Certificates or networking – what is more important in projects?

Guest contribution by | 11.05.2020

To pass an exam successfully with a certificate is important! We are currently noticing this when, under the impression of Covid-19, the students of the final classes return to school first. Certified exams help us to differentiate, open or close doors, and facilitate important decisions about who can and may do what.

In project management, the certification of testable knowledge has been common practice for years. Different schools of thought (classic, hybrid and agile) compete with different approaches for the best certificate. Some even believe that project management certificates ensure the success of a project. But that is of course nonsense!

Certificates can only be a basis for good project management, because they only test static knowledge that can be replicated in exams. But project management is by definition an activity that has to deal with the uncertainty and dynamics inherent in a project.

So why are formal certificates, which attempt to get to grips with project dynamics using process models and tools, still so popular and widespread? The answer is probably that dealing with complexity is much more strenuous than following simple rules and recipes.

This is nothing against project management tools and planning methods. It goes without saying that a successful project manager should master the basic craft. He should of course be able to control, document and visualise the project process. However, in order to be effective in project management, project managers must also make use of the diversity that our profession offers. They turn away from clear, “right” and standardised processes. In my view, project managers should go out into the wide world of the reality of project work and not rely on “narrowness” through certification and alleged best practices. In this wide world, the experiences that connect the certified knowledge with reality are hidden. It is only through this connection that professional project work is created.

Approach the project team actively

Only those who can switch flexibly between different approaches and are not stuck in their personal preferences (“My project management style is …”) will be able to react appropriately to the challenges of the project business. Leading the team with one and the same style has nothing to do with fairness, predictability or transparency, but with ineffectiveness, egalitarianism and single-mindedness. It requires as many situational reactions from the project manager as there are different situations in everyday project life.

Instead of hiding in his project office and behind his plans, the project manager goes out and looks for his employees directly at their workplace. Outside of standups or status meetings, he thus gains an immediate impression of the situation and gets a picture with his own eyes. The tours through the project also give him and the employees the opportunity to learn directly at the project object and with each other. Before a small problem grows into a big crisis, it can often be quickly resolved by a personal discussion between the people involved. But be careful: “Management by Walking Around” must neither steal the project staff’s time nor create the impression that they should be monitored. The old pharmacist principle applies here: the dose makes the poison.

Internal networking through a project market

Experienced project managers know the situation in which there are more good project ideas than resources to implement these ideas. When deciding on these scarce resources, networking in a project market usually makes more sense than relying on decision tools or a hierarchical decision.

A project market needs a trading place: Usually this is a large meeting room or similar, where the suppliers (project sponsors and managers) are arranged in a circle and the buyers (project staff, budget managers, executives) move from market stall to market stall. The project market is organised like a bazaar, where the usual procedures can be observed: Offers are made, the quality of the offer is critically examined, negotiated, haggled over. Finally the deal is settled or one moves on to the next market stall.

A moderator monitors compliance with the previously agreed rules of the game. Five phases are usual:

1. Offer phase

Each project introduces itself briefly to the buyers and asks them to allocate human and financial resources to it. The moderator makes sure that the previously agreed standards (content, form of presentation, duration etc.) are adhered to in order to create fair market conditions.

2. Examination phase

Then the courted resources (project staff, budget managers, executives) are asked to go to the market stalls to find out more about what is on offer and ask questions of understanding. An atmosphere like in a beehive is quickly created: a buzz of voices and movement in the room.

3. Negotiation phase

After the questions of understanding have been clarified, the hot phase of the project market begins. The providers now compete for the necessary human, financial and other resources (e.g. laboratory capacity), approach potential buyers (“project sponsors”) or try to poach them from other projects. At the same time, the buyers present their resources as attractively as possible and try to make arrangements for their next project assignment.

4. Contract phase

A similar picture emerges again and again: Some project sponsors and managers have such an attractive offer that the project is quickly provided with resources at their market stalls. They signal to the moderator that everything is OK with them and start with the first discussions to set up the project.

Other suppliers and demanders tend to stand hesitantly and searching on the market place, because they were either not sought or not asked. Now the second (and third) round of negotiations begins, in which buyers and demanders have to make compromises: a project starts later or a project member accepts a role that was not his first wish. A budget manager does not find an attractive investment or is defeated in the bidding competition for his “top project”. However, he then invests in a project that is less attractive but still promises value.

5. Market closure

As soon as it is clear that all achievable contracts have been concluded, the moderator ends the project market and collects feedback from all participants. It is recommended that the moderation then “takes care” of those suppliers and demanders who have not been given the opportunity.

The duration of the project market naturally depends on the number of suppliers and demanders. Half-day or one-day events have proven to be successful. Markets that last longer due to the large number of projects and participants are project fairs. These require a correspondingly higher level of preparation and organisation.

External networking through collegial consultation

Of course, it is wise not to gather the necessary experience for professional project work alone, but to benefit from the experience of others through external networking. Collegial project consulting is ideally suited for this form of networking. It enables consulting across hierarchies and areas. Current situations can be handled in an action-oriented manner. This expands the professional scope of action of the participants.

A consultation round with 6 – 8 participants lasts 45 to 60 minutes and follows this basic procedure:

  1. The case giver explains why he wants the advice of those present.
  2. The others (consultants) ask questions of understanding until they have sufficiently understood the topic and the necessary connections.
  3. The case giver specifies the question to the others. He listens exclusively to the next steps. He gives no further information, adds nothing and does not clarify anything.
  4. “Feelings and impulses”: The consultants briefly express what feelings and impulses they have about the situation described.
  5. “Recommendations”: The consultants make recommendations – specifically related to the case.
  6. The case giver says which thoughts, aspects and recommendations seem valuable to him and thanks for the suggestions and help.

Collegial counselling is efficient, requires little effort and is well suited for groups where there is a sufficient relationship of trust. Therefore, it is recommended to work over a longer period of time. At the beginning it makes sense to have an experienced moderator accompany the process. After a few rounds of consultation, the group can then steer the process on its own.

Other proven formats of external networking are:

  • bar camps
  • mastermind groups
  • communities of practice

A basket of possibilities

A certain but fundamental unpredictability is one of the core characteristics of any project. Therefore, successful project management does not require certified bureaucrats, who will reduce the surprises occurring in the project according to the training document.

An effective project manager dispenses with a “methodology” as it is still taught in project management. Instead of restricting his view by certified methods, he attentively records all events and signals he observes in his project. His main task here is to supply the project with impulses and information from outside. While the project team concentrates on the internal task, i.e. the factual and professional solution of the project assignment, the project manager is primarily concerned with identifying the processes and people outside that are relevant to the project.

He sees project management as a basket full of colorful possibilities from which he selects the most suitable for the situation. Depending on the context, environment and project object, he picks out tools that are useful and effective instead of always repeating the same manuals and standards without much success. Dealing confidently with this basket of colourful possibilities is the big challenge, not passing a certification exam.



Olaf Hinz has published additional articles in the t2informatik Blog:

t2informatik Blog: Effective project leadership does not need heroes!

Effective project leadership does not need heroes!

t2informatik Blg: Change projects work - Part 1

Change projects work

t2informatik Blog: Quo vadis, agile coaching?

Quo vadis, agile coaching?

Olaf Hinz

Olaf Hinz

For almost 20 years, Olaf Hinz has been guiding managers, project managers and organisations in transition through troubled waters. He believes that resistance is a powerful signal, change is the rule, and sailing in sight is the appropriate response to the approaching VUCA weather. As a non-fiction author and speaker, the self-confessed Hanseatic citizen and former office manager of Peer Steinbrück is a sought-after source of inspiration at specialist conferences and bar camps.