Tuesday, 11 March 2008

Why do good Project Officers make bad Project Managers?

In my Redesigning the pyramid paper I argued that the role of Project Officer was the hardest job in archaeology, owing to the punishing combination of archaeological, supervisory, administrative, legal, and managerial responsibilities, combined with stress, travel, isolation and weather. That is still true, and therefore the aim of the parent organisation should be provide all possible support to assist them.

You might think that somebody who can cope successfully with the Project Officer role would therefore be well-equipped to take on a managerial role with a significant office-based element to the work. It doesn't seem to work that way: often they find the role unrewarding, difficult, tedious, and even more stressful. Partly this may be because the Project Officer has been impelled upwards by a desire for job security, money or status, rather than a desire to become a manager as such. But partly it may be because being a Project Officer is an apprenticeship that teaches some unhelpful lessons.


The Myers-Briggs personality Type Indicator is a widely-used tool to identify the different approaches that people have towards life in general and work in particuler. It has been criticised but remains in use mainly because it is simple and is felt to reflect some real differences within the workforce.

I have devised the following exercise with a similar intent. below are listed a series of pairs of concepts, and you should choose one from each pair that you prefer on the grounds that it is important or easy or something you handle well.


List A < = > List B
Improvisation < = > Planning
Pragmatic < = > Principled
Short-term < = > Long-term
Completion < = > Sustainability
Risk tolerant < = > Risk averse
Innovation < = > Maintenance
Flexible < = > Programmed



If you have a background in successful project work, you are likely to have chosen answer A in most or all cases; the B answers sound at best irrelevant and sometimes actively negative. This is a natural result of the tunnel vision that project work encourages: focus on delivering the key targets to the exclusion of all else is (in that context) exactly what is required. But managers are expected to take a broader view: there are times when a project has to take a hit for the benefit of the organisation a a whole. Improvisational responses may, with the side-effect of exhaustion and panic, deliver successful management, but in the long term (aha!) a more structured and considered planned approach is needed. It is sometimes said that the job of managers is to tell their staff things they don't want to hear; there will be a tension between the managers' priorities and those of others. The conflict between 'site' and 'HQ' that seems an unavoidable part of archaeology reflects this: the Project Officer will want three more days to finish sampling, while being told to close the site so the team can move on to the next site and the invoices can go in.

So part of becoming a manager involves re-orientating your attitudes towards the interests of the organisation as a whole rather than your team and your projects. It is hardly surprising that this takes time: some senior managers never quite get there

1 comment:

Mike Myers said...

The MBTI can really enlighten someone about their personal stregnths and weaknesses. Along with your sources you listed I also found this website useful: Myers Briggs Personality Test