How To Develop a Project Manager Competency Framework

The purpose of this blog is to introduce you to some concepts that you will find useful for developing project management practitioner competency. I will introduce you to the concepts of competency and capability, and will also introduce you to some of the more widely known competency models, and take you through defined steps for building your own competency assessment tool.

The expected outcomes are that you will have an awareness of what project management competence is and why it is important for project and strategic success; you will also understand the difference between some of the more popular models for defining and assessing competence, and you will have some basic tools to begin developing or improving your own project management competency assessment tool. 

Defining Competence

Let’s begin by defining exactly what competence is. The Project Management Institute (PMI), in the third edition of the Project Manager Competency Development Framework (PMCDF) publication, defines competence as “the demonstrated ability to perform activities within a project environment that lead to expected outcomes based on define and accepted standards”

This definition is a little bit broad and after reading it you may still be wondering what exactly competence is, and exactly how is competence different from capability. Let’s begin by defining what a capability is. A capability is a description of how an expected task should be carried out. For example, you could require a project manager to have the capability to drive a car. Now you can go ahead and describe exactly how you want the car driven but without a description of the competence you won’t know how well somebody drives the car. Are they a learner or a world class rally driver?

Obviously, using this example there are many levels of competence when it comes to carrying out this particular task, driving a car. So, for particular roles you may want different levels of competence to be displayed for different capabilities. This is particularly important when you want senior project managers to demonstrate higher levels of competence of a particular capability than junior level project managers.  

Why is Practitioner Competence Important?

Before proceeding it is important to discuss why exactly that assessing and defining project manager competence is important. We must start by reminding ourselves the projects are not delivered by processes, tools, methods or techniques. Instead projects are delivered by competent individuals. Furthermore, they are delivered by groups of individuals working as teams. So, it is the personnel that deliver the project, and the more competent the personnel are the higher the chances of success are for the project. Developing practitioner competency is a critical part of project success, as it is individuals that deliver projects not processes, tools or techniques.

As such, appropriate competency assessment and development ensures that each individual working on the project has the right skills, experience, aptitude, and attitude to appropriately and effectively contribute to project success. 

In addition to identifying different levels of competence for different levels of practitioners there are a number of organizational benefits from having a well-developed and tailored competency development framework for practitioners. These benefits include the following:

  • A reduction in staff turnover due to an increase in staff morale because they feel supported in their professional development, and they are being allocated to projects which they can manage.
  • Increased competency in your project management practitioners which leads to increase in the success of projects and ultimately this leads to organisational strategic success.
  • A well developed and regularly applied project management practitioner competency framework will also make the organisation attractive to new staff and make recruiting easier.
  • A competency framework can also provide a rational basis for rewards, promotions, transfers and succession planning.
  • And finally, an organisation can use its individual competency assessments and build these up to ensure that organisation wide it has the correct spread of experience and skills, and can plan for any forecast shortages or excess skills in the future.

There are also a number of individual practitioner benefits from having a defined project management practitioner competency development framework. These include: 

  • Having a defined career path and job description,
  • Visible and defined developmental goals,
  • Increased confidence at completing assigned tasks
  • Organisational support for ongoing professional and personal development for the individual practitioner.

Having a practitioner competency framework is also an integral part of organizational project management maturity. The research is very clear in this area, that higher levels of organizational project management maturity are a clear indicator of greater project success. Therefore, committing to fleshing out all aspects of your organizational project management maturity including practitioner competency is a way to ensure greater project success.

Competency Assessment Models

What all models for competency assessment have in common is that they seek to assess, develop and continuously improve practitioner capability and competence. Regardless of which model that you’ll end up using you will find that they start by addressing at least the following two questions:

  • What is usually done in this occupation, profession, or role by competent performers?
  • What standard of performance is usually considered acceptable to infer competence?

The three most widely used competency models for project management practitioners are:

1. The Project Manager Competency Development Framework (PMCDF) from the Project Management Institute. Version 3 of this document takes into account portfolio, program and project management competencies. Furthermore, it also aligns with the talent triangle from the Project Management Institute.

2. Another competency framework is from the International Project Management Association (IPMA). The IPMA provides a competence baseline for the project management practitioner and it is called the eye of competence. It separates the competencies into either behavioural competencies, technical competencies or contextual competencies.

3. The third and final model is from the global alliance on project performance standards or GAPPS. This can be viewed and downloaded for free from http://globalpmstandards.org/ 

Note that there is currently an ISO standard under development, ISO 21510 Project manager competencies. This is a new release and still undergoing review.

Let’s take a closer look at the project manager competency development framework from PMI. 

It begins with three foundational elements of personal competencies, knowledge competencies and performance competencies. 

  • Personal competence reflects how the project manager is expected to behave when performing activities within the project environment and reflects the attitudes core personality characteristics and other traits including their communication skills, management ability, their leadership ability and cognitive ability and effectiveness. Proof of personal competence is through observation and documentation and support of the competence.
  • Knowledge competencies are a description of what the practitioner is expected to know in terms of professional knowledge.  A closer look at the knowledge competencies reveals that it is up to the project manager to be able to demonstrate that they have a grasp of an understanding of appropriate professional knowledge proof of this can be via professional credentials such as the PMP or similar credential. The regularly updated role delineation study that defines the PMP exam outlines the tasks that a competent project manager should know.
  • Performance competencies are what the practitioner can demonstrate that they can actually do in practice. A performance competence reflects how the project manager applies the knowledge they have to the actual management of a project. Proof of this is gained via observing the project manager in practice or by gathering documentation in support of their performance.  

There are two additional elements to this model that allow you to tailor it and make it reflect your particular organisation and your industry. These two additional elements are organisational competencies and industry specific competencies and they are not defined at all within the model as they are left up to you to define.

As a side note Crystal Consulting has developed our own competency assessment tool which utilises all five aspects of this model.

Developing Your Own Model

When it comes to developing your own model don’t be put off by the apparent complexity of the models. While they may appear at first glance to be complex they are in fact quite simple, and often involve merely documenting what may be part of institutional knowledge or within the heads of experienced project management practitioners already. Elements of your own competency model will be easy to develop and some will be hard though. You may choose to buy or use consultancies for some of the more complicated elements of developing your own model.

Please keep in mind that your own competency model must reflect and help deliver your organisational strategy. Also, the more that you customise your own model leads to greater competitive advantage as is difficult for competitors to replicate it so put some effort into making accurately reflect both your organisation and your industry.

Take the time to align it with established project management standards and frameworks for legitimacy and access to credentials. There are many of these from the Project Management Institute, the International Project Management Association, the Australian Institute of Project Management, the Association for Project Management and also a rapidly developing set of ISO standards as well. You are certainly not left wanting when it comes to establish project management standards and frameworks. My advice would be to start by aligning it with the PMI Project Manager Competency Development Framework and to keep an eye on the ongoing development of the ISO standard covering the same topic.

You will probably find that the development of your project manager competency framework has to be done by your human resources or organisational development department, as it will be able to be used for recruitment, remuneration and reward programs within the organisation. If this is the case, and it probably will be the case, then make sure that your practitioners, and if you have a PMO, are actively involved in the development of the model, the ongoing auditing and use of the model, and also the improvement of the model.

We are a firm believer in the KISS principle (Keep It Seriously Simple) when it comes the development of your own tool. We have provided the following 10 steps for you to follow to develop your own tool:

1. Gather all of your existing job or position descriptions. Note where none exist as these will need to be developed in order to make your framework complete

2. Ensure that all of the current or developed job or position descriptions contain clear descriptions of expected capability, competency, education and experience.

3. Standardise these descriptions across the organisation. We say this because we have come across a number of organisations that have wildly different job descriptions for the same role. The situation only leads to confusion and a lack of clarity about who does what.

4. Once again, and just to reinforce the point, take note of any missing documentation as this will need to be fixed.

5. Translate those competencies, education, and experience into your own tool. It’s pretty simple to do this you can start by using a MS Excel spreadsheet to list all the competencies and then use additional columns to indicate which roles should have which level of those competencies.

6. Once you have put all the competencies down into a spreadsheet, indicate very clearly an expected level of competence for each role in the organisation. Please keep in mind that it is always useful to involve practitioners, the PMO, and your human resources department in this.

7. Once you have the tool developed begin to assess individual practitioners against the various benchmarks of competence you have established. Note any discrepancies between what is expected of a practitioner and what they are able to demonstrate or be observed doing.

8. Using the information that you have gathered go on to develop individual professional development plans to ensure that everybody reaches the required level.

9. It’s a good rule of thumb to base all professional development on the 70:20:10 rule. This rule says that 70% of professional development should come from being assigned challenging assignments, 20% professional development should come from mentoring and coaching, and the final 10% of professional development should come from formal education and training.

10. Remember to review individual progress, reassess competency and adjust professional development plans accordingly.

There are some final points that I’d like to make. 

The first of these is that competency assessment is not a one-off activity. Instead it is an ongoing endeavour that starts at recruitment and is completed at regular intervals throughout an employee’s engagement with the organisation. You will use your competency framework during the recruitment process to ensure that you get the right people on board. You will then usual competency framework to take junior practitioners and turn them into senior practitioners. Your framework can also provide senior practitioners with clear guidance on where their career is heading as well.

I want to reiterate that:

  • we know that organizations achieve their strategic goals with successful projects,
  • that competent and capable practitioners produce high performing competent and capable project teams,
  • that competent and capable project teams deliver successful projects
  • therefore practitioner and organizational project management competency as a key contributor to organisational success and competency development is not a cost it is an investment in organisational success.

If you have any questions about the information in this blog, please do not hesitate to contact me. I am always happy to chat about any aspect of the profession of project management.

Sean Whitaker

sean@crystal.consulting

www.crystal.consulting