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The Case of the Accidental PM

Sure, “The Accidental” this and the “The Accidental” that is such a cliché, yet when you google “Accidental Project Manager,” you get 24 million results. Results like 4 Ways to Succeed as an Accidental Project Manager and 6 Tips for the Accidental Project Manager top the list. Even the PMI Learning Library has an article titled The Accidental Project Manager, wherein lies a listing of survival skills for this flavor of manager.

So, inquiring minds want to know: who is this accidental manager, and how many of them are really out there? I could start by describing my own experience starting out that way, but let me talk data first. To begin, I looked up the definition of an accidental PM online, and got something like this in most all cases:

“An Accidental Project Manager is a business professional where project management is a secondary responsibility, but who is asked to do important corporate projects nonetheless.” – The Google Machine

Hmmm… not my experience as an accidental PM at all. On further thought; however, I suspect there are many other personas for project managers working in the field that may or may not fall into just two buckets, accidental or not. In the end, I decided to create a list and started by polling every PM I “know” on social media, just to find out who’s out there, and how they see themselves.

Here’s the list I used to create my survey including some of the attributes I’ve observed over the years:

 

The PersonaAttributes & Observations
TravelerThe Traveler persona is most likely found on the road and in busy airports around the globe. Majority male, this group of PMs works for major industries, and are most often found flying business class. They often purchase software with their own credit cards, as their company PO policy is too cumbersome. Most likely they have some PM experience, and most likely follow the Waterfall (or older) PM methodology, utilizing Gantt and/or Pert charts. Most likely equipped with a high-end laptop and also using a tablet or phone to get work done. More than likely looking for a SaaS that works on all devices, specifically the iOS and Android flavors.

 

TraditionalistThe Traditionalist persona is one who has been around for years and years, and while this PM shares attributes with The Traveler, he or she is sedentary in nature; and mostly stays indoors behind a company-provided workstation. Older in habits and technology, this persona may not be looking for new SaaS to use in the workplace (they use MSP or Excel). Despite the company-provided workstation at home, they mostly like to use an iPad or iPhone outside the office. New work-related software is hard for them to learn, but they are masters on Facebook and with camera apps. At home, these folks spend a lot of time trying to stay relevant, but at work they are steeped in MSP and/or Excel, plus other industry-specific tools. More likely than not, The Traditionalist is interested in .mpp use.

 

Millennial

The Millennial persona is one we know because we’ve raised them. This generation is younger than The Traditionalist, but older than a college freshman, with little to some experience in the work world. If working in PM, they tend to use newer tech and methodologies, such as Agile and Kanban. You can find them working in Academia and with startups. These tykes all want to become a Silicon Valley hit – overnight! Their hardware and software reflect their lifestyle (dress to impress) and are most likely using newer Apple devices to get work done. New SaaS is simple to learn for them, and has to be colorful and cool to keep their attention.

 

HeroThe Hero persona is exemplified by those fighting climate change or some other injustice around the globe. This persona shares most all attributes of The Millennial, but is most likely in public service of some sort. Construction workers, forestry personnel, aid workers, first responders, community organizers, etc. are all job titles for The Hero. Socially conscious and socially connected, this group uses SaaS out of necessity, and prefers smaller devices to  bulky laptops. When employed, they tend to hop from one company to another, and are not reliant on any one PM tool – Google Docs is most often grabbed out of convenience, but they also flock to PM apps that perform like any other social-media apps (think Slack or Monday.com).

 

Professional OtherThe Professional Other persona (like many Heroes are), are engaged in some form of infrastructure development, and tend to be older construction workers, now turned construction managers. The Professional Other shares attributes with The Traveler, in the sense that they are often the road, and on-site instead of behind a desk (contrast this with The Traditionalist). These folks may be looking for mobile apps that can help those on the job-site perform better, but they themselves are using an old PC from the 2000’s. They might consider an app that can would keep them warm in the winter, but still use paper and phones to communicate.

 

OutsiderThe Outsider persona is one based outside of the continental US, and one not programmed in the traditional norms of PM—meaning they have had to learn how-to manage projects by watching YouTube videos or they are graduates from small Business Schools that showed them how to use a spreadsheet. The Outsider tends to use free software (or cracked), and/or work with paper and landlines. They share many of the same attributes as The Hero and The Traditionalist (but without MSP experience). Young and old, Outsiders tend to work in an ad-hoc style, using local currency, calendars, and languages to get work done. Most older Outsiders learn new software and techniques very slowly, and most couldn’t pick a Kanban Board out of a lineup.

 

StudentThe Student persona manifests in those still in school, or studying for a PM certification exam. We’re talking those with little-to-no PM work-experience. These aspiring PMs use the cheapest software they can find for their studies most likely spreadsheets), and may not understand traditional PM methodologies. Most students are using low-end laptops (even Chromebooks), but have expensive phones for everything else that they do. They are agile in learning new software, but bore easily when looking at rows and columns of data. As communicators and team players, they perform poorly (outside of social media and games). However, they are open to new software, techniques, and methodologies.

 

EducatorThe Educator persona is almost the opposite of The Student, in the sense that they are older, more set in their ways, and have very little use for PM software outside of a spreadsheet. The exception here is the PM Consultant, who often trains as well as consults (and tends to be more like The Professional). Both educators and training consultants tend to be older, and behave more like The Traditionalist or The Traveler. The Educator is less tech-savvy than a PM consultant, and is more theoretically-based than hands-on, unlike the PM consultant, who is more versed in real-life PM challenges.

 

ProfessionalThe Professional persona is one that works hard in the field and is passionate about the work. A mix of The Traditionalist, The Traveler and The Educator personas make this professional excel, without ever using Excel. Most PPPMs are a super-class within the field, and are highly sought after by larger organizations and startups alike. Examples are GitHub, Primavera, and MSP-users, who leverage the best software tools for the job, and can quickly adapt to new software, technologies, and techniques. These alpha PMs try out lots of software all the time, and are not afraid to move on if they see something better. However, a large majority of these uber PMs know of or have used MSP data during the course of their careers, and understand the value of good project data as they are familiar with macros, formulas, and can even write code.

 

Accidental PMThe Accidental PM persona encompasses all those thrown into a PM job—through no fault of their own. They may be in the position for just a short time, or for the life of the project-at-hand. Through both promotions and demotions, The Accidental PM may have been an engineer or other technical professional, but now finds themselves with the title of Project Manager. In most cases, The Accidental PM shares attributes with The Traveler, The Traditionalis, and The Outsider, and while these accidental PMs can be of any age, their familiarity with PM tools and methodologies is near nil. However, because of their transitional nature, these newbies are open to new software and eager to learn. Most likely a professional from another profession, they have the wherewithal to make new purchases, despite any large-org bureaucracies.

 

The above list was condensed into an online survey (still active today), and here are the results from all of LinkedIn members I polled (well, from all the PM groups I could find). Just over one thousand, 1,058 to be exact, responded at the time of this writing:

Results from PM Persona Survey

 

 

What it seems that PMI has neglected to tell us, is that more often than not, those of us holding PM titles were thrust into the position at no fault of our own—which is not the definition of an Accidental PM that I found on the web.

Take my own case, for example. When I was a lowly IBM content writer back in the early ‘80s, I was tagging along to COMDEX (a huge hardware expo from the past), where my department was demoing a new product that I had written the manual on. The lead demonstrator got sick, and that made me next up (I was the one who stood still, as volunteers were asked to step forward, and everyone else stepped back, but me). However, after returning home and after some time, the management team who had seen my Las Vegas performance conjured up some voodoo HR, and I was magically made product manager. Back then, project managers were called product managers, as the field had not really been invented yet (sic). I’ve been one or the other ever since.

Another example is my friend, Dan Lasota, who also identified himself as an Accidental PM when polled. His story is a bit like mine, but instead of working as a writer-turned-PM, he was working as a construction manager for a growing company. One Monday morning he was told that he was no longer reporting to a single construction site (Dan sure likes to hammer when he can), but instead, he was now project manager for the company’s entire portfolio. Dan is working hard to catch up, after trading in his leather tool belt for a PM software toolkit (PP365+MSP). While exploring new and better ways to plan out construction portfolios, he is also preparing for his PMI exam.

Let me leave you with this one poignant quote from a survey participant (who wished to remain anonymous):

“I was automated into this… we had an entire army of people on the floor a few years back, now it’s just a sea of machines. I was one of the lucky ones, I’m now a project manager for all the jobs flowing into these robotic monsters. Thanks for asking.”
– Anonymous

 

In conclusion then, no matter what PM persona you identify with, you know that you are not alone. If you are one of the tens of thousands (maybe millions) of us just thrown into the job of being a Project Manager, rest assured that there are plenty of others out there in same shoes, all with a very loose fit.

 

Have another persona you would like to add? See the survey (still online), or add yours to the comments below.

 

Jigs Gaton
Written by Jigs Gaton

Jigs Gaton is CEO of Phoenix Consulting and Training Worldwide, a company that helps developers design and implement better programs and build capacity with training and other resources. Jigs has over 30-plus years of experience in both the private and public sectors working as a project manager and PM consultant. He’s currently based in Kathmandu, helping organizations with post-earthquake reconstruction and other disaster-relief efforts.

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