Project managers staring into generation gap

Retiring project managers should be directed into mentorship roles for knowledge transfer rather than being assigned to projects they may never see the end of, a project management expert has advised.

Retiring project managers should be directed into mentorship roles for knowledge transfer rather than being assigned to projects they may never see the end of, a project management expert has advised.

Speaking to attendees at the recent myPrimavera06 project management conference, Peter Shears, chief executive officer of the Australian Institute of Project Management (AIPM), weighed in on the implications of a recent survey of the organisation's 6,500 members.

That survey found the average age of project managers was 42.4 years old, he said, but peaks at 27.4 and 54.6 years of age suggested the industry was currently experiencing a generational gap, which has engendered conflict between two very different schools of thought on how project management should be done.

Older project managers are often 'accidental project managers' who fell into the career from another position, then consolidated their job with a smattering of formal project management courses. Younger project managers, on the other hand, are more likely to have pursued project management as a career -- making them rich on theory but deficient when it comes to real-world expertise.

In too many cases, that leads them to defer to older, presumably wiser project managers. "[Older project managers] are fairly good risk takers and have experience, but don't tolerate mistakes from young guys," Shears explained. "That develops this culture where the young guys want to use tools to get a good idea of where a project is going and then take calculated risks -- but the older guys aren't letting them."

This may result in better outcomes in the short term, but Shears warned that inadequate support of career project managers could soon leave most organisations with a dearth of talent: 30 percent of today's project managers "just won't be involved in the industry anymore" within 10 years, he said.

To prevent this, companies need to be more proactive in encouraging older project managers to take on a mentorship role -- but many companies miss out on the benefits of this potential knowledge transfer by keeping veterans allocated to key projects until the day they retire.

"To make this happen, companies should ensure they don't make the last project a senior project manager does before retiring, the most commercially critical," Shears advised. "Instead, they should make those PMs available for industry-wide mentoring and corporate knowledge transfer."

By building formal mentorship structures that smooth over the differences between the two generations, companies with a strong focus on project management will find themselves better prepared to manage generational transition -- and the change in philosophy that it is likely to bring.

"Older guys need to respect the fact that there is a different way of doing things now," he said. "Younger project managers are pursuing project management as their prime career choice, and in the long run that should make them very good project managers. Older guys have business acumen, but younger guys need to go through a process -- to make the right mistakes and prove they actually do have the skills they need."

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