first thing I’d say is that it’s an interesting question to say managing an IT budget because–

Elizabeth: For a project, not for a whole department.

Simon: Why put IT in the title at all? So, I wonder whether he means managing the budget for a project that’s an IT project, or does he mean managing a project that’s using IT resources? And in both those cases, I would guess that for many organisations IT resource is seen as a number of staff hours rather than a pounds or dollars cost. The key bit of managing the budget is about how many hours of resource have I got? How many days of resource have I got? And then what I want to know is, how many days or hours worth of deliverable have I got to produce? And then managing a budget is asking the question, how much has been delivered versus how many hours are left? And it’s always that equation. What’s been delivered versus what’s left? If the IT budget relates to money for licences and sign-ups for SaaS arrangements and the like, then know the finance folk, have a friend in finance is the way I manage the budget when it’s actually money.

Elizabeth: Yes.

Simon: Keep them onside.

Elizabeth: Okay, I interpreted it much more around the tasks that you have to do to manage. So, I’ve got a budget tracker spreadsheet where I can list all the different elements of cost, and then I can track what we’re expecting, the actual invoice number of purchase or number, all that kind of stuff because for me it’s all around tracking the money. What came in? What went out? Did it match our forecast? If it didn’t, can I take money from this part and spend it up there? Is something coming in under budget, which gives me a bit of slack somewhere else? How am I doing with contingency?

Simon: Well, that, if it hadn’t the word IT in the question, that’s how I would have interpreted it, too. But because it’s the IT budget, and I find that–

Elizabeth: Yes, no, fair enough.

Simon: Typically is person-hours rather than money.

Elizabeth: Yes. Okay, that’s been fantastic. I know it feels like that 20 minutes has gone so quickly. So thank you very much for taking time out of your day to come and join us today. And thank you for being with us the whole week in the Facebook group. So, I know people really appreciate having other voices apart from just me. So, we really appreciate it, thanks.

Simon: Well, you’re very welcome. Thank you very much for the opportunity to share some thoughts.

Elizabeth: Well, have a great afternoon, and thanks everybody for joining Live. And I will see you next week at the same time for our next instalment of Project Management Cafe Office Hours. So I’ll see you then. Thanks very much. Bye.

Similar Posts