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What makes a competent project manager?

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Competence, not qualifications, should be the most important priority when training project managers.

In 1971, when I joined the mining industry, the National Coal Board was developing and introducing standards-based training. At the time, this was cutting-edge, way ahead of its time and, in my opinion, the best available training programme in the mining industry.

This was the training environment I was introduced to and I can only describe it as superb. Courses and opportunities were available for every existing mining job role, including mine manager, engineer, electrician, mechanic and miner. 

This was, in effect, the precursor to vocational qualifications linked to national occupational standards (NOS), which later became national vocational qualifications (NVQs). I will confess that I am a convert to NOS and NVQs (or the qualifications and credit framework – QCF – as they are now known); originally, I was in the camp that believed that NVQ stood for ‘not very qualified’.

What was realised, in later years, is that not every person learns in the same way. Some will learn all they need from training courses, some will learn on the web, some study alone and some need to be shown on the job.

There will also be other methods that some individuals use effectively. The importance is not the training, the training course or whatever method is used to gain competence, but the standard that is to be achieved.

Competence is based on fact – it is not just an opinion. A competence assessment system comprises a standard, a method of providing evidence of competently meeting the standard and a method of quality assuring how that evidence is collected. This is how project managers should be trained, to maximise their abilities and career success.

Creating a standard
A standard defines the competencies required by an individual to perform his or her job roles. The standard describes what comprises a minimum performance level and defines criteria for measuring that performance. 

When creating a standard, it needs to:

  • Describe the correct, accepted way of carrying out a job role;
  • Define the skills required by the job role;
  • Indicate the acceptable behaviour required, pertinent to the hazard and the risks of the job;
  • Define the underpinning knowledge related to the job role.

Note that it is vital that the standard, measurement and evidence prove that an individual can carry out a job role – as opposed to simply providing evidence of underpinning knowledge. The standard is about competence, not just a qualification.

There are various different definitions of ‘competence’, but it is generally accepted to mean the ability to perform the activities within an occupation or function to the standard expected in employment. In layman’s terms, that someone is able to carry out the job as required and expected.

The important part of this definition is the word ‘standard’. This takes me back to my early days of standards-based training, where the importance was placed on the quality of the training to achieve the standard.

This thinking has now changed. The importance is now on the standard – how it is achieved is of lesser importance.

This recognises that different people learn in different ways. If the standard is achieved, the training was good and achieved the target it was aimed at – the ‘standard’. By making the standard the important part of what the training has toachieve (what is aimed at) you are creating a measure to assess performance (competence) against.

It must be emphasised that competence does not come from training alone. It is made up of a combination of skill, experience, knowledge and attitude. All of these together equal ability which, if used constantly and consistently to a standard, equals competence – which all project managers strive for.

These suggestions may seem a little over the top to those project management firms that already have a fully competent workforce of project managers. But what if they are not as competent as you assume they are? People will suffer, both physically and financially, and the business will not do as well as it could. Prevention is better than cure.

Skills: The ability to interpret information, diagnose potential problems, apply corrective action (in line with employer and legal requirements and in consultation) and follow procedures.

Underpinning knowledge: Understanding the impact of underperformance.
Behaviours: Attitudes to safety, leadership, management, communication, teamwork, achievement of goals and achievement of standards.

Benefits of competence assessment

  • Identifies gaps in competence
  • Allows training to be focused on who needs it and where it is needed and will provide the most benefit to the business
  • Ensures value for investment
  • Defines minimum requirements for the job description through standards
  • Removes unrealistic expectations
  • Provides evidence of a reduction in performance
  • Leads to continuous improvement

How to build a competence-based training system

  • Define standard
  • Collect evidence of individual performance
  • Map evidence to standard
  • Make factual decisions regarding competence
  • Give feedback (competent or not yet competent)
  • Plan to cover gaps if not competent
  • Issue certificate when competence achieved
  • Define life of certificate (prioritise)

This blog first appeared as an article in the Spring edition of Project Journal.


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