The Accidental or Citizen Project Manager- Upskill or Tool up?

A typical event in organizations is asking a business professional to manage projects. This professional may have no experience, qualifications, or training. This can be a person from any function such as Marketing, IT, Operations, and Consultancy. You can find accidental Project Managers in all industries including both public and private sectors.

It is “Accidental Project Managers” because they end up managing projects instead by accident than by design. Another term is “Citizen Project Managers.” Given that without competent project management capabilities, a project is likely to flounder. It seems prudent to upskill these individuals and provide them with the tools they need to perform effectively.

How Common are Accidental Project Managers?

In a recent study in the public sector, 70% of those that were asked to manage projects had other responsibilities within the operation. 83% of those surveyed said there was no project management methodology. Less than half (41%) said project management was viewed as a core competency in their department.

These findings were also seen in an earlier study covering a broader range of sectors. It showed that over two-thirds (69%) of organizations have no definition of project management roles and responsibilities within the formalized organization. Many project resources end up to projects either informally or part-time only, or both – this occurs in 62% of cases.

Also, 64.5% of project managers either have no or minimal formal training in project management. This is a recipe for failure in the delivery of projects. These people need upskilling and tooling up to do a more effective job.

Why Accidental Project Managers Increase Project Risk

There are reasons why putting an inexperienced person in charge of running a project is likely to lead to best and project failure issues at worst. It may cause problems such as not having a business case made for the project.  Accidental Project Managers will be highly likely not to plan the project correctly or will plan it without consideration of key factors that must be addressed.

There may be a project plan of sorts, but it is unlikely to include a work breakdown structure to show the milestones, deliverables, and phases. Perhaps one of the biggest challenges is that an Accidental Project Manager is unlikely to hone-in sufficiently on the project scope. This can lead to a scope that is unclear and which shifts continually. This inevitably leads to scope creep and the inability to deliver the project in the required timescale or to set a budget (if one has even been defined in the first place!). Other problems that will probably occur are ineffective stakeholder management, leading to a low level of buy-in from key individuals. Underestimating the whole effort of managing the project may happen. It will create stress for the Accidental Project Manager and the entire team.

What Skills and Tools do Accidental Project Managers Need?

Accidental Project Managers may have some skills that they need quite by chance. Good project managers are typically good at planning, organizing very well, focusing on tasks, and having excellent communication skills. However, it does not mean that they are competent enough to undertake project management responsibilities. It does give them an ideal base to build from.

Accidental Project Managers can benefit from developing a solid and realistic project plan that will offer direction. It will also help the project to progress. It is helpful to undergo some training to provide project managers with this type of tools. For example, some useful tools to have are those relating to putting together a Gantt chart, CPM, and PERT, managing projects effectively with the help of all these tools.

Other areas of focus that will be incredibly beneficial are helping accidental project managers to understand how to keep projects on schedule. This includes setting stretching but realistic delivery goals, as well as how to deal with bottlenecks. This skill requires being able to pinpoint in advance where these sorts of issues may occur. And to take proactive measures to stop them from happening.

Soft Skills and Training

The skills that an accidental project manager needs include so-called “soft skills,” such as effective communication as a project manager. It is important to consider that stakeholder management and communication is so integral to the success of projects. Understanding how to communicate with and manage stakeholders is definitely an area of focus that should be considered when upskilling. Understanding how governance is important to the project management role is also likely to be immensely helpful.

Ideally, those undertaking project management responsibilities will have access to formal project management training. This may be too expensive for some organizations. Yet, there are other ways that upskilling can occur. For example, on-the-job training by more experienced project managers can be highly effective. There are some good texts to help consolidate this learning too. A recommended book for this is A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge. It is best to encourage Accidental project managers to network with project managers that have more experience.


While the accidental project manager is a common occurrence in many organizations, this mode of operation puts projects at risk. It is best to recommend accidental project managers to get the skills and tools they need. To help them manage projects on time and on budget. This may come at a price. However, it is likely to be cheaper than the cost of continually having projects fail or overrun.

Until next time, you are up to date.