The Professional Project Manager?

My wife and I recently moved into a new house. As one might expect, and much to her chagrin, our move was complete with project plans, Gantt charts, and occasional family “status” meetings, all perks (or pains in the you-know-what) of being married to a consultant who has spent too many years around projects. Most recently, we’ve been planning some enhancements to our landscaping, contemplating a deck, and employed the services of a “landscape architect.” As I was walking the yard with the gentleman, he noted that he held the appropriate board certifications and licenses to practice his craft in two states. I laughed about the rigors of locating decks and choosing shrubs at the time, but later found myself wondering why such rigors were imposed on landscape designers, yet anyone with a smile and a copy of Microsoft Project could practice project management.

A case for licensing?

Certainly there’s an obvious case for some sort of licensing and oversight organization for project managers. After all, in many cases our projects swell into tens or hundreds of millions of dollars, and often affect the fate of dozens or hundreds of people. Some projects may even have life and limb on the line, certainly more so than the average landscape design, making for a seemingly obvious case for some type of “licensed PM.” There are certainly already bodies providing what they perceive as a project management “license,” the most obvious being the Project Management Professional designation from the PMI.

While some sort of stamp of approval seems like a good thing for the profession, there are several concerns. First is an understanding of what actually entails a “project.” While that might sound laughable, if an activity designated as a “project” requires a licensed professional, suddenly we need much more clarity around what kind of activities actually constitute a project. Would moving a dozen people to a different physical location constitute a “project”? After all, movers and facilities professionals often employ project plans and checklists to monitor these types of activities. How about deeply technical efforts, where subject matter expertise might trump general project knowledge in successfully completing an activity?

The other grave danger I see to a mandatory license to be a practicing project manager is the risk of stagnating the profession. Consider techniques like Agile or Project Poker, innovations that run contrary to traditional project management techniques to facilitate rapid iterative development. You could certainly create specialist licenses or designations, but it would likely prevent experimentation and deployment of different management techniques if the appropriately licensed professional were not on hand.

Finally, a license implies some sort of culpability for undesirable results. While I joked with my landscape professional about his certifications and licenses, he made the point that, should drainage or grading be improperly designed, property damage could result, a problem for which the customer could seek legal remediation. Failed projects are rarely the “fault” of a single practitioner, and one can only imagine the recalcitrance, or incredible cost, of a project manager who might be dragged into court when a project did not meet its objectives.

Less is more

Regulation is always a funny thing. Too much and too little are both dangerous extremes that can lead to problems. With a profession like project management, there’s already a market-based solution to “licensed” PMs in the form of organizations like PMI and their Professional Project Manager designation. Companies that feel strongly about having a certified PM can require some type of designation, while companies that need to operate more quickly, or at the edge of “traditional” project management techniques, can go a different route. It seems adding legal oversight to the profession increases barriers to entry, reduces innovation, and potentially puts PMs on the hook should a project go south. What are your thoughts?


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