Originally published in September 2013, updated November 2013.
Are you an accidental project manager?
I 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. It is for those non-project managers who are asked and expected to manage projects.
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 in project management.
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, who is not a project manager, 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. These could be business majors, doctors, pilots, engineers, or any other field of specialty.
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 another project again.
For some professionals the above bring about a great opportunity. An opportunity to take on a new challenge, and acquire new and highly valuable skills; project management skills. These skills are in demand in today’s economy and in life. Further, these skills 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 project manager is someone who choose project management as a career choice and shift into it from whatever career they were in before. The transition might not be easy but would be quite rewarding.
The threat to the professional (the accidental project manager) and the organization is that the accidental project manager might not be ready to manage a project and as a result they might not do well on the project. If the project has a degree of complexity, then the project might even fail and we are likely to blame the project manager. Could this failure be the fault of the accidental project manager? Basically, this professional is given a new “challenge”, as the boss might have claimed, yet this professional who is given the challenge might not have the characteristics that is necessary for a good project manager. Further, this person might not have been given the necessary education/training or know how to manage the project 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 is the organizational aspect. Here we have a failed project with cost, schedule, and possibly other consequences. If the project is for a client, the damage could be significant.
In short, all involved lose in this scenario.
The above threats and opportunities are synonyms for risk. Then how can we manage this risk; i.e. minimizing the threats and maximizing the opportunities?
One solution is to have all project managers educated or trained in project management and should be professional project managers. However, 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 and in these situations we need career project managers.
On the other hand, many projects, especially those in our day-to-day life and business, we can manage them effectively with accidental project managers … with some preparation and development. 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 help them learn the necessary skills to survive, maybe we start in a large pool and not the ocean; for the ocean we need an expert swimmer and on calm beach basic swimming skills will do. The same concept applies in the organizational environment.
How can we do that? How can we prepare and develop a person to become an accidental project manager and maybe even career project manager?
We can 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 reduce 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 the accidental project managers 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.
The author of this article, was an accidental project manager. I started my career as a civil engineer and was assigned to work on projects; not as project manager, since these were major construction projects. I fell in love with project management and I went back to school to get a Master of Science in Engineering and Construction Management; a specialized form of project management and I have been in this domain ever since.
It has been a wonderful 22 years since my MS and looking forward for another 20 years of joy in helping people realize their potential.