The Accidental Project Manager is no accident!

Karen Clarke | Aug 2, 2019


The accidental project manager has been a part of project management folklore for many years. The results of a survey conducted in Western Australia in 2010 indicated that most project managers in the public sector were selected on the basis of their technical expertise than for their management skills. Similar parallels can be drawn from the New Zealand experience. It is surprising that, with the growing awareness and understanding of the value of project management in organisations, it should be expected that project managers would be selected on the basis of management potential rather than technical abilities. It was further suggested that senior management needed to re-evaluate the way in which they selected project managers so that individuals with the appropriate skills were chosen to undertake this demanding role.

Over the past decade, the importance of project management to implement business strategies to achieve organisational goals is acknowledged (if not embraced). Consequently, one would have expected that the ‘accidental project manager’ would be close to extinction. Our experience however is that the accidental project manager is still alive and kicking in the public sector!

So why has this situation not changed?  Public sector organisations recognise the need for professionals to manage projects (particularly ‘ICT’ projects) and will draw on in-house expertise or bring in contractors to deliver the big projects. So far, so good.  However, for ‘business’ projects delivering change or for ‘BAU’ requirements, it’s more likely the organisation will appoint a Subject Matter Expert (SME) to lead the work – technical expertise valued over the project management aspects of scope, time, cost, people, risk, communications and stakeholder engagement.

In order for this strategy to work effectively, senior management needs to be proactive in offering development opportunities to existing and potential project managers and to recognise the value that they add. There is also the potential for organisations to be innovative in their solutions that engage several people across the organisation—for example, coaching and mentoring, as well as assessment and feedback. The lack of project management tools, techniques, and methodologies should also be of concern. Without these, an organization does not have a strong foundation from which to build skilled project managers, an organisational culture of project management, and, ultimately, better business outcomes.

Are you an accidental project manager?  Do you want some ideas and resources to help you to be better in this role?  Try the Project Manager Capability Assessment