In recent years there has been a significant rise in professionalism of project managers also in the academic research sector in the universities. It is being more and more demanded by employers, clients, sponsors, owners and funding organizations who are looking for a guarantee of quality in managing the creative academic work. Project management professionals also themselves need the credentials of quality in execution. They need to prove that their success was not dumb luck, but very well and carefully prepared and executed luck.
The project management professionals especially in the academic world are often on an “accidental” career track. One begins by doing project management as a side job to the research work. That’s fine and it gets you from A to B, but the accidental project managers base their success on hope. They hope that they will manage. And sometimes you get what you are hoping for.
For every project manager there has to be the first time, but drifting to a role of project responsibility without proper training is like walking on thin ice. Who would want to follow the footsteps on that melting thin ice?
The fact is that we all have to do that. In real life one has to learn to cope with project managers who are strangers to the field. In terms of creative process it might seem like a brilliant idea to have a first timer work on a R&D project. For sure they will do things differently! This setting, innovative as it may be, requires a lot of coaching and training from other managers assuring that the slippery footsteps lead back to the shore. But taking that chilly walk will give everyone in the team wet socks and a nasty flu.
Like in all projects lessons learned is what we will gain, no matter what the project results were. With accidental project managers we might learn a lot more than we actually wanted.
I am convinced that learning by doing is the right way to go, but it is the organizations risk that has to be managed by proper training. When first time project managers take the wheel increased support, coaching and mentoring is needed, so that the team can have a positive learning curve rather than a downwards looking trajectory of failing. Things have a tendency to escalate, so why not let it escalate towards something positive? Instead of hoping that things will eventually turn out fine, I recommend to aim for careful preparation and execution with a bit of luck.