Formal or informal project management?

Many of my conversations with people who are trying to break into a project management role often start with the question, “so why do you want to get into project management?”. The majority of the answers are initially quite woolly. It’s usually something like, “I enjoy working with a team to get something done” or “I’m a great organiser” or “I’ve had a taste for it since managing a small project at work“.

When I then go on to ask, “Why would someone employ you to manage their projects?” suddenly the conversation has turned just that little bit more serious. Being a great organiser, or getting enjoyment out of working on a one-off project is just not enough. The reality is no-one in their right-mind would employ you as a project manager based on some whimsical romantic notion you’ve got about taking some basic work competencies and suddenly becoming a fully fledged “project manager”.

The interesting things about this is that almost everyone in the world is a project manager – and that statement is based on the fact that at some point we all apply some “informal” project management in our everyday lives. That could be decorating a room, planning a wedding or booking next year’s holiday. We all use informal project management steps like taking an idea and putting some concrete plans to it. We purchase resources or allocate work to others. We keep an eye on what we’re spending and we’ll consider the risks of it not working out.

To make a career change into project management, you’ve got to think about how you will change your informal experiences and skills into more formal skills – the kind where people are willing to pay or employ you for them.  The first step for many is taking a PRINCE2 course – which is perfectly fine if you are taking the course to understand more about a formal project management method. With no prior experience in formal project management, the PRINCE2 qualification will NOT magically open doors for you. It just means you understand more about a formal project management method.

You still need to understand more about formal project management – that’s the nuts and bolts of project management, the tools and techniques like creating a schedule; allocating resources; budgeting and risk management etc. This is about taking the experiences and understanding you have in informal project management and starting the journey to a more formal project management way of working.

And that’s the key of informal to formal project management – it’s a journey. It won’t happen overnight. There are no courses in the world that can make that happen because the true journey to formal project management happens when you experience it – on the job, in a practical way.

Now I can almost hear the question you’ll have – how on earth do I start that journey if I don’t have any formal project management experience? Well, the answer is different for everyone, because different people have different careers to date and different motivators for making a career change. If you want to understand more about your own personal circumstances and what you should be doing, invest in a careers clinic.


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