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:

  1. Companies and the jobs they advertise tell you that you need them in order to apply for certain roles
  2. People feel they will learn something useful from it and become more effective
  3. 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.

Consider this.

Certfication

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?

Heck no!

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!

Kelloggs

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.

    Earn & Excel

    Click Here to Leave a Comment Below
    Sam - December 7, 2015 Reply

    I’m really rethinking this Prince2 course I recently signed up for. Thanks for opening my eyes to all this!

    Swati - December 16, 2015 Reply

    Hi Sohail,

    Glad to read your post. I have been thinking about doing this course as I am told that Prince2 is the only way to breakthrough in Project management world. As I have never worked in PM and trying to get into one, what suggestion would you give someone who has got the soft skills but a fresher for this industry. thanks!

    Denis J Brown - December 18, 2015 Reply

    Well said and reasoned. Doers do! A basic understanding of what and how you are delivering in projects is at the essence. PM’s deal with PEOPLE who are involved in PROJECTS.

    Jim - December 18, 2015 Reply

    Those are all valid points for not getting certified. Many places won’t even consider you (let alone interview you) if you don’t have the appropriate alphabet soup following your name. I’ve been managing Engineering and IT projects for over 30 years and didn’t think I needed the certification either. But, now that I find myself unexpectedly a member of the “looking for work” crowed, my years of experience don’t seem to mean much.

      Richard Bush - December 20, 2015 Reply

      Great point Jim and reality check, as I believe I am seeing the same thing. I just recently completed PMI based PMP training. That training was largely designed to prepare one to take the PMI/PMP Certification Exam. The program is completed in approx one month and you are awarded a certificate issued as a “certification”. But, the primary point I want to make is it seemed that the phone didnt ring much until I added PMP training to my resume. It really didnt even ring much with earlier LSSGB certification I completed earlier this summer. So, it would appear that I may not have to actually complete PMI sanctioned PMP Certification to get to where I want to go, and to your point, contrary to what we are generally lead to believe. And finally, I have noticed before and now that many many people out there are in project management roles, that have had little or no formal PM training. And seem to be doing just fine. Having said that, I also have to say that, the tools and techniques I have gotten from professional project management training, would have really come in handy in past and recent roles.

    Nella - December 18, 2015 Reply

    Oh, the words of wisdom! I have 20+ years project management career and have avoided that ridiculous requirement during the interviews with the same response as you have suggested.

    George - December 18, 2015 Reply

    I could not agree more after managing technology projects for over 40 years.
    Most if not all of these certificates were not “invented” when I started in the late 1960is
    I, like you use the PMBOK as a reference or the Zakman or Etc.
    By the way projects have been managed successfully for thousands years.
    I agree the goal is to use and adapt the framework to match the project.

    Jacqueline Busette - December 18, 2015 Reply

    I enjoyed reading your article Sohail. I particularly like your response to potential employers, for not having certification. Thank you.

    Jose Morales - December 18, 2015 Reply

    Thanks for the insight, I currently started a new job as a project manager coordinator and have become fimiliar with the PMP framework. I’m learning as much as possible and do not care much for certifications, I think they have ruined the IT field.

      Richard Bush - December 20, 2015 Reply

      “I think they have ruined the IT field.”, interesting comment. Would you please comment further?
      I am curious about “which” certifications you are refering too. I personally fine ITIL to be very very suspect as a largely stand alone foundational element of ITSM. Your comments?

    Christopher Waterworth - December 19, 2015 Reply

    In the ‘early days’ of Project Management – before it became a stand-alone profession – most Project Managers were just engineers tasked with getting a job done to spec, on time and within budget. At that time, there were basically just two specialist tools available, both aimed at cost / schedule control [PERT and CPM] and the PM had to choose which one to adopt because they each used very different approaches to the same end.
    The PM professional bodies came about through idea sharing between these early pioneers. The PMI, for example, created the PMBOK to define a uniquely project-based skill set containing only those skills which, when used together, would improve the probability of project success. But it never indicated that other skills were not beneficial and in fact many equally useful skills were overlooked where there was some degree of duplication or where they were not universally applicable. The skills promoted tended to be those that could most easily be distributed in the form of computer-based software tools – a relatively new concept in the days immediately following graph paper and slide-rules.
    The many very useful but discarded tools used in the management of early projects can still be found today by reference to text books of the time. In my opinion, many of these tools should be revisited. There are some excellent tools amongst them!
    For all the many good aims of professionalism, including the protection of public money, amongst other things, its unfortunate consequence is to define and thereby limit scope. Professional bodies can therefore easily become self-sustaining ‘closed shop’ communities whose agendas can focus more on self-promotion than on achieving what the originators intended – a forum for open-minded discussion on state-of-the-art tools and techniques.
    So yes, professional certification is good, it ensures a solid foundation, but it is not the end of the road – an inquisitive mind open to future possibilities is still important.

    Michael C - December 19, 2015 Reply

    The PMP and derivative/related certs help define PM as a science, with a clearly and internationally accepted standard and process. The certs leverage one into the realm of subject matter expert. It’s clearly a hard skill.

    Management is predominantly a soft skill – but one needs to have solid hard skills to understand the people and projects one is managing (aka the BS filter). ALL managers are project managers, but NOT ALL PMs are managers.

    Project Management is an extremely diverse term and covers the entire spectrum from practising pure hard technical skills to the pure soft management skills.

    The root cause issue is probably more related to a misunderstanding of the certification. Certifications help reduce the candidate landscape for HR and hiring managers to just those who can “talk the talk”. The remaining issue is to ID those who can “walk the walk” – which is usually demonstrated through experience and project management histories.

    Suresh - December 19, 2015 Reply

    I agree with you, PM certification is not required and just by getting that cert doesn’t mean a person will be able to manage a project very efficiently. Rather the experiences/common sense only helps to mange a project and not cert. As u rightly said it can only be used as a reference

    Aden - December 19, 2015 Reply

    I am a contractor working as a problem and project manager for a major technology company. (I heard some of those eyes rolling.) The contractor offers a PM training program created and led by a world-renowned professional in his very small, technical field.

    It was honestly refreshing to listen to this professor (he has a doctorate and has been a university professor for many years) tell us that the whole purpose of the PMP and other certs is to be a moneymaking machine, that they are not *necessary* to be a successful PM.

    He stresses that it is important to be able to “walk the walk and talk the talk” to be accepted into the corporate culture, but in essence, you’re a PM because you say you are one. Others call you a PM because you’ve shown yourself to be one. That piece of paper (or digital certificate) is the least of the equation.

    Thank you for the fortitude to reinforce that message, Sohail.

    Artur - December 21, 2015 Reply

    Now, let me play a Devil’s advocate for a minute and take an opposite view. Sohail, when you step on a bus, you hope that the driver has a bus driving license. When, you go to the doctor’s you hope that the doctor has graduated from a medicine department with a degree, practiced for a while and went through a commission to become a doctor. If you board a plane you hope that the pilot is a qualified pilot and also has a plane type rating. Anyone can mention a whole lot of other professions – least for teachers and civil engineers – which are based on confirmed, i.e. certified knowledge and experience. How is project management different?

    We all need some assurance that the person who will take us somewhere is qualified for that. That normally goes through a system of testing, selection and elimination. I think it’s fine. But then, you have to look at two things. First, the quality of testing. Second, the person him/herself. If you focus on the PRINCE2 and the derivatives, I can only agree that the quality is something to discuss seriously. The names of the qualifications are misnomers, especially the PRACTIONER. Most definitely, you don’t become a practitioner of anything, 1,5 day after reaching the foundation level. But somehow these trainings have been packaged the way that they are absolute bestsellers. Somewhere else on linked I followed an interesting discussion about how many PRINCE2 trainees actually use the knowledge. A rough estimate was 5%. In reality, it’s anyone’s guess but likely very low. Why? Who can tell me? There is no practice of any of the tools and techniques, no case study (you get that in the exam), no group work whatsoever. It’s the training manual and the tests. And that is what is needed for you to pass the exam at the end of the day 3 and 5. And that’s what you’ve paid for. I have no word of criticism to my MSP trainer, she did a very good job. (I am sure that that there are some trainers and training companies that try to make the trainings more practice oriented and engaging.) Second, the person. Obviously, somebody who somehow went through the tests may be a bad driver, doctor, teacher, etc. Maybe, they should be ejected from the job, no matter the certificates.

    If you look at other certifications in project management, it’s a little different. You know that PMI asks for quite a few hours of project management experience. You know that IPMA has a four level certification scheme, from D (just knowledge) to A (corporate level project management). But the fail rate at any of these levels is non-negligible and you really have to study hard and accumulate experience. Like in any other serious domain.

    So I think it’s the matter of awareness and balance. I wouldn’t throw the certification through the window, because it does prove something, especially if it is based both on knowledge and experience or if it has levels from certifying just knowledge to certifying extensive experience. I would certainly focus on using that knowledge as soon and as much as possible, meaning, test it in practice. We also need to recon that people of many walks of life who get interested in project management, look for a first key to the first door, unless they are lucky and brought in by accident or their career naturally evolves into that. For the starters, PRINCE2 comes in handy. Illusorily, maybe. But that’s the logic I think, and it merits an understanding. By all means, it’s the matter of balance.

    And now, awareness. Why not look around and see what there is available. In the UK environment PRINCE2 rules, but there also APM, with a more tool and technique approach (similarly to IPMA in the continental context). Highly recommendable because learning and testing tools and techniques can never be undervalued (why so many people make Gantt charts in MS Excel? Because that can’t do it in MS Project). PRINCE2 has many good ideas (why so many projects go without strong business cases and benefit profiles?). My advice would be to go for the foundation level first, secure the opportunities to practice, and return for the practitioner course and exam a good while later. I think that should also be a formal requirement. If you need the exam at all.

    I think it’s the matter of a conscious choice, what skills I want to learn, how I want to put them into practice, how I will formalize them, and through which door I will enter the field. I agree with the author in many points but, but as to throwing the certifications just out, I tend to disagree.

      Earn & Excel - December 22, 2015 Reply

      Hi Artur, I appreciate the thoughtful comment. In terms of Doctors, Pilots, Teachers, Bus Drivers. There are absolute legal requirements to practice those in most countries. If you mess up as a doctor, driver, bus driver then you may injure or kill someone. Guess what the world is full of awful, rubbish and dangerously bad drivers. They all passed exams. Passing exams is a SKILL. That is what modern education is, it’s all modularised exams, designed to make you pay more money, take more exams which make you regurgitate facts. Modern education systems and testing have destroyed the spirit of learning and education. When I’m hiring a PM (and I’ve hired a few this year), i am not looking at these certifications, I am looking at their experience, asking them the right questions on how they escalate, plan, deal with conflicts, set up governance etc. I want to see their answers in the context of the places they’ve worked, I don’t care if they have a 100% success rate, because no one does but I just need to understand how they dealt with the challenges. That is it. That is 40%, the other 60% is to see if I will get on with them because I have to work with them frequently and ensure they fit in to the culture. Someone who doesn’t fit in to the culture will struggle a bit more with delivery. I have a PRINCE2 book on my desk, if I want to make things look ‘proper’ I’ll get inspiration. The people I deliver projects for, Managing Directors, C-Level execs simply DO NOT care about certifications or frameworks. The hold the budgets. All they care is ‘is it done?’. I simply won’t allow certifications and frameworks to restrict my thinking and dumb me down.

    Claus B. Lemche - December 22, 2015 Reply

    I fully agree with you. Another thing is, how many PMs are actually using fx PRINCE2 – my guess after many years as PM in a large software house is very few. Everybody are talking about it but …..

    Ebele Nwuzor - December 28, 2015 Reply

    Dear Sohail, I can only say, a big thank you to you for that wonderful piece of document/ eye opener, on project management without certification. I want you to help me with the meaning of IKEA, and VBA. Don’t laugh, but if you feel like it, go ahead and laugh! Again, how do I get in touch with you always, I’m in the non- profit, and it’s really giving me too much challenge. I need a breakthrough. Can I have you as my Mentor? I need to learn more. Thank you so much! Keep up the good work!

    Ron S - January 3, 2016 Reply

    I’ve been a PM for 27 years.

    Yes, I agree. Certs for PM are bs. They’ve been beautifully wrapped, packaged, branded and marketed! Many people and companies have been lured in to these Certs being the end all to project management. They’re not. They’re not. The pmbok is wonderful reference though.

    Thanks for a fandango article! Really great!

    Vasti - January 5, 2016 Reply

    I definetly agree with you. A certification does not changes who you are and how you adress to work.

    Note this comes from a certified PMP; despite I refused to take any certification unless it was absolutely necesary, I ended up getting certified on project management, and it turned out to be a very interesting social experiment.

    To give you some context, I came from technical roles on projects asking to be entitled with the project management responsability. I even did most of the PM work on some projects without any recognition within the organization, and developed some tools which some project managers were using already.

    I was denied several times the opportunity to get the formal role…. Until…, voila! I got certified an suddenly I was now seen and recognized as a project manager. The funny thing is that I just kept doing things just the same way I used to…., just people now recognized all that work, and I could finally focus on one role without dividng my attention on several.

    Dennis McDonald - January 7, 2016 Reply

    Here in the U.S., PMP certification is greatly valued by HR professionals who can use the lack of it on a resume to greatly reduce a pile of to-be-reviewed resumes. Then they can focus on those who actually can do the job being applied for, notwithstanding that many in the non-PMP pile can also do the job but will never be contacted.

    Bob - January 8, 2016 Reply

    Hello,
    I am very pleased to see a common sense view expressed on this aspect. Too long we have had to suffer the insult of judgement referenced either to certification or to the opposite of certification. Truly, as you’ve outlined, the answers are somewhere in the middle.
    I have a mix of experience and qualification although not fully PMP or Prince 2. Quite frankly, I don’t see the point in progressing with P2 as that is a process to death opportunity for seat polishers. But the principles are quite logical for ‘soft target’ projects such as government funded. As project management is a framework in which outcomes are supposed to be achieved, the processes are necessary only to the extent relevant to outcome. Eg, the constructor’s toilets needing to green with red stripes is irrelevant to the outcome except that failing in the colour scheme delivery might stop the project and cost time and real money.
    The certification, as far as my opinion is concerned, should be no more than a guiding reference as a start point, to expect that a PM and his staff know what they are doing so they can be held accountable. How many people have we come across who have certification so know all the works but have little knowledge of the mechanics of a project. Ie, don’t quite get the aspect of connectivity or ‘integration’ as applies to the ten fundamentals. How many times have we seen a scheduler, as supported by the PM, embark on building a timeline schedule without the Contract as his guide?
    Good post Mr Sohail..

    Monica - January 8, 2016 Reply

    I definetly agree with you. A certification does not changes who you are and how you adress to work.
    I’ve been a PM for 20 years but, you know, without certification you are not recognized. I’m studing for the certication and, sincerly, nothing new.

    Juli Booze-Jervis - January 8, 2016 Reply

    Thanks for sharing your perspective and best practice to respond to the interviewers. I am finding it difficult that although I do not have the official title “project manager, potential employers are weeding me out based on the lack of title and/or certification. I agree that a lot of my actual experience actually contributes to my success on actual projects. The challenges trying to find someone who’s willing to give me the benefit of the doubt to actually prove my experience and ability to hone my PM skills in which I’m not as experienced.

    Dorcas Sebina - January 10, 2016 Reply

    My sentiment exactly. I have been managing projects for over 7 years without any certification but to my surprise when I applied for a better paying job as a Project Manager I wasn’t even shortlisted because of that. Experience is more important than certification.

    Ron S - January 12, 2016 Reply

    PMP, Prince2, etc., make it real easy for HR folks. They don’t know jack and the bean stalk about project management.

    So, they look for those brands, and if the resume has it, that goes into one pile and the rest are canned.

    John Lerchen - February 1, 2016 Reply

    Certifications for project management are akin to anatomy classes for doctors. They exist to provide a common knowledge core and lexicon. But just as an understanding of the skeletal system is compulsory to practice medicine, it does not necessarily increase the competency of a doctor. By themselves, neither do certifications provide proficiency.

    What we as practitioners should accept is that credentials are, still, quite important. They are the table stakes to get into the game. Once in, the professional will move beyond credentials – the ante – towards competency.

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