Two weeks ago I attended a webinar hosted by ESI on the role of competency frameworks in developing project managers and how you can build your own competency model for your company.  You can read my post about what competencies are and why having a framework is a good idea here.  In this post I am going to explain J. LeRoy Ward’s five steps to setting up a competency framework in your organisation, based on my notes from that webinar.

He presented a five-step approach:

  • Define the categories of projects that the organisation is working on.
  • Identify competencies for project managers.
  • Assess your project managers against these competencies.
  • Identify what you need to do to get people to where they need to be.
  • Execute well, monitor how it is going and measure the results.

Let’s take each of those in turn.  Today I’ll be looking at the first two of those steps, and next week I’ll cover the final three.  That should give you time to get started on implementing these first steps!

1.  Define the categories of projects that the organisation is working on

“We need to understand our different types of projects and come up with a set of critiera that makes sense for your organisation,” Ward explained.  These categories could be anything, but a sensible starting point for your first category is the size of the projects your company carries out.  “Size is important,” he said, “and it is one of the variables that affect a lot of other variables like cost and the approaches we use.”  Within the category of size you could have small, medium and large projects categorised by duration, for example.

Ward explained that three to five categories of project type would be adequate. Any more and you start to get lost in the detail.  Any fewer and all your projects will end up in one big bucket.  He also stressed the need for all the relevant stakeholders to agree that this is how you will split up projects.  It sounds simple to get agreement on categories, but it can take some time and several iterations to bring everyone on board.

Aside from size, other categories for your projects could be:

  • Cost
  • Length of time
  • Complexity
  • Location of team members
  • Using new methods or approaches

Choose things that make sense for your company.

2.  Identify competencies for project managers

“Now we need to identify the competencies which tend to be general in nature,” Ward explained.  For each of your categories, establish what you require the project manager to be able to do.  For example if Project Size is one of your categories, you may want to classify projects as ‘team of three or less’, ‘team of four to twelve’ or ‘team of more than twelve’.  On a small project a project manager may require no budget handling skills.  On a medium project they may require the ability to track and monitor spending up to $100,000 using spreadsheets.  On a large project they may need to use a bespoke financial management system, complete earned value analysis and track budgets of over $5m.  As well as budget handling, they may need team management skills and project planning skills.  These are other competencies you can add to the list.  You can set meaningful competencies that make sense for your company and they type of projects you do.

Once the competencies are drafted you may have to go through two or three reviews with key stakeholders and then have a final meeting with the approving person, usually the HR Director.

“If you are having trouble getting started, have a look at the job descriptions,” Ward said.  He also recommended reading job adverts as this can help you identify the things that other companies consider important and you can translate this to something for your own company.

3.  Assess your project managers against these competencies

“This is not an evaluation,” Ward explained.  “We’re not going to use it to promote them, demote them or humiliate them. What we are going to do is use this as a baseline to help with their professional development.”

The assessment takes the form of a gap analysis: what skills does your project management community have and what is lacking?  There are several ways you could do this:

  • Use an assessment tool – there are several on the market and consulting companies can often provide a piece of software to do this.
  • Carry out on-the-job observation by asking to see documentation, for example. This can be done internally by the PMO or by external advisers.
  • Interview the project managers, customers, stakeholders and so on to get a rounded picture. Again, this can be done by internal or external resources.
  • Carry out formal performance evaluations, or use the last set of formal evaluations that were done.
  • Ask project managers to take tests like PRINCE2 or PMP, or look at whether they have earned any type of certification.

4. Identify what you need to do to get people to where they need to be

Once you know what the gaps are, how are you going to upskill your project managers?

You could organise formal training in the required areas, for example:

- Basic project management skills such as creating work breakdown structures.

- Business and professional skills like giving presentations or in particular software applications.

- Company-specific training that is tailored to your organisation and is usually very practical.

On-the-job training is another alternative.  You could provide developmental assignments by teaming up a project manager with a more senior project manager on a larger project.  This type of stretch assignment can help them to develop.  Ward explained that in the IT industry this doesn’t happen often and project managers are given larger assignments and their managers are then disappointed that it doesn’t work out, although there was no support provided to help them make it a success.

“Encourage your team to go through a certification process,” he suggested.  A lower cost option he gave was to offer coaching and mentoring.  Ward’s final point was to look at the way in which projects are run.  “We can do some level of process engineering that makes sure it is not the way that we do it that is acting as an obstacle to our project management.”

5.  Execute well, monitor how it is going and measure the results

“Are people going to the training?” Ward said.  “We don’t need to just inform people that it is available, we need to market the training.”  In this phase you will probably need to address some challenges, such as making sure that delegates for courses have approval for time away from the job.  There is also a hill to climb if costs are involved, as you will no doubt encounter resistance from managers who do not want to spend the money investing in their people.

Ward said that managers often ask, “What if we train them and they leave?”  He countered by saying, “What if you don’t and they stay?  We don’t have an option in this. If we want people to perform at higher and higher levels we have to do something. We have to think hard about how we are going to provide people with these competencies.”

Ward also recommended that you make sure that you have sufficient support staff to manage the roll out of any programme to upskill project managers.  It is not a good idea to put the whole competency model in place and then find it is “meaningless in the face of poor execution.”  Essentially, this is a project, so get out Seavus Project Viewer or the tool you use and plan it all properly.  Do you have the admin people, resources, training facilities etc to make it a success?

It’s one thing to develop and plan a programme of training and other interventions to support the development of project managers, but quite another to assess whether it has actually made a difference to the ability of your organisation’s project managers.  Next week I’ll be writing about how you assess whether any project management training programme has been a success.