A couple of days ago I saw an interesting and challenging question regarding a Project Manager’s skillset. The inquirer had a genuine need to understand the appropriate level of expectations when it came to Project Managers. He asked:

“How can anyone call themselves a Project Manager and be taken seriously as a PM professional if they are unable to use a PM scheduling tool such as MS Project or Primavera?”

This is a very fair question to ask. It is an important consideration to determine the type of qualifications and the way project management is practiced in the organization. It even becomes more important when we consider a couple of points of reference from the anecdotal feedback we sometimes hear in the field:

  • the market is littered with individuals who claim to be Project Managers or PM practitioners but in reality they may not know the first thing about the discipline.
  • there are some in our ranks who complain of certified professionals who lack the basic understanding of the PM approach. So in light of these two

While these statements are harsh and exaggerated, there is a nugget of truth behind them, especially when we take into account that the business world remains divided their view of Project Management as a profession. I certainly view PM as a profession but I recognize that my viewpoint is sometimes not shared by clients, employers, and even other practitioners. One organization I worked with for example views PM as a skillset that every employee must have to deliver their work.

Addressing this question from their point of view becomes even more important. If PM is a skillset and the practitioner is not even able to use a tool to produce a deliverable as critical as a project schedule, then that may lead to the conclusion that this person is not skilled in this area and as such can not be considered an effective project manager.

In my experience I see the wisdom behind the “consultant’s answer” to questions of this nature. The answer is “it depends!” There are several dimensions that would drive me toward one conclusion versus the other. They include:

  • Organizational Context. The type of expectations required by the PM in the context of the organization would dictate whether this skill is needed or not. One company I became aware of expects their project managers to almost act as lobbyists by liaising with government agencies to get the job done. In their case they don’t expect the PM to produce a project schedule. They hired a project controls team that is responsible for it.
  • Client Expectations. Whether it is an external client or an internal project sponsor, client expectations play an important role in determining the technical competence level required to do the job. While I could launch into a 4 hour debate on whether a project manager needs technical skills or not, this issue is irrelevant if the project client thinks so. Some clients have certain demands and expectations that will not shift.
  • Team Composition. The type of team that is being assembled and the expectations of the roles and responsibilities of team members will also influence how this question is answered. If the PM is expected to perform in a senior capacity interacting with senior executives maybe they don’t need to worry about developing schedules.

In my view the ability to intelligently read and act upon a project schedule is far more important than putting one together. This is no different than what we expect of a business manager who should know how to read financial reports such as profit and loss or balance sheet documents but we don’t have an expectation that this same business manager should put them together him/herself. Whether the PM develops the schedule on their own, over see someone else build it, or delegate it completely, the PM needs to be fluent enough in reading them to determine how to drive project activities and lead teams.