Why you don’t need Certifications to succeed in Project Management
Year after year, I am told by colleagues, articles, pop up adverts and project management certification providers that I need to get PRINCE2, PMP, AMP etc etc. Frankly, I was too busy listening to my MP3 collection to take notice. In going from a £27K salary to a £200K package in 7 years within project management, I have no PRINCE2 or whatever project management certification is in vogue. How can that be? How am I earning multiples of what other project management professionals earn by being less certified than them?
First of all, why do people get certified? For any of these three reasons:
- Companies and the jobs they advertise tell you that you need them in order to apply for certain roles
- People feel they will learn something useful from it and become more effective
- Because people need the validation of a ‘certification'
Now, #1 and #2 are based reasonable assumptions but a little later I am going to tell you how to deal with them but let’s discuss point #3 first because it’s a dangerous one.
Do you actually think a 2 to 5 day course followed by a test to get a certification is going to transform you into a Project god?
Will it boost your ability to do the job better?
If the Jones’ are doing it, so should I
What is happening is something called an ‘Availability Cascade’ which I will let Wikipedia define as:
‘A self-reinforcing process in which a collective belief gains more and more plausibility through its increasing repetition in public discourse i.e. "repeat something long enough and it will become true".
Let’s look at some famous examples of availability cascade.
Ever heard of the American Dream (to ‘make it’ in America)? Have you ever suggested Cereal is the perfect breakfast food? Have you ever paid three month's salary to buy a wedding ring?
Well, the 'American Dream' was a marketing campaign by Finance giant's Fannie Mae, the most successful marketing campaign in history because it created a trillion dollar mortgage industry. An industry that went on to fuel the 2008 subprime crisis (I'm simplifying) and further the income inequality gap.
Breakfast Cereal was a residual marketing campaign by Kellogg to sell their product, which nutritionists now are telling us, is absolutely horrible for our health!
Three months' salary to buy a diamond ring is a marketing campaign by DeBeers the Diamond maker, nothing wrong with their blood diamond or price fixing history.
As with most consumerism campaigns these were ideas and products created and popularised to sell things to people who didn’t need them.
Let’s look at the history of PRINCE2
In the early 90’s a few UK government departments (you know, the sort that invent bureaucracy) decided to spend money formalising project management by creating a framework.
There are lots of pros and cons of doing such a thing but always a questionable endeavour when it was done with the taxpayer’s money.
The framework, which to be fair was not half bad was then rolled out to other departments and some project managers lived by it and others just carried on doing whatever they always did before to get things done. Most PM’s fell somewhere in the middle of those extremes.
Now, since a sizeable proportion of the Project Management community are Contract staff i.e. they mosey off in to the sunset from project to project, company to company. Many would take this new buzzword laden framework to the Private sector and lord knows how much HR in any sector love them buzz words.
Some project managers, the overzealous kind, began to demand this certification in their new hires and slowly over many years, many projects, and many personalities an availability cascade was created and now it’s almost a given, when you see any ‘Project Management’ job, you will see a requirement for PRINCE2, PMP, AMP, BLAH etc.
Not because having it has value, but because having it is part of ‘the game’.
The Player vs The Game
Only the most zealous project managers insist upon the entirety of PRINCE2 to be used and the moment you start to fit your project in to the bounds of a framework that was developed for a specific purpose (Government projects) then you are ALREADY mismanaging the project.
However, PM’s on the whole, certainly the good ones are a solid common sense driven bunch and in my decade+ of working on projects, I have not worked on one project which closely resembled those methodologies.Reality, pragmatism, politics, personalities and budgets cause us to diverge.
Now, I did say PRINCE2 is not half bad.
I was taught PRINCE2 by an early mentor who did the course but didn’t insist his hires have it, instead he would spend an hour walking new team members through the most salient and usable parts of it in the context of the project we were delivering at the time.
This is how these frameworks should be utilised because frankly everything you need from them can be looked up on the fly. I am happy to compensate the creators of these frameworks as I already have by purchasing their books and using them as reference points as and when I feel a Project I am working can benefit.
We simply don’t need exams and tests which just test our ability to regurgitate the concepts. I’m not denigrating the ideas and concepts from PMP, MSP, PRINCE2 etc. They are good solid ideas. We can learn from ideas and introduce concepts. I have worked on tiny micro projects and £1Bn+ Transformation programmes and everything in between in my career and not ONCE have I seen the complete usage of any one particular methodology. Because they are ideas, they are academic. Academics will only ever help you to a small degree in a real world situation.
Application is everything.
Focusing on career brilliance will give you great CV bullet points, but focusing on CV bullet points will give you career mediocrity
Certifications are like gaffer tape for fixing that IKEA wardrobe you put together poorly, certifications are like the Instamatic tummy tuck 3000 for those who need to get trimmer and so on, they pander to your ‘I feel good because I am doing something I think is right’ psychology but the reality is they won’t affect you in a meaningful way. You’ll feel good because ‘you got it out of the way’, but you will soon realise that it hasn’t actually made a difference and that’s when that heart breaking feeling will settle in.
But still, why the hate? ‘I mean FFS its 3 days out of your whole career’ is what colleagues would say to me?! ‘Just shut up, do it and play the damn game.’
Well, I’m not going to. Stop playing other people’s games, play your own games.
Spend your life bending to the world’s generic ideas or create value for the world so it bends to your brilliance.
3 days for the sake of a bullet point on your CV might not be much to some but to me, it’s a great deal
3 days is what I spent learning how to automate PowerPoint (with a good level of VBA in place already), this is a skill that I used to negotiate my rate by an extra £50 a day (£12K extra a year) on one contract.
3 days is what I once spent researching 5 Managing Directors before I got in touch to offer them my services at solving specific problems they were having, one of those materialised in to a £140k contract.
I can go on but you get the point.
A focused 2 to 5 days can have an incredible impact on your career, but you need to get to the heart of what is essential.
The absolute best way is to get mentors and ask them the right questions but that’s a whole series of articles!
So how do I deal with the incessant need for Certifications when going for new jobs?
Now, as I promised I am going tell you how I deal with the objections of companies and managers who insist you have these certifications. Here's my exact phrasing in an interview.
'I am highly experienced at using the concepts of PRINCE2/PMP/AMP(whatever) when delivering projects, but my experience over the years from speaking to colleagues with the certifications led me to believe that gaining the actual certification itself didn’t add any extra value in my ability to deliver projects, but again I refer to the handbook as and when'
For me, this has ALWAYS been met with a nod of agreement.
Just in case it ever doesn't get an agreeable response that's actually a great thing because you've just identified the overzealous manager that you DO NOT want to work for so run away and don’t look back.