What’s an accidental project manager, you ask? It’s anyone who finds themselves in the role without training or support. Occasionally, accidental project managers are given PMI’s PMBOK Guide® or a Microsoft Project manual and told to manage projects.
Being a project manager can be a rewarding and fulfilling career, but it's not for everyone. The role of project management has changed a lot in recent years. The old corporate structure, where project managers worked in a "command and control" environment, doesn't exist anymore. Now, it's more common for people to manage projects without even knowing they're doing it. That's why so many companies are looking at ways to integrate project management into their everyday workflows—so that even if you're working on your own or just doing one small piece of a larger initiative, you can still succeed as an accidental project manager by being prepared and accepting the role.
Here are some things you can do if you ever find yourself in the position of accidental project manager. These steps are also helpful if you have voluntarily or knowingly decided to start a project management career.
Acknowledge the situation. When you find yourself in an unexpected leadership position, the first step is acknowledging that you are now a leader. This can be scary! It means that others are relying on your expertise to get them through a project, taking ownership of the situation and ensuring everyone knows it’s your responsibility, and most importantly, figuring out how to lead people who may not want you as their boss.
After acknowledging that you have become a project manager by accident, next comes acceptance: recognize what challenges lie ahead. You may have no experience or training as a leader. However, there is still valuable knowledge within each team member—take time with each person individually to figure out where they excel and struggle. Don’t jump right into trying to solve problems without listening first!
Assess your skills. Before you can begin to manage a project, you must assess your knowledge and experience. If the project is too big for you, completing all of its tasks will be impossible. Start by asking yourself:
- What do I already know?
- What are my strengths? What are my weaknesses?
- What do I need to learn?
As an accidental manager, assessing what skills and knowledge set needs improvement is also essential. This allows for proper time allocation when planning out projects/tasks within or outside work hours so that you don't become overwhelmed with information overload!
[Note: You may want to check out our previous article, Identifying Strengths.]
Be transparent. As an Accidental Project Manager, your job is to be transparent. This means being honest about your limitations, your skills, and the project's timeline, budget, and the team's strengths and weaknesses. It also means maintaining a high level of confidentiality regarding confidential information that may come your way during your work. Suppose you have any doubts about whether you can handle sensitive data on a project or client that has been deemed confidential by its owner/manager. In that case, it is best to determine as soon as possible whether restrictions will be placed on who can see what information before accepting the role.
Don't do it alone. As an accidental project manager, you will likely face some challenges you may not be prepared for. Don't let this deter you from going forward. Instead, start by asking yourself what kind of help and feedback you need most at the moment.
For example, suppose your team is struggling with communication and collaboration within the workplace. In that case, it's a good idea to seek advice from someone who has been there before and can provide insight into how they overcame similar problems in their own experience. On the other hand, if they're having trouble executing tasks quickly enough due to a lack of direction or proper planning techniques (e.g., schedules and budgets), then perhaps seeking an outside mentor might be helpful—someone who knows more about these types of things than anyone else on your team does!
The point here is not just about getting answers but also about finding ways to learn from others' successes so that you don't have to repeat those same mistakes down the road.
Know the basics. When you're working in a role you didn't choose, it's easy to feel like you're missing out on some critical information that would be great to know—like how to manage projects or how your industry works. And while there's no substitute for formal education and training, there are still things you can do to get yourself up to speed.
If possible, take time out of your schedule to engage with a mentor who has experience managing projects and is willing to give you feedback on your skillset. This person should also be able to answer any questions about how their company approaches project management. Additionally, join groups like PMI (Project Management Institute) or attend conferences explicitly related to project management within your industry. The more opportunities you have for hands-on practice, the better off you'll be when stepping into an accidental project manager position!
[Note: You may want to check out our previous article, Fundamentals of Project Planning for Accidental Project Managers.]
Become certified. While certification is not required, it can be beneficial in your career. An excellent way to start is by selecting an organization (or several) with which you want to work and finding out what certifications they offer. This could be a local PMI chapter, a national organization such as the Association for Project Management (APM), or a global body like the Project Management Institute (PMI) or the International Project Management Association (IPMA). If certification is essential in your industry or organization, you should also consider what other international organizations might be relevant to your situation.
Once you have selected an organization that offers appropriate certifications, it’s time to learn more about them and decide whether they are right for you. Some organizations require specific education or experience while others do not; it will depend on what type of work environment(s) interest you most—and how much time and money are available for professional development activities such as these!
[Note: You may want to see our previous article, 7 Reasons to Become CAPM Certified Now.]
So, if you find yourself in the position of accidental project manager, don’t despair—you can make it through this. Start by acknowledging the situation, assessing your skills, and being transparent with your stakeholders about what you know and don’t know. Then, find someone who knows more than you do (and may even be certified) to help with the heavy lifting. Take this opportunity to learn about what it means to be an effective project manager for others in the future; when faced with another crisis where there is no one else available but yourself, you will already have a plan of action ready!
Do you have additional tips to share with new project managers? Let us know in the comments below.
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