Three Pillars of Project Management

PMP certification is only one piece in the puzzle of project management expertise. This articles discusses the three main pillars of successful project management: knowledge, experience and people skills. These three sisters play complementary roles and have a symbiotic relationship.

Author: Girish Deshpande, Technical Director at MindTree,
Original publication:

Recently someone made passionate defense for PMP certification. In his words- “this is only quick solution available if the IT industry has to deliver the projects on time, within budget and to the satisfaction of all stakeholders”. Is it so? Is PMP certification really panacea for delivery issues plaguing IT and product engineering industry? I don’t think so.

People who harp on PMP certification want us to believe that once an aspiring project manager learns the science of project management by rote learning and solving zillions of Rita Mulcahy questions and then passing the PMP certification test then he will somehow become successful project manager delivering next generation products. The reality is different from such fantasy. Certification is only one piece in the puzzle. There are other pieces too. The successful project manager builds his career on three crucial pillars:

Knowledge. Project management and domain (subject matter expertise) knowledge. This is where certification, domain knowledge and structured education plays a role. I think this is very crucial pillar and certification is a one way to assess the candidate’s theoretical grounding. Such theory followed by certification also helps the budding project managers quickly understand the theory and principles of project management. Something which they can apply immediately in their project. But this is only one part of three part equation. On domain knowledge: Although some people may make you believe that once you are armed with PMP certificate you can manage any project in any domain without any subject matter expertise. I beg to differ. In technology industry the project manager needs technology and domain appreciation to get the big picture, understand the perspective of key stakeholders and identify critical success factors for given project or product. I have deliberately used the word appreciation and not expertize. I don’t think you need deep domain knowledge to manage technology projects. The familiarity is good enough.

Experience. You learn many things in life in the school of hard knocks. The certification and theory are no substitute for rich and varied experiences. The theory improves your knowledge of project management but the wisdom can come only from the experience. The experience without reflection and feedback is series of events without any value. Only when you analyze your mistakes and failures you develop insights and useful mental maps. Something which you can draw on in future. On the other hand sound theoretical base would surely improve the actual project management experience.

People skills. This is very crucial aspect and comes only with experience, regular 360 Degree feedback and innate interest in managing and leading people. I am firm believer in important role 360 degree feedback plays in the development of this skill. The people skill depends on your emotional competency and maturity. The absence of which can derail your project/program and career. When I say people I also include your customers, suppliers, external agencies, enabling functions like legal, purchase, and finance in it.

I believe that the real synergy of all three elements is key for a successful career as a project manager or program/delivery manager. This reminds me of the story of “Three Sisters of Agriculture” practiced by Native Americans in USA. These three sisters are corn, beans and Squash and they are planted together. Corn is tall but has shallow roots and need Nitrogen to grow healthy. Beans need tall stems to climb which Corn can provide. While beans produce Nitrogen in the soil that Corn can use. On the other hand, Squash spreads on the ground like a creeper and provides shade to preserve moisture in the soil and controls the weed. Its prickly hairs on the vine deter pests. This is good example of synergy in the nature. It is also a good example of taking holistic or systems view on the part of these farmers to achieve ultimate objective. This three sister relationship is symbiotic and presence of every sister is key to obtain higher yield. You can manage with only one or two sisters but then the result won’t be the same.

And I believe same holds true with our three sisters of project or delivery management. You should ideally sow all three together to reap the success. These sisters play complementary roles. And their relationship is also symbiotic.