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Project Managers - When do we get to be more like plumbers?

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Plumbers are professionals. They are not just people who tote tool boxes. They are people who fundamentally understand the workings of plumbing; how water moves uphill, downhill, round bends; pressures and orifices; the suitability of the different types of pipework and fittings; etc. etc. Oh yes, and they have a tool box too!

However a man cant just walk into his local hardware store, purchase a Plumbers Toolbox and walk out a plumber! There is a system of accreditation which verifies understanding of the principles of plumbing and competence in the appropriate use of a collection of tools.

As in any profession, plumbers are the product of their knowledge and experience and as they become more experienced and seasoned they will add new tools to their tool box and some of the old ones will become trusted friends. They will know everything in their tool box and when it is most appropriate to use it. They will know what fits and what they are most comfortable with. They will know how to get the right results.

As a person employing a plumber I will not expect him to discuss with me what is in his toolbox, I will not want to inspect his tool box, nor will I want to see his certificates in how to use his various tools. I will also not be expressing a preference of the make of tools he has chosen. I will trust that he is a plumber and he knows what he is doing.

Of course, if he has no tool box I will be alarmed. If his choice of tools is clearly unsuitable a mallet to make a hole in the wall I will be worried, with just cause. However I will be equally worried if, when asked about progress, he talks about what tools he has used and when. I will want to know what issues are causing him concern, what mitigating action he is taking, and what if any effects there are to schedule and budget.  

So when do project managers get to move into this professional arena. When do we as employers, stop focussing on the tools; stop wanting to inspect the tool box and the certification; stop expressing a preference over the brand of tools; and start recognising the innate ability of a project manager to know the job?

This surely has to be next level of maturity within the profession.....?


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  1. Lindsay Scott
    Lindsay Scott 23 February 2011, 03:08 PM

    This is an interesting comment re: do project managers exist, because as a specialist in project management recruitment we have come across some organisations other the years that don't see project managers as anything special. In other words, there is nothing a general manager within their organisation with an ounce of common sense couldn't do and why on earth would they need a "special" manager like a project manager. 

  2. Andrew Nichols
    Andrew Nichols 23 February 2011, 04:39 PM

    And as a project manager how did you answer?I too have come across this attitude, I found the best way to challenge this attitude was to ask the question "So all your projects come in on time, on budget on quality and delivery all the benefits they comitted to delivering?"Andy

  3. Andrew Nichols
    Andrew Nichols 23 February 2011, 02:34 PM

    Let's be a little controversial. I don't think there is any such thing as either a plumber or a project manager.All you have are Risk Managers with different skill sets and you call in the appropriate one to deal with the issue at hand.What is project management other than a set of skills (hard and soft) which mitigate the risk of carrying out a change?A plumber is the same, just a different set of skills and a different set of tools. He too mitigates risks, just within a different area of speciality and there are not many plumbers that I know who maintain project plans, communication plans, risk registers or issue logs, but all the (good) plumbers I have worked with a) plan b) mitigate risk c) manage issues while aiming to hit a deadline on quality and on budget.Andy

  4. Patrick Weaver
    Patrick Weaver 18 February 2011, 01:46 AM

    There are similarities and differences between plumbers and PMs. The major differences are:I disagree with Matt, many times the plumber is called in to define and solve a problem, leaks blockages, etc.  The difference is plumbers clients have a clear understanding of success and generally dont want to be involved in the doing of the work. Many PM clients have no-idea what success may look like, see: Tools are only ever a means to an end. Plumbers clients do not measure how effectively the plumber is using his/her tools, whereas most project management clients focus almost exclusively on the processes (particularly time and cost) and ignore outputs and the associated value because it is too hard. A better appreciation of the Value Chain is needed, see: Plumbers generally get paid more than PMs (in Australia anyway).The major similarity is both plumbers and PMs frequently end up dealing with other peoples mess.  Plumbers know this is part of their job, many PMs get a nasty surprise!

  5. Matt Whyndham
    Matt Whyndham 17 February 2011, 06:16 PM

    There are major differences. Plumbing is a trade which exists because of the clear scope of work at the outset. The work itself consists of hardware that mainly conforms to standards and off-the shelf units. Relationships with customers are often brief, not because of a lack of interest in the tools and techniques (it is their money and property that is involved, after all), but because of the short timescales involved. By the time the customer gets home, the job is done!Whereas a project manager is a manager primarily, and not simply a technician of projects. Projects are typically longer (3 years rather than 3 days) and the role covers a great deal more than delivering set things to time and cost. Typically, their first job is to artfully tailor the Project Management Plan to the context at hand (never standardised), and to do this they need to engage with the local stakeholders.Yes, I would like to see trust in qualified PM's, but I would never hope to see PM's put in a corner and told to get on with it.If we have to have an analogy, I would rather it be with Architects or Chief Engineers.