I recently finished perusing the excellent book Business Driven PMO Success Stories by Mark Perry. In it he contrasts project acumen with business acumen. The former refers to an individual’s ability to succeed within the context of a project, while the latter describes an individual’s ability to succeed within a general business setting. Which type of acumen do you think is more important?
Perry takes the reader through several surveys in which he alternately questioned project managers and CEOs on their opinions in relation to a specific business case scenario. The contrast is quite fascinating—in most cases, CEOs offered survey responses in direct contradiction of project managers.
In one example (detailed in Chapter 4 of the book), Perry shows through his findings that project managers were willing to give an “A” or “B” grade for overall performance to a PMO manager who generated very little bottom-line results. For that same PMO manager, executive leaders gave marks of a “C” and “D”, or even an “F”. Where was the disconnect?
Project managers were focused almost exclusively on adherence to project methodology and governance, while executive leadership was obviously more interested in direct impacts to revenue, cost savings, their sales pipeline, etc. Survey responses revealed that the executive team—CFO, CEO, CMO, etc.—didn’t believe that the PMO served a fundamental business need.
It would be interesting to dig deeper into Perry’s survey methodology to see if there were any unconscious biases built into his questioning. But even if there were some flaws in the survey methodology, the sheer number of case studies he details in his book certainly raise some uncomfortable, soul-searching questions for project managers. Not in the least this one: Do we as project managers value project acumen too much—at the expense of business acumen?
In other words, if you had to choose between sacrificing a PMBOK, PRINCE2, or Agile principle to solve a business problem, would you do it? Or would you argue that a sound project management methodology should trump any other consideration?
Perhaps these questions tend toward creating a false “strawman” image out of the project management community at large, or a false dichotomy between business and project acumen. But even if this general notion proves to be even minutely applicable to your current professional situation as a project manager, they are worth considering.
How much knowledge do you have of the field you’re working in? How much have you observed the actual work being done for a project you’re managing? How in tune are you to the marketing, finance, operations, and other workstreams which live in your project ecosystem? How does your project/portfolio strategy align with your organization’s overall strategy? How do you define your PMO’s value proposition, and how does that match up to the diverse perceptions of your PMO throughout your business?
A well-functioning, high-performing PMO can certainly tackle these tough questions. But if Perry’s findings are valid, it would suggest that as a project management community at large, we should be emphasizing business acumen over project acumen, not the other way around.
In my opinion, I tend to agree with Perry’s argument that business acumen comes first. What do you think? How do you balance your project knowledge with general business savvy? And when should one come before the other?
Tell me your thoughts in the comments and let’s open a dialog. I would be excited to hear other opinions on this topic.
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Justin Scoville's unique adventures in project management have spanned international volunteer opportunities in Mexico and Israel, complex government grant programs, and more recently education technology implementations in the private sector. Proudly bearing the battle scars of initiatives both small and large, Justin enjoys exploring the frontiers of project management, particularly its intersection with process improvement methodologies, strategic planning, and product management.
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