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Why Good Managers Fail
By Barry Otterholt

Organizations often lose their best managers because they are given a project to manage. Once I was brought in to a project that was chewing up the organization’s best managers so fast that they coined the phrase “bonepile” to describe where they threw all the failed managers.

Project management is a specialty. The skills required to manage a project draw only partially from day-to-day management experience. The mechanisms used to become effective operational managers can even get in the way when managing projects. Here are a few differences:

  • Timeframe – Operations managers have a continuous timeframe point-of-view, whereas project managers have a periodic or constrained timeframe point-of-view.
  • Communication – Operations managers tend to follow the organizational hierarchy in their communications paths, whereas the project manager crosses organizational boundaries in more of a matrix manner.
  • Orientation – Operations managers have a process orientation, whereas project managers have a product orientation.
  • Authority – Operations managers benefit from the line authority they have, whereas project managers must earn referent authority; that which is gained through credibility.
  • Attrition Impact – The impact of attrition is generally lower to operations managers than to project managers, since project managers are working against the clock with specialized staff resources.
  • Predisposition – Operations managers tend to favor environmental stability or status quo whereas project managers deliberately change status quo.

Projects seldom provide extra budget for apprentice project manager positions, so that a pool of qualified project managers could be grown for the future. Yet on-the-job training is certainly the best way to gain essential skills. So what do you do? The answer is twofold: First, gain specialized academic knowledge before you take on a project. Many local educational insitutions now provide project management courses. The Project Managent Institute (PMI) is increasingly recognized as a credible source of education too. Second, get a mentor. There’s no substitute for experience. And if you don’t have it, your project will struggle or even fail. Experienced project managers are available on an as-needed hourly basis to mentor you through unfamiliar situations. Referrals are available through Project Management Institute or the Institute of Management Consultants (IMCUSA). A good one will easily pay for him/herself in the costs that can be avoided with solid project management.

So, don’t give up. Get experience. The rewards of successful project management are abundant, and the relationships you grow tend to be deep and lasting.

Barry Otterholt, CMC, PMP

Barry Otterholt has been a project management specialist and coach for the past 30 years. He is a Certified Management Consultant (CMC) and a Project Management Professional (PMP). He works with both public and private sector companies in the USA, Europe and Scandinavia. Mr. Otterholt was a Director with Microsoft, a senior consultant with Deloitte Consulting, and a COO with a nationwide consumer electronics enterprise. In 1988 he founded Public Knowledge, LLC to provide independent management and operational support to the public sector. More recently, he founded Stouffer & Company, LLC to provide as-needed project management services to fill an obvious skills gap in both private and public sectors.

Mr. Otterholt is an adjunct professor teaching project management at Northwest University. His essays on project management have been published in PMI newsletters. His runs a blog, Project Management Essays, where he muses about various project management topics.

Mr. Otterholt is a member of the Institute of Management Consultants (IMC) and the Project Management Institute (PMI). He has a BA in Accounting and Computer Science and an MBA in Business Administration. He lives in the beautiful Pacific Northwest.

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