Why We Undervalue Project Management—and How Competency Frameworks Can Help
By Elizabeth Cameron
Elizabeth is a Co-Founder and Partner at Friday, a social sector strategy and design firm working alongside mission-driven organizations to reimagine their work, tell their story, and expand their impact.
Despite being praised as a gifted project manager, I have felt the need to be “more than that” my entire career. I’ve heard the same from many colleagues as they’ve navigated career pathways designed to graduate you out of project management roles. Even at Friday, where my skills are valued at a leadership level, we’ve consistently struggled to align on where project management fits within our organization.
I’ve always had a hard time putting my finger on what was driving these challenges: until our company engaged with Edgility to develop a competency framework to support more intentional hiring and talent management.
Focus on Role Over Competencies
Before engaging with Edgility, our conversations about project management largely focused on job responsibilities rather than the skills and knowledge required to successfully manage projects. Together we were able to identify several core competencies we wanted our entire team to cultivate and embody rather than just those with a “project manager” title: quality assurance, management of moving parts, deliverable ownership, action-oriented planning. In rolling these competencies out, we both increased respect for the role project managers play and challenged our team to share the heavy load project managers carry.
Misaligned Definitions of “Project Management”
As we worked to define project management competencies, we uncovered a disconnect between how we were defining project management. Some of us defined it more narrowly with a focus on scheduling and task tracking, while others defined it more broadly to include strategic decision making and relationship building with clients. Ultimately, we found it valuable to distinguish between project coordination, project management, and client management. Doing so allowed us to craft more nuanced competencies and engage in more productive discussions about which competencies are needed at which levels and for which roles in our organization. Without these shared definitions, it would have been easy for us to fall into the trap of expecting employees to do higher-level work than what they were being compensated or trained for. Or, on the flip side, to unsustainably ask higher-level managers to complete tasks others on the team would be a better fit for.
Unquestioned Bias Toward Junior Positions
Equipped with clear definitions and competencies, we began to question whether the common consulting firm practice of hiring project managers as entry- or junior-level employees would work for our company. In the end, we agreed that project coordination was a good fit for lower-level roles, while effective project management necessitated strategic thinking appropriate for mid-level roles as well as oversight from higher-level managers focused on ensuring alignment between project success, client success, and company success. The resulting competency framework has helped us develop a hiring roadmap our leadership team can agree upon, a clear approach for how project teams work together, and career pathways that build on the skills of project management rather than treating them as something to outgrow.