The Accidental Project Manager: A Threat or an Opportunity?

Good Day All

Are you an accidental project manager?

We hope that no one get offended by this term since the use of this term in our view is not offensive at all, rather it reflects a common reality. However, in case anyone object to the term, we truly apologize in advance and humbly ask you to read on and you might find out that our intentions are good-hearted.

Definition

So what is the accidental project manager? Is it someone who is clumsy and stumbles into too many accidents? Absolutely not!

It is a term that somewhat common to use. It typically refers to a professional who is educated, experienced, and practicing in one function or domain, such as: engineering, programming, marketing, human resources, finance, general business, art, and healthcare, among many other fields. This professional, at one time or another, is tasked with managing a project related to their function or department, such as an engineering related project, learning and development project, a media project, or any other project. Now, the challenge is that more often than none, this professional might not have any experience or education or training in project management yet they are still asked to manage a project.

In other words, the professional is accidentally, or by chance/coincidence, get to manage a project although that was not likely a preferred career choice. Managing the project can be on a part-time or full-time basis. Once the project is complete, the professional resume his or her normal functional duties and maybe never manage a project again.

The Opportunity

For many professionals the above bring about a great opportunity. An opportunity to take on a new challenge, and acquire new and highly valuable skills; management skills. These skills are in demand in today’s economy and life and are transferable to many domains, including managing personal non-work initiatives.

If the person does a good job in managing the first project, she/he might be given an opportunity to manage another, and another, and maybe shift totally into project management and become a career project manager. A career PM is someone who chose project management as a career choice and shifted from whatever career they were in before. The transition might not be easy but would be quite rewarding.

The Threats

The threat to the professional and the organization is that the accidental PM might not be ready to manage a project and as a result they might not do well on the first project. If the project has a significant degree of complexity, then the project might even fail and we are likely to blame the project manager. Could this be the error of the accidental PM? Basically, the professional is given a new “challenge” as the boss might have said, yet this professional who is given the challenge might not have the characteristics that is necessary for a good career project manager. Further, this person might not have been given the necessary education or know how to manage the projects and would not be fair to blame her/him.

Therefore, the threat in this case is double edge: on the personal aspects, the accidental project manager is likely to feel responsible for the failure and this situation might hurt them professionally and personally. In some cases the consequences could be severe and detrimental to the person’s career. The other aspect for this situation is the organizational aspect. Here we have a failed project with cost and schedule impact – at least. If the project is for a client, the damage could be significant.

In short, all involved lose in this scenario.

The Solution

One solution is to have all project managers educated and trained in project management but we do not believe this is necessary for all type of projects. For major capital investment projects, and projects that are very important for an organization we need the necessary preparation before we should put a project manager in charge.

However, many projects, especially those in our day-to-day life and business, can be managed effectively with accidental project managers with some preparation. But we should not throw the person into the ocean and expect them to reach the shores safely if they do not know how to swim. We need to teach them the necessary to survive, maybe in a large pool and not the ocean; for the ocean we need an expert swimmer.

How can we do that? Have the professional works on projects to see what it is like. Provide some basic project management learning opportunities. Have the person work as an assistant project manager under the supervision of a more experienced professional. All of these actions will enhance the chance of success and minimize the chance of failure. This way, we would have effectively managed the risk of the accidental project manager and the professional gain new skills while the organization enjoys the benefits of a new service or product.

For all professionals out in the world, welcome the opportunity to manage a project and it may change your life. If the organization gives you the task without getting you ready, prepare on your own – seek the new knowledge and best of all learn how to apply it.

We wish you an enjoyable and exciting journey of learning and growth.

By the way, the author started his career as an engineer and then moved to projects.