Can Project Managers Survive this Economy?

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A few weeks ago, I connected with Cynthia K. West, Vice President, at Project Insight.  West is a ‘serial entrepreneur’ with over 20 years of experience in sales and marketing for Information Technology (IT).  She specializes in helping start-ups or smaller organizations to exponential growth. 

I asked her a few questions about leadership and the current and future state of project management.  Here’s what West had to say about it…


NC.  Can you tell me more about your life as a serial entrepreneur and how it helped you dive into project management?

CW:While I’m not a formal project manager, per se, I have always been a type-A, organized, detail oriented individual. I’d been managing projects all my life without really knowing it! Having worked in a few start-ups in the 1990s in Silicon Valley, I had to be organized as there are tons of projects as one embarks on a new product venture. For example, I was involved with an early MP3 player start up in 1993. Yes, that was before Apple’s iPod. Everything was a project, from understanding who the audio content providers were, to signing them up, to uncovering an adequate manufacturer in Asia, to developing the product itself, to raising money and more! Serial entrepreneurs are by definition project junkies!

NC.  What do you expect the future to be for project managers in the current global economy?

CW:Even in the current global economy, I’m very bullish on the project management market and the future for project managers. Why? Being in the solution and service side of the project management world at Project Insight, we have lots of organizations contacting us to help them understand their portfolio better. They have to perform the same number of projects as before, when the economy was running well. However, in many cases, they are being asked to manage the same amount of work, but with fewer resources, or maybe with outsourced, external resources. They find that they need a way to work collaboratively with those outside resources. They find that they need an overall view of the portfolio of projects in order to prioritize the projects and to understand how much work their team members have.

In addition, 90% of the teams that contact us have no enterprise project management solution. They are still using desktop applications like Excel or Microsoft Project desktop. In some cases, they use whiteboards and sticky notes. Best case scenario, they use a low end or open source tool that they have clearly outgrown. That means that the project management solution market remains in very early stages of adoption.

In terms of the project management profession, we are seeing growth as well. In the ‘old days,’ project managers grew up through the ranks. Anyone that possessed leadership and communication skills, in addition to their core competencies, was advanced to the role. Many times, people were not even called project managers, but led projects. Today, the PMI has done a great job of advocating for the profession and growing interest in project management as a career choice. We continue to see the PMI membership numbers go up and up. From September 2010 to September 2011, the membership was up 12.6% for a total membership of 363,349. Active holders of the PMP certification (Project Management Professional) are now 464,168 worldwide.

NC. What do project managers indicate is their greatest challenge today?

CW:I’d say visibility. What do I mean by that? Well, by nature, most project managers are fairly analytical and may not ‘toot their own horns’ much. They are very intelligent, accomplished individuals that are behind the scenes executing and maneuvering without much external visibility. As a result, I believe their efforts get overlooked too often. Maybe they need to engineer more of their own recognition. For example, I spoke with an editor at another publication (whose name shall not be mentioned), and he said, “Cynthia, no one cares about project management.” Wow, I thought. Maybe that’s the problem. As a mid-office dweller, the PMO does not get the flashy recognition of the sales team, or the kudos for saving the organization money like the finance department gets. However, without its efforts, no initiatives would move forward. So, I’d say we need some great advocates to bring light to the efforts of project managers.

NC. What are your thoughts about the leadership and legacy of Steve Jobs?

So much has been said recently about Jobs, I’m not sure I have anything particularly unique to add. He was certainly a creative thinker and leader. One in which the world will miss.

NC. If you could offer any tips for project managers; what would you like to share?

CW:Make sure you make some time to just think. I had the pleasure of attending the SoTec conference here in southern California a couple of weeks ago and found that the break from the office and routine gave rise to many new and innovative ideas. It reminded me that too much tasking can drain one of one’s perspectives. Some times it’s just good to take a break and let your brain generate some great thoughts!

NC. Do you have any wisdom/tips/insight for women in Information Technology (IT) Project Management?

Yes. I just met today with an ex-IBM executive woman who is running a business centered around helping women earn C-level positions. What she sees time and time again is that women do not always understand that to get to the next level in their careers, they have to perform different types of activities than the types of activities that have already made them successful. For example, as successful project team member performs a lot of task work, but to get to be a project manager, one has to enhance one’s communication skills to get the message to the project team. One has to enhance one’s negotiation skills to get buy in from sponsors and other players. Then, again when moving to mid-management, those same skills may not be enough. One has to mentor other project managers. The trick is to start performing the new skills so that one is identified as an individual that can handle the new job. How does one do this? Get a coach, a good mentor, or invest in leadership courses. An outside consultant can often give you the perspective you might need to take your career to the next level.


Posted on: November 19, 2011 05:30 PM | Permalink

Comments (3)

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Naomi, fantastic leadership piece. Thanks. So enjoyed reading and learning a bit from Cynthia West. I especially appreciated her comment "Serial entrepreneurs are by definition project junkies!" Many folks advocate, and I agree, that project management is ubiquitous throughout the entire organization and that those that do it well will out compete those that don't. And what is the consequence of this..!

Consider the following.

It is a functional responsibility that first line managers perform PPC&E (performance planning, counseling, and evaluation) with their direct reports. Though Corporate HR does not do this work, Corporate HR does have a concern and often a control measurement and performance plan line item to ensure that this work is done in the field. Similarly, it is a functional responsibility that first line managers perform basis security management (employees desks are locked after hours, PCs turned off, no confidential information exposed) with their direct reports. Though Corporate Security does not do this work, Corporate Security does have a concern and often and control measurement and performance plan line item to ensure that this work is done in the field.

Now consider, can the same be said of today's PMOs..? Sure, functional management is responsible for all of the business as usual, informal project management that is ubiquitous in every nook and cranny of all of our organizations. But, do PMOs have a concern and a control measurement and performance plan line item to ensure that this work (project management) is done in the field..? Note, this does not mean that the PMO takes on all of that ubiquitous project management work out there or think that it should somehow be contained in an uber-PPM tool and managed via the formal project methodology of the PMO.

Now I would be the first person to advocate that PMOs should be driven by business needs as established by those for whom the PMO exists to serve. For many PMOs, it can be challenging enough to deliver the immediate and initial mandate, not to mention seek to expand upon it. But surely as the PMO evolves, starts to fulfil its initial mandate, and seeks to mature and ask "what's next" in terms of value to the enterprise, they can consider how to be relevant to the business.

Why is it that the PMO as an organizational construct is so often limited to an inside-the-box way of thinking. And who is to blame for this poor business acumen and intellectually dim-wittedness..? If the PMO and the institutions that make up the project management industry want to defer this "leadership" to someone else, say HR, just say so. It would be disappointing, but not surprising.

But back to Cynthia West's keen insights "Serial entrepreneurs are by definition project junkies!" I could not agree more with this premise. I would offer that project manager leaders and PMO manager leaders that figure this out will not only be invaluable to the organizations and companies they serve, but they might have just developed a skill for which an unlimited market potential exists and a skill that can not just survive, but flourish, in any economy.

Great article, I hope we hear and learn from others.

Thank you so much! Cynthia offered project managers with some great insight.

Hi Naomi,
Thank you for sharing this excellent piece. I totally agree with you on the 'visibility'. In 2006 I wrote a book on this topic using 16 years of project data and confirms that visibility is a KEY success factor in major projects.

Again, great piece of write up!.

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