What you won’t get out of your certification

When it comes to project management certification, there’s no doubt quite a few options available. The real question is, do you know what you’re getting with a shiny new certification (such as PMI’s PMP, or IPMA’s Level A through D)?

Certification programs are more about demonstrating your competency than about learning how to manage. Consider this: PMP and IPMA certification takes you through a process guide and an examination that you can easily enough prepare for in a few weeks. The process guide itself is a valuable reference, a great way to organize all the possible areas of knowledge in a project — but it’s just that. A process guide is largely a checklist, giving you a tool to make sure all the right pieces of a project are in motion.

The other part of the certification process is the exercise of documenting your experience, as a project manager, and having the certifying organization vet your experience (although the vetting process is often cursory). It’s supposed to show the world that you have a certain level of project management competence. It is explicitly not going to teach you that competency.¬†The real theory behind PMP certification is that by achieving it, you have demonstrated relevant competency as a project management professional. There’s a good bit of debate regarding the value of this certification: How well does the PMI do in vetting experience? Is there any qualitative distinction in the evaluation? I’ve seen a few terrible managers get their PMP by documenting their management of projects that were miserable failures.

For the most part, deciding whether a candidate’s PMP or IPMA certification (or lack thereof) is valuable lies with the employer. For the individual, I always recommend learning the bodies of knowledge, so long as you are fully aware of what you’re getting. Here are a few of the things that either program won’t prepare you for:

  1. Project management is more about management, and less about process. Most of the certification programs out there tend to emphasize the latter, the process, and spend little time on the “soft and fuzzy” bits: People. The fact is, this is where you’ll succeed or fail. It often comes down to how good you are at picking up on subtle (and not so subtle) cues between team members, sponsors, and stakeholders. There is no certification program in the world that will teach you how to be a great manager — that requires experience, more than anything else (but if you have a degree from a top management school it’s bound to help).
  2. The rosy project you just inherited is actually completely out of touch with reality. More often than not businesses will commit to a project that can’t be met (often establishing budgets and schedules in the process). Studies by Standish and KPMG bear this out, pointing at 70% of projects failing to meet cost, schedule, and quality goals.
  3. Identifying all the right pieces of a project is just the beginning. For example, knowing who the stakeholders are (an important step in the PMBOK) is the easy part. You’ll spend far more time motivating them, coordinating their schedules, dealing with stakeholders that want your project to fail (or just don’t care about it), responding to impossible demands, and figuring out what everyone’s secret agenda is all about.
  4. You’ll need to be good at managing other people’s anger and frustration. Part of being a strong manager is knowing how to evaluate the project dynamics, and then make the right decision. Most of the time, you won’t find a rosy world where everyone agrees about what has to be done. You’ll be stepping inside someone else’s world, and messing with it. You’ll have to tell people to do things they don’t agree with, or don’t want to do. You’ll have to step in and change everything, and people don’t like change.
  5. Your certification didn’t warn you about some of the important bits. There is no such thing as a comprehensive process guide or methodology that gives you all the answers. Some guides are really good in some areas, and horrible in others. The PMBOK, for example, spends precious little time talking about quality assurance and risk management — so little, in fact, that without turning elsewhere you won’t have any idea what these two things are, how important they are, or what to do about them.
  6. You are actually not ready to manage a large scale project simply because you’ve earned your PMP/IPMA/PRINCE2 certification. These certification programs document your past experience, and your basic knowledge of the relevant process guides. Unfortunately, splashy advertising sells certification, so I’m sure we’ll keep seeing claims such as “everything you need to manage complex projects!” It’s a lie.

Deciding whether obtaining a certification is worthwhile or not is a personal decision. I definitely recommend learning the reference material — and after all, if you learn the PMBOK, it’s not much more work to get a PMP certification. Just be honest with yourself about what it means. Being a good project manager means having the experience to guide an organization toward success, not just recite the process guide. I always recommend starting small and finding out what your personal aptitude for management is.

Your key to success as a project manager is going to hinge on your ability to listen to others, learn from others, and always be open and ready to support your team. You’ll need to turn to other people and other sources of information. Be humble, never let obstacles derail you, and make sure your team knows they can rely on you for support. These are the things you don’t find in the process guides.

2 thoughts on “What you won’t get out of your certification

  1. First of all, thank you for your post. I think that it’s really useful but with some comments :-).

    About you’re telling, I see that you know really well the PMI certification process. And in fact, I completely agree in your post if you were criticizing only the PMI. However, there are some mistakes in your approach if you want to refer also to the IPMA certification. I’ll explain below.

    Firstly, IPMA certification centres in people. In fact, there are 15 competences covering the professional behaviour of project management personnel (http://ipma.ch/certification/competence/ipma-competence-baseline/ if you want to know more). In the process of certification, there’s an exam with case studies and after a personal interview to know how you have applied those competences. Moreover it’s possible to create a CV based in these (some universities are using that method). And obviously, if you don’t have the necessary experience, you can’t pass the A,B, or C IPMA certification level.

    Secondly, I’m completely agree when you say: “Your key to success as a project manager is going to hinge on your ability to listen to others, learn from others, and always be open and ready to support your team.” That’s why I believe that IPMA certification is useful because it’s the only certification that it has proved my competence in the behavioural area and as a reference to improve my work in this incredible world of project management.

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    1. David, you raise some very good points, and I agree that I should have differentiated between PMI and IPMA more effectively. I think you are spot-on in your observations. IPMA’s approach strikes me as much more thorough and definitely more appropriate to the Global professional. Unfortunately for whatever reason (better marketing) PMI seems to get all the attention here in the States.

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