An interesting question was asked recently on one of the LinkedIn project management groups about the use of contract project managers. Having been and hired both full-time and contract project managers, I felt that this would be a good topic for further exploration.
Most organizations with titled project managers rarely have enough capacity to handle peak staffing situations. While some of the excess project demand could be managed by functional managers or other senior staff, there may still be one or more projects of sufficient complexity to demand the services of a professional project manager. Faced with such a need, unless there is sufficient sustained work to justify a full-time hire, a contract project manager may be considered as a quick (though costly) solution.
The benefits of using a contract project manager include:
- Greater time availability to focus on managing the project – contractors won’t have the administrative or operational responsibilities which a full-time team member will have, hence, they will have more hours to work on the project each week.
- Lack of internal political baggage – unless the project manager has already been under contract with your company for a very long period of time, they are unlikely to have any of the biases which employees usually develop and if they are a career consultant, they will likely have seen enough different cultures and environments to know that most issues are common to many organizations and the grass is likely equally yellow. Their advice or recommendations are likely to be balanced, subject only to their own internal (and not political) biases.
- Lack of job insecurity – over the past decade and a half of downsizing and fiscal constraint, fear of job loss or uncertainty of job stability has created very real productivity impacts for full time staff in most companies. This is not likely to be a concern for most contractors who recognize that their only guarantee is the termination clause in their contract.
- Greater breadth or depth of experience – Although you pay a higher rate than for an internal employee, an external project manager may bring a degree of versatility, flexbility or in-depth domain knowledge which can reduce the risk to your project and increase the predictability of desired outcomes. In that context, the contractor’s fees could be considered as a type of insurance. The one risk to watch for when procuring a “seasoned” contractor is ensuring that while they have twenty years of experience, that it’s not just the same one year of experience repeated twenty times!
While there are benefits in using a contract project manager staffing approach, there are some issues and risks which need to be considered – some can be resolved or mitigated, others not.
- Loss of knowledge – even if knowledge transfer is explicitly built into their contract, it is very difficult to measure the effectiveness of such knowledge transfer, and if push comes to shove, your customer or project sponsor are likely to be more keen on ensuring that project scope is completed on time and on budget than that knowledge transfer successfully occurred. This is why it may be worth looking at shifting existing assignments such that projects where valuable knowledge will be gained are managed by internal staff and external project managers are used in more of a back-fill mode.
- Ends justify the means – While an external project manager won’t have internal political baggage or biases, they also won’t be as focused on building long-term positive relationships with all stakeholders as an internal project manager would. What this means is that while they will likely be keen on getting a very positive reference from the customer or project sponsor, they may do so at the expense of their team or key stakeholders by driving results over relationships. To mitigate this risk, the project sponsor should be held accountable for the project manager’s methods and any evaluation provided to the project manager should take a 360 degree approach. There should also be care taken during the interview process to assess whether the contractor will “fit” your organization and team’s culture – while the long term impacts of a misfit may be less than for a full-time employee, the short term impacts could still be severe.
- Lack of organization culture & process knowledge – Although the contract project manager may bring significant domain experience relevant to the needs of the specific project, their lack of specific cultural or process knowledge of your company will impede their short term effectiveness and productivity. This is why it is better to bring a contract project manager on during project initiation or the early stages of the planning phase to avoid creating schedule impacts, and you should also evaluate the criticality of this knowledge to the scope or desired outcomes for the project.
Use of contractors can be an ideal method of resolving project manager staffing shortfalls, but having awareness of the risks of doing so and implementing suitable responses to such risks is critical to be able to benefit from this approach.