What “makes” a project planner?

For many years, there has been one requirement for being a Project Planner: planning experience. This was sufficient when the role “Project Planner” was still relatively unknown and knowledge was gained by going through the motions of working under and learning from other experienced planners.

However, after Project Planning became a compulsory contractual requirement, the role exploded into the likes of a Hollywood star, where everybody wanted to be one, and their financial statuses were reported much like in a celebrity tabloid. Project Planners were popping up like moles in a vegetable garden. However, the quality was not the same and the requirements became more intense, with software certificates, engineering degrees and many more years’ experience. Unfortunately, these pre-requisites did not ensure employers were appointing skilled Project Planners, thus the latest boom of Project Planning training courses. We have seen one-day courses, 3-day courses etc. pop up and, since we offer Project Planning courses ourselves, have debated the effectiveness of these pop-ups. After we posted an article on the Bad Rap of Project Planners, indicating the need for training in this field, we were asked whether a “few of our courses will make a Project Planner”. This calls for a debate and some research to answer a few questions on the matter:

  • Why are the usual pre-requisites for Project Planners not enough?
  • Is Project Planning training necessary?
  • If so, which training courses will be effective in addressing the lack of skill in the field?
  • What “makes” a Project Planner?

Please, join the debate, and the conversation on LinkedIn and Facebook with #DoProjectPlannersNeedTraining.

 Why are the usual pre-requisites for Project Planners not enough?

We’ve identified 3 pre-requisites employers ask for when looking for Project Planners:

  1. Software certificates
  2. Engineering degrees
  3. Many years’ experience

We’ve also identified that adhering to these pre-requisites does not guarantee you a skilled Project Planner. Now let’s look at why this is the case? Why, with such impossibly high standards is it still not enough?

In a conversation with a Project Planner recently I asked the question: “How did you become a Project Planner?” The individual answered that he had completed a Primavera P6 course and was therefore “qualified as a Project Planner”, and was promoted to that position in the company he was working with at that time. Is a certificate in P6 sufficient for “making” a Project Planner?
We’ve asked the following question on our social media recently and I’ll explain our thought process behind it: “Do we consider a person to be a design engineer if that person knows how to operate design software, such as PROKON, ETAP, etc? No. Why then do we call a person that has been trained to use MsProject or Primavera a planner?”
This scenario clearly represents the “Software Jockey” mentioned in David Nash’s article. Knowing the software will get you far, that’s true, but when you do not know how the software processes the information that you give it, you will not notice when the outcomes are not what they are supposed to be. Knowing the software can make you a scheduler, in other words you can input information in the right places to get the required outputs i.e. reports, charts, S-curves etc. However, you still need to know the fundamentals of what Project Planning is, to understand how this information is processed and what you need to do with it to get the desired results. In our experience, Planners who went through the fundamental training learn the software much quicker, because they know what to look for and what things mean when they see it. In fact, we’ve witnessed such planners teaching the software trainers things about their own software they didn’t know. In the trainers’ defense, they did not design the software but simply teach what they have been taught.

Depending on the industry involved, technical background certainly helps a Project Planner to catapult his career, as Project Planning predominantly takes place in a very technical industry. However, an engineering degree doesn’t make a person any more a Project Planner than a doctor’s degree makes someone a dentist. Project Planning is a unique skill, a specialist field of Project Management. In fact, the action of project planning used to be part of a Project Manager’s role, but because of the project sizes we work with and the massive weight already on PM’s shoulders, this task was separated, becoming its own position in a more concentrated form than was previously possible. Though performed separately, the project schedule/programme is still meant to be an essential tool in a Project Manager’s hand.

In the past, Project Planning skills were passed down by highly skilled Project Planners to their Juniors/trainees. With the boom of the Project Planning field, this was no longer the case, as illustrated in the first example where just software knowledge “qualifies” one as a Planner. So experience is gained as time goes by, but does it truly result in skill? Sometimes it does. Sometimes there is just the right amount of mentorship, and individuals put in the right amount of effort to equip themselves with the knowledge they need to advance their skill. But many times Planners continue in what they know, even when what they know is very limited or possibly incorrect. In such a case, would you say that experience in “bad Planning habits” makes one a skilled Planner? Of course I’m not saying all Planners with experience are unskilled, but I am saying that knowing how long someone has had the “Project Planner” job title does not tell you how well he can plan.

 These 3 main pre-requisites were created to sift between the skilled and unskilled, but have often resulted in both unskilled Project Planners being appointed, and in skilled Project Planners being overlooked for not making the requirements. It has also made it very difficult for new Project Planners to enter the field. But how does one then identify skill in Project Planning? And, more importantly, how does one attain/achieve skill? Is Project Planning training necessary? Or is there another answer to the dilemma we are facing?

 Join us as we dig deeper into this issue in part 2.

Charisa Langeveld