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I admit that when I first heard about the Project Management Institute’s initiative to turn project management into a profession, milk snorted out of my nose. I knew, without possessing an ounce of prescience, where their effort would lead. I wish I could have been surprised, but I’m not.

Professionalism seems more religion than guarantee. The Golden Lie insists “increasing professionalism will improve quality,” but there’s little evidence of that. Twenty years after PMI began its professionalism push, projects succeed and fail at about the same rate they always have and always will. There seems to be little correlation between knowing about how project work is supposed to be done and improving the quality of that work.

Professional Project Manager might be oxymoronic. A role largely built upon oxymorons like Hasten Slowly probably deserves an equally contradictory label, since project management inhabits the most contradictory territory within any organization. In organizations, where power gets calculated by counting the number of ceiling tiles over a workspace, the volume of direct reports assigned, and the all-powerful budget authority, the project manager works out of a borrowed cubicle with loaned resources, owning nothing but responsibility. Unable to order anything done, reliant instead upon a questionable ability to cajole and convince, their tie connotes nothing but costume. They are pirates, or better be. Imagine a Pirate Management Institute, dedicated to increasing the professionalism of the swarthy trades, and you catch the contradiction.

How does one go about increasing professionalism, anyway? PMI has followed the pattern blazed decades ago. First, declare yourself the sole qualified arbiter of access into the profession. Create a certification regime, anchored with an exam. Insist upon periodic continued education, offering continuing certification credit. Encourage those pining for professional acknowledgement to muster their fellows into local chapters. Charge dues. Finally, publish, publish, publish, to flood the market with certified reading material, and retain the copyright on everything you publish. Freeze out the authors, and sue them if they deign to use their material as if it was their own.

Eventually, the ‘talent management’ world catches on, and insists upon the certification as a precondition. Never mind if the prospective pirate has never boarded another ship under hostilities, or even has never really been on a ship, they have a licence to drive, and drive they will, though one of the primary tenets of real project management long ago understood that nobody can drive anybody.

I find some entertainment in the halls at local PMI meetings, and regional and national conferences. There, pirates gather to mumble about their profession. They share stories about how to game the universally-recognized-as-irrelevant certification exam, how inane that evening’s keynote was, and how they feel as though they’re playing some stupid game. There’s real camaraderie in those halls, at least until some true-believer shows up with a bow tie and a bible.

The better ones don’t take this foolishness any more seriously than it deserves to be taken. As pirates, they know how to pass for something they are not. They have to influence people with real power all day every day, passing as a professional; even exuding true-believer professional-ism barely breaks a sweat. Their profession was built upon false pretenses. Nobody really wants to know how it really works. Clients usually prefer to have accomplished something, and have little stomach for the details of how anything actually gets accomplished. The organizations that have been most successful in taming their PMs are the ones most surprised when their projects veer out of control with a seemingly sudden mind of their own.

Projects always had minds of their own, minds every bit as mysterious as the mind of a pirate. It probably takes a pirate to manage one. The -ism remains beside the point. Professing to be a pirate prefaces a pirate’s downfall. Believing what a pirate professes means you’re more likely to become the plundered rather than the plunderer.

©2014 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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