Project Management

The Best, Or The Brightest?

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Yes, you read this blog’s title correctly. The cliché, of course, is “the best and the brightest,” as if, upon representing these two populations in a Venn Diagram, the two circles would perfectly overlay each other. But, as I wrap up Game Theory In Management’s take on’s March theme of leading PM trends, I’d like to examine those tests that organizations tend to employ when screening for sufficiently talented personnel to join their project teams, and their implications for advancing Project Management theory writ large.

Probably one of the most common tests is the number and type of college degrees held by the candidate, combined with their Grade Point Average, or GPA. In the hard sciences, these criteria come close to exclusivity. Make no mistake, I’m not necessarily against this standard. For example, without consistently high grades and a very good showing on the MCAT, students aren’t even admitted to medical schools, and I’m completely okay with that. But I would like to point out that, in business within a free market economy, the GPA element might be overrated. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, arguably the most successful business executives ever, actually dropped out of college. And in an article for by Kathryn Dill on Eric Barker’s book Barking Up The Wrong Tree,

A survey of over 700 American millionaires found that their average college GPA was 2.9. “College grades,” Barker writes, “aren’t any more predictive of subsequent life success than rolling dice.”[i]

If one considers the highly dynamic world of management, this probably won’t come as that much of a surprise. After all, what’s included in attaining high grades in school? In addition to hard work and some level of talent, a large dose of conformity is needed for such success. Although never articulated out loud, it’s a safe bet that all successful students are fully aware of the folly of correcting any teacher on any topic, even if (or especially if) said teacher goes off on a political or social-economic rant while supposedly teaching an utterly unrelated subject, like mathematics. GTIM Nation is well aware of my opinion of some of the foundations of current college-level management courses, predicated as they are on the absurd notion that the point of all management is to “maximize shareholder wealth.” In essence those who do really well in college-level business courses are taught two things that are utterly incompatible with Project Management, specifically:

  • The Asset Managers’ take on business is the only correct one, and
  • Really good managers will employ the staid analysis methods stemming from the previous assertion when they get a job in the real world.

Don’t misunderstand – I’m completely aware of the fact that the newly-assigned PM who has a working understanding of Work Breakdown Structures, Earned Value and Critical Path Methodologies, Cost Performance Reports in Format 1, Gantt Charts, and all the rest will have an immense advantage over her less-educated rivals. But throughout my time in Graduate Management School, which included two semesters of Accounting, two semesters of Finance, one of Statistics, and the usual Organizational Behavior and Performance and Strategic Management stuff, only once in the entire curriculum did any professor mention any of the skills from the previous sentence, and that was a one-class exercise in developing and analyzing a schedule network (in an Information Technology class, no less).

If GPA is a potentially flawed metric to use in predicting future performance, …wait! What did I just write? Did I use the phrase “predicting future performance?” Yes, yes I did. This calls for … the risk managers! Given the problem of assessing which Project Team candidates will represent the type of talent needed to advance PM in general, or come up with trend-setting ideas in the field in particular, what data should we feed our Monte Carlo or Decision-Tree analysis? That’s a really tough question, since, in the United States at least, it’s basically illegal for large organizations to consider any of the following factors when hiring:

  • Gender
  • Race
  • Religion
  • Marital Status
  • Age
  • Social-Economic status

…among others, and I’ve just established that, for PMs anyway, use of where the candidate went to college and the GPA is at least suspect. In short, for this predictive function, there’s simply no data that could be fed into two of the risk managers’ favorite tools that could possibly result in a usable information point.

Sooo…where does that leave us in our quest to find those who are most likely to do some PM trend-setting? Invoking Sir Arthur Helps is where that leaves us. He was supposedly the first person to write “Nothing succeeds like success.”[ii] The true trend-setters in PM are not those writing out their a priori assumptions ad nauseum, nor are they to be found in (most) college settings. They will be the ones who actually bring their various types of projects in on-time, on-budget, usually unceremoniously, but also usually consistently.

These might not be your brightest, but they’re your best.


[i] Retrieved from on March 29, 2020, 18:05 MDT.

[ii] Helps, Sir Arthur, Realmah, 1868, retrieved from on March 30, 2020, 17:55 MDT.

Posted on: March 30, 2020 11:06 PM | Permalink

Comments (2)

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Thank you Michael for another thought provoking post. The proof is in the pudding as they say. Not sure how this correlates to actual hiring practices though. Most HR I've come across look at resumes and conduct interviews. Seems like this favors those with good salesmanship but does not select for competence as it relates to the actual position to be filled. Only once did HR check my references after an interview (and I've been hired a few times, so it makes for a pretty low verification ratio overall). Not sure how it is for consultants, but when we conduct call for tenders in prefessionnal services at my workplace, I make it a duty to check references. And even with references, I'm not sure you actually filter for the PMs that deliver value on-time and on-budget. You just select based on the opinion of those vouching for the candidate. I have yet to see an organization that actually scores its PMs based on actual project data. But then again, outside of algorithms that we are barely aware of, it seems to me like very few of those in decision-making positions actually rely on data. To quote one such man in a very high position: "Sad".

Bright ideas for best project management

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