The Rise Of The Accidental Project Manager – What Does It Mean For The Portfolio?

project management students

Projects for change and transformation have never been more in demand across the entire enterprise. It’s no surprise, then, that increasing numbers of employees are finding themselves becoming ‘Accidental Project Managers’.

Our Associate Editor, Amy Hatton, recently explored this subject with David Walton, Managing Director of BestOutcome – the leading PPM/Change practice behind specialist PPM solution, PM3. Together, they discussed what Accidental PM means for the future of the profession, and how best to support this growing community.

Statistics on Accidental PMs are hard to quantify – and no wonder, given that many may not even have the words “Project Manager” in their job title! But the phenomenon is undoubtedly here to stay, so how do we embrace this resource without falling into the trap of creating unrealistic expectations?

“Accidental PM has certainly accelerated over the past decade,” David says. “At least some of that is due to changes in the training landscape. Formal training used to be the pathway, but budgetary constraints, the pandemic’s effects on working practices, and the rise of informal training channels like YouTube have shifted those parameters. I also think there is a perception that anyone can be a Project Manager.

“Don’t misunderstand me – there are many talented people out there with great potential. But just as I don’t have the innate qualities and skills to be an accountant, or an engineer, not everyone has the natural aptitude to successfully plan, deliver and close projects. A project, by its nature, is a unique, discrete change endeavour. A large part of project management involves anticipating the unexpected, mitigating risk, and managing complex elements and stakeholders. That is a very defined skills set.”

Indeed, projects with excellent change management are six times more likely to succeed than those with poor change management (Prosci, 2020). Yet change remains the most challenging aspect of any project, as David points out. “In particular, people-management – predicting blockers and managing stakeholders up, down and across the enterprise – is underrated. Projects are not just a technical implementation. You need to understand the desired outcome and plan the roadmap accordingly. That’s the approach we take with PM3. We start with the outcome, then map back the stages and the milestones you need to get there.”

Of course, this requires detailed planning, David continues. “An Accidental PM – through no fault of their own – may not understand that you cannot plan a project or programme effectively with a spreadsheet. It’s a holistic process of involving stakeholders in the requirements, process and outcomes, and winning their buy-in for the journey ahead. Accidental PMs need support to understand and engage with that journey.”

So, how do we offer that support? “It comes down to two areas,” says David. “We shouldn’t force square pegs into round holes. Extroverts tend to adapt well to project management, for example, whereas introverts may not – although there are always exceptions to the rule. We can also address some operational basics. Within PM3, for example, we have developed a comprehensive project management solution which includes a Learning Management system – a key element of which we call ‘Project Management 101’. It demonstrates the basics of how to start, deliver, and close a project down. Using that toolkit, smaller projects can be delivered effectively by Accidental PMs. But putting an Accidental PM onto major, complex programmes is unfair on both the person and the business.

“The PMO can also ensure that there is a defined process to work within. I wouldn’t advise an Accidental PM to use something like MS Project, for example. It’s too complex. Conversely, spreadsheets are familiar, but risk human error, and so lack consistency. PM3 underpins projects with a consistent framework – milestones, risks and issue logs, GANTT charts – and supports their use. For instance, it doesn’t just provide a risk register. It also triggers the user to consider the parameters. Who owns the risk? What level is it? What are the mitigations and escalation procedures? This gives the risk meaning, enabling effective management. We also have PM Genie, which guides the user as to how, why, and when to use which PM process. When you combine those elements – PM3, Learning Management, and PM Genie, you give Accidental PMs clear parameters and usable tools to approach the work in the right way.”

It seems that one of PM3’s roles is to offer the Accidental PM a ‘safety net’. But, in my own experience, whilst PM tools can achieve a lot, they can’t do it all. So, what about culture – RAG culture, for example? It strikes me that an Accidental PM may lack the experience to identify, understand and escalate a risk. That can lead to genuinely disastrous consequences, can it not?

David agrees. “Bear in mind that some risks can be subjective. What I perceive as a risk, you may not. This subjectivity also applies to traffic lights. One person may decide a project is red as they are naturally cautious and another person, who is more optimistic, may decide the same project is green. PM3 applies objective parameters to Red, Amber and Green for each traffic light. That really matters – because it equips even an Accidental PM with the confidence to recognise and escalate a risk to the PMO.

“The PMO can then use their specialist expertise to engage the Sponsor and propose possible solutions in a timely manner. Similarly, PM3’s stage gates ensure that the project’s business case is reviewed regularly so that the business can be confident that the project remains valid. Brokering those kinds of steering decisions is the PMO’s responsibility, but PM3 can equip Accidental PMs to understand when and how they need to ask for that additional support.”

I wonder, where does reporting fit into all of this, especially given the cultural disparity between the world of the Accidental PM and the world of the Sponsor? “You need consistency, simplicity and clarity,” David explains. “A tool like PM3 prompts a regular cadence of reporting, triggers clear parameters for transparency and consistency, and presents the headlines in a digestible format. Busy Sponsors can then easily spot and drill down into the issues that concern them.

You just can’t do that with manual Excel or PowerPoint reporting. It’s going to be subjective and different every time. That won’t inspire confidence amongst Sponsors. And, of course, as the Accidental PM goes through the guided process, they’re going to absorb more about how to produce good reporting, which is a professional benefit to them.”

On that subject, what can Accidental PMs do to support their own learning and development? “My first port of call would be to seek advice and ideally mentoring, most obviously from your own PMO,” David says. “If you want to progress, explore training opportunities as well. There are many flexible options out there – whether you’re looking to develop Agile skills, or take your first PRINCE2® certification, or even just develop some basics.

Good Project Managers have a real contribution to make towards the business, so make your case to your PMO or line manager – they may well see the value in supporting you. And be pro-active about your own learning. There are so many online resources available to build your knowledge. It doesn’t have to be expensive. If you have fallen into Accidental PM and you’ve developed a taste for the profession, go for it. The support is there, tools like PM3 are out there to help you, and businesses are recognising the value of investment. Because when we help Accidental PMs with natural aptitude to pursue their aspirations, we equip them to deliver better projects – and that, ultimately, is what we’re all trying to do.”

Find out more:

Visit BestOutcome’s Knowledge Centre to explore articles, podcasts, webinars and thought leadership for project managers, PMOs and PPM practitioners across the public and private sectors.

Check out Amy’s recent podcast with David, discussing PPM implementation and the path to maturity.

If you are interested in finding out more about PM3, you can arrange a free demo online here.

Amy Hatton
Related People
Related sized article featured image

When it comes to a productive business, happy and healthy employees are essential.

PM Today Interview Team
Related sized article featured image

PeopleCert's Markus Bause talks about the future of project management skills, from soft skills to Dev Ops. 

PM Today Interview Team