How to spot an old-school project manager

by Jan Schiller

Want an elite project manager on your team? Can you recognize a project manager with the expertise and experience developed and refined by successfully, consistently, and predictably delivering complex results? 

Old-school project managers are versatile. They have managed various projects in various organizations, achieving various desired results through various strategies.

You can spot an old-school project manager by recognizing these telltale signs of versatility:

Adapts to the evolution of project management. 

They have the system thinking, management science background, quantitative focus, and the ability to work in an ad-hoc environment that characterized project management in the 1950s. They have organizational management and human resource skills in focus in the 1970s, resulting in accurate schedules and high-performing project teams. They understand that projects transform organizations and achieve strategies, two key characteristics of project management in the 1990s. They have successfully learned and applied advancements in project management technology, methodology, and business practices while still characterizing project management in this century.

Contributes to every phase of the solution delivery process. 

Over the course of their career, old-school project managers have solicited and managed requirements, acquired software, and related services, performed fit analyses, designed solutions in alignment with enterprise architecture, developed and tested all aspects of the solution, and spent many weekends implementing, deploying and rolling out those solutions.

Considers managing projects as a way of life. 

Project management lives and breathes in an old-school project manager’s personal life as well. Old-school project managers are passionate about project management. They identify alternatives and evaluate each one against a set of criteria to determine the best approach to remodel a bathroom or kitchen in alignment with a budget, then act as a ‘general contractor’ to select the remodeling companies and ensure the right people are involved at the right time. Old-school project managers create agendas for family vacations and secure the best lodging, transportation, and activities while keeping the family informed so they know what to pack. A calendar is an old-school project manager’s best friend for keeping track of everything from birthdays to fundraising events. 

Smiles in the face of adversity

An old-school project manager is calm and patient. Comfortable being uncomfortable. Unrattled in the face of complexity and uncertainty.

Correlates experience to an agile approach

Old-school project managers have already worn all the agile hats at the same time and can easily translate their project management experience to these new roles. They’ve negotiated with stakeholders to prioritize requirements and collaborated to manage change (product owner). They’ve worked with a team to determine how much can be accomplished in a specific period of time (sprint planning). They understand and facilitate the process that moves the team from launch to release while tracking and resolving issues (scrum master). They are committed to providing transparency and visibility into results and progress (sprint reviews) and understand how important it is to learn and adapt (sprint retrospectives). 


An organization’s situation and expected results into standard and structured project management, outcome management, and solution delivery processes, even when the organization does not have those processes in place. This translation skill allows old-school project managers to adapt to an organization’s size and existing processes. They can aggregate seemingly disparate sources of project information and assimilate that information into a cohesive set of project deliverables that stabilize a project. This skill makes it possible to coordinate a supplier’s process with the organization’s process without sub-optimizing the supplier’s performance. It applies to understanding and adjusting to the differences between ‘project coordinator,’ ‘project manager,’ ‘program manager,’ and ‘project portfolio manager.’ It allows them to recognize a project management role even when ‘project’ is not part of the role’s title or description. 

Knows when to trade off

An old-school project manager has the basics down and knows how to pivot, given the project environment. For example, when to insist on scope definition and when to focus more on requirement definition. Or to understand when to keep the ship afloat instead of insisting on addressing a root cause, so the opportunity to focus on the root cause is possible (such as delivering on an executive’s expectations for an improved status report when you know work planning is the root cause). 

Competition for project management talent is high. When you know how to identify an old-school project manager, you can elevate your project portfolio’s performance and realize your organization’s strategies.


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