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How to Become an Accidental Project Manager

~ By Duncan Haughey

Human silhouettes with one in a different colour standing out from the crowd

First, there is no easy one line answer or formula to becoming a project manager. In this article, I'll explore what aspiring project managers can do to exploit any opportunities that exist. I'll look at how they can give themselves the best chance of entering the project management profession, and ultimately becoming a project manager.

There are many articles written on the subject that explore the need for experience, certification and skills. In this article, I'll look at the problem from a new angle - the accidental project manager.

There is a well-known quote by Colin Bentley, author of multiple project management books, Why do so many professionals say they are project managing, when what they are actually doing is firefighting? This quote suggests many businesses are struggling to deliver projects well.

When looking back in my career, I can see I often got to run great projects because I was in the right place at the right time. On other occasions, the person engaging me had little idea of running projects, but, didn't like to admit it. They were desperate for help.

Although less prevalent since the rise of project management certifications, I've seen plenty of projects delivered not through good project management practice, but by personal heroics, overtime and sheer bloody-minded endeavour. The project team ended up exhausted, demoralised and flicking through the positions vacant pages in the trade press.

So where am I going with this? Don't assume all projects run flawlessly, managed by seasoned project managers, faithfully following PRINCE2, Scrum, Six Sigma or another methodology. There are plenty of opportunities if you look for them. Senior executives are looking for people to run their projects now. What you need to do is seek them out, convince them you have the skills they need, and take on the challenge.

Look for any opportunity you can. There are many accidental project managers out there who fell into the project management profession to fill a need. Sometimes lazy executives take the easy way out and engage the person in front of them.

So, what can you do to help increase your chances of becoming an accidental project manager?

  1. Get that all important certification. It doesn't matter which one, as likely the person engaging you will not know their PRINCE2 from Six Sigma. They'll just take comfort in the fact you are certified.
  2. Prepare an elevator speech to convince any executive that you know how to manage projects.
  3. Actively seek opportunities where you work, ask questions around the water-cooler. What projects are coming up? Who's gone sick? Are we recruiting project managers?
  4. When an opportunity arises, pull out all the stops. Manage the project to a successful conclusion, using a proven methodology.

What you don't know about the business you work in may surprise you. Often, I'm asked whether I know anyone to manage a particular project assignment. Likely if someone had asked about opportunities at that moment, they'd have been given the project.

Summary

Many people have fallen into project management to fill a gap and found themselves a career. Don't neglect your studies and skills development, but equally, don't wait for opportunities to present themselves. Actively seek out opportunities and maximise your chance of becoming an accidental project manager.


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