So you want to become a Project Manager? Here's what the theory books don't tell you...

Want to know the reality of Project Management? Read on...

photo of Chris Hibbert
Chris Hibbert

Programme Manager

2021 marks my tenth year in Programme and Project Management and I thought it would be a great time to share some of the realities of the role, especially for those looking to take their first steps into Project Management.

What training do I need?: A question I have been asked a number of times is "What training do I need in order to become a Project Manager?". The answer...don't necessarily go straight into training. In reality, Project Management is a long-term personal development tool that takes years to refine. Everyone learns in a different way, in my experience, your best approach is to look for a 'Project Coordinator' or 'Project Administrator' type role. These roles will give you exposure to running projects without the risk of being fully accountable. As your Project Management career progresses, training is important...but it's not cheap and therefore having some prior experience will help you pick the course that suits you best.

So here's what to expect in the role...

It's like managing people without the formal responsibility. This is a biggie. To be a successful Project Manager you'll need to display a lot of people management values, but you'll still need to work with the team members' Line Manager to align resources and resolve any issues. You will get to know people in order to build your cross-department team which will create mutual respect for those times that you will need to ask for favours. You'll need to be able to create a single view of objectives that compliments what each team has individually been asked to deliver and you'll need to link the project you are managing to the strategy of the business. When things get tense during a project you'll need to be able to get people together and diffuse any concerns before it causes an issue.

Accept that people only want answers. Project Charters, Project Schedules, Test Plans, Risk Registers. Just between you and me I'm going to share a secret. Here goes...all stakeholders want to know is when your beautifully crafted pictures will deliver results. Your job is to show people that project governance is valuable and not a hindrance. Focus on Return on Investment. There's no point in running if you're heading in the wrong direction.This is where your project charter comes in. There's no point in baking a cake if you add your ingredients in the wrong order. This is where the project schedule comes in. There's no point in going to the pub for a few glasses of vino tinto if you've not noticed the steep stairs down to the toilet that might catch you out. This is where your risk register comes in. Project governance provides a more predictable delivery, it's better than getting to the end of the project and it goes wrong because no-one has taken care.


You need to be comfortable being uncomfortable. Projects exist because what you are trying to deliver needs control in order for it to go well. Projects can be unpredictable and full of risk. There's no easy way to deal with this other than to build resilience through experience, keep learning and know that you have controlled the project in the best way that you can. Don't give yourself a hard time because you spotted 9 risks and the 10th one has caught you off guard. If you engage a multi-disciplinary team to identify as many risks as possible, build spare time (contingency) into the plan in order to react to unforeseen issues then most of the time you will be just fine!

Pick the most valuable documents. If you're not careful, you can bore a child to tears on their birthday with the wrong documents. Project Management is full of documents for everything, even documents which explain the relationship between documents! Boring! Some documents are critical and you can't manage a project without them:

  • Project Charter, which is also called a Project Initiation Document. This will contain your project objectives, scope and an initial risk assessment.

  • Roles and Responsibilities Matrix. People need to know what is expected of them and what is expected of each other.

  • Communication Plan. How are you going to communicate, internally and externally? What's the plan for communicating if something unexpected happens?

  • Test Plan. This will help define what good looks like so that there is no ambiguity in the project. This document can also show how documents will be signed off by customers so that they are on the hook for delivering too.

  • Planning and Monitoring tools (including Agile delivery and/or Gantt charts). A decent bit of software will help you visualise a plan, check that everything stays on track and helps to make people accountable.

  • Post-Implementation Review. What went well and what can be improved? These are 2 really important questions to ask at the end of every project.

In summary, Project Management can be a very rewarding career and whilst the reality of the role is often different to what you read about, you can be sure that the role will consistently offer variety and learning opportunities. Even though I've been doing this for 10 years now, I still learn every day.

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