Why it’s a mistake to assume anyone can manage a project:

Why it can be a costly mistake to assume anyone can manage a project:

Most people don’t plan to go into project management.  They often find themselves in the role more by accident than design.

It’s also common that when people first attempt the role, they have little if any preparation or real support, with something that can be very challenging.

For well over a decade, we have asked precisely the following question to groups of people involved in projects, during workshops and sessions:

  • Take any medium to large-scale organisation.  Randomly select 20 people of similar age, level, qualifications and background.  How many of the 20 would make successful project managers? The average response (from well over 3000 people by now) is less than 2!

So given this response from such large numbers of people, who all come from medium to large-scale organisations, what is it that those two people do have?

It also begs another very key question.  If a project is important, right now, anyone in that group of 20 is often given the role, even when they may never have managed a project before.  That is not as uncommon as some might think.

So what do those who might be successful have?

Being a successful project manager can be a very challenging and demanding role.  It requires a very broad range of soft and hard skills. It is not common to find people who do well in both, not to mention have the breadth of skills required to be a successful PM.

Of the two, soft skills (and qualities) of a particular kind are the most important.  That does not mean we don’t need to plan, however, these skills must be evident in the project every day and especially at challenging times.

Let’s look at a few real examples:

  • Respect: perhaps a strange one to begin with, but all successful project managers must have the respect of the team and their own superiors.  We achieve this through two main things: real competence and the way we behave towards others, especially at key moments.  Being open is also a great thing to do.
  • Responsibility: successful project managers understand they need to think and behave (professionally) like they are responsible for the project’s success – not just for facilitating the management process.  This results in a far different approach to this role.
  • Judgement: we all love to think we have great judgment.  Sadly it’s just not true. Even basic things like instantly being able to see the difference between important and urgent is not obvious to all.
  • Empathy: aka emotional intelligence. A controversial ‘topic’ but one that does describe very well the capabilities of those who do well in this role. They adapt quickly to the environment they work in and never fall back on fixed models. They tend to be highly pragmatic (not dogmatic) people.
  • Listening skills:  once again, we all think we are great listeners. Successful project managers will often ask more questions than those around them – and will never be afraid to do so.  This is an example of having advanced levels of listening skills.
  • Collaboration: engaging and involving people in decision-making and sharing important information openly and widely.  Building consensus, not just for what is to be done, but how it will be done too.
  • Organisational: one of the most underrated but valuable skills to projects.  Again, we all love to think we are great organisers.  The gaps and cracks that things commonly fall through in real projects, demonstrate this is not true.
  • Problem-solving: projects are about solving problems and even dealing with severe issues from time to time.  The way an individual reacts and behaves and what they do in this situation can make or break any team or project.

Project Manager Competencies - From PMIS Consulting

On top of this, the person (regardless of what we call them) who takes on the PM role, has to understand how you plan (using Agile or non-Agile approaches) your project, and how to manage all the factors that are important to the customer and stakeholders of the project.

Here are the key points:

We may not be able to find one of the above people every time we run a project.  However, when the role is given to anyone who just happens to be available is likely at best leave to a large gap in the project. At worst it will cause real damage to the success of your project.

The casual way we often select project managers, even today, often with zero consideration to the above, is a large contributing factor to why so many projects fall a long way short of their promise.


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  1. Trish Bishop on November 15, 2017 at 8:06 pm

    All great points Kevin. Since you’ve addressed the soft skills aspect, my comment is more on the tactical side. As a PM with a natural talent for it, I’m always shocked at how other people perceive me (as being some organizational/planning/leader guru). I’m not going to say I’m not, I’m just saying I’m wired that way – it’s as natural as breathing. I don’t say this to toot my own horn, but to point out that many people are simply not wired for those things – many people (who are exceptionally good at what they do) struggle with organizing their own day let alone all of the moving pieces of a project. It truly is a magic blend of both the tactical and soft skills that makes a great PM. The lack of those skills in whoever is ‘leading the project’, especially if they’re leading it ‘off the side of their desk’ is a recipe for disaster. It doesn’t work.

    • Kevin Lonergan on November 15, 2017 at 9:01 pm

      Trish – many thanks. I agree totally about some being/not being ‘wired up that way’. We work with many organisations and that’s exactly what we see. Too many organisations see PM as a title/role and it’s not – it’s a very specific skillset.

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