Project Manager Transition

A new skill set for managing large and complex projects



By Richard Wyatt

United Kingdom




As projects grow in size their level of complexity grows exponentially. History has shown that many project managers struggle to deliver larger and more complex projects while others transition successfully.

Project managers typically follow a similar initial career trajectory; learn key techniques and tools, deliver small projects under supervision. Over time they are trusted with larger and larger projects as they demonstrate success with the smaller ones. Progress continues until the individual starts to struggle and supervisors limit coaching to reiterating the basic tenets of project management. Why do only some project managers continue their success with large and complex projects? What do those who are successfully with large project do differently?

Successful managers of large and complex project transition to executive level management, leaving behind those colleagues who continue to focus on project administration. Specifically they; loosen their grip on project detail, there is too much in a large project. They organize autonomous but accountable work streams. They focus on where challenges are most likely to occur, recognizing that organizations are an integrated web of sub goals. They also anticipate there will be constant changes develop plans that are flexible. All these skills enable the successful project manager to reduce the time spent on tactical project administration and so they can spend their time working strategically to preempt potential issues.


Over the last 30 years I have observed hundreds of project managers and thousands of projects. The majority of these efforts have been well organized and delivered successfully. However, an analysis of these projects has shown that the success rate declines as the projects get large and more complex. Literature that describes big project failure is widely available and makes compelling reading. Examples such as: Mars Climate Orbiter(1), Denver Airport Baggage Handling System(2). and Westpac CS90(3). To be fair, there are many large, complex projects that are delivered successfully. So, this raises a question, why do some project managers transition to large projects successfully while so many others begin to flounder as complexity increases?

Three stages to struggling with large projects

Typically, a project manager’s journey starts at a junior level. A personal choice of career direction combined with an organizational need to guide discrete bodies of work through successful delivery. The individual will receive training in core project management techniques. The training may be anywhere from in-house coaching to full certification from an organization such as the Project Management Institute.

Stage 1: Managing small simple projects

Initial assignments will encompass small projects, likely self-contained within a single part of the organization. The enthusiastic new project manager will create a detailed Work Breakdown structure often with tasks down to durations of an hour, predecessors for every task and a constantly updated percent complete field. This is all good. The supervisor of the new project manager constantly emphasizes managing the detail.

The initial projects are all a success with the new project manager on top of every detail. I equate this to juggling with two tennis balls, it needs some coordination but is not too difficult.

Stage 2: Managing more complex projects

As the project manager’ reputation for success grows so does the complexity of the projects they are asked to manage. Projects will grow in size and complexity. The projects will include resources from other organizations, may involve more complex technology and will generally have more moving parts. The project manager continues to utilize the core techniques and seeks to stay on top of the detail to ensure everything happens per the plan.

Project managers are still successful, but it is becoming much harder. The project plan needs to change frequently to account for better understood requirements and stretched due dates. There are more relationships to manage some of which become contentious. Staying on top of the detail becomes a time sink. Supervisors tend to reiterate by the book techniques focused on managing the detail.

I equate this to juggling 3 balls, with the occasional superstar managing 4 or 5. Even the skilled juggler begins to find their limit.


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Editor’s note: Second Editions are previously published papers that have continued relevance in today’s project management world, or which were originally published in conference proceedings or in a language other than English.  Original publication acknowledged; authors retain copyright.  This paper was originally presented at the 6th Annual University of Maryland PM Symposium in May 2019.  It is republished here with the permission of the author and conference organizers.

How to cite this paper: Wyatt, R. (2019). Project Manager Transition: A new skill set for managing large and complex projects; presented at the 6th Annual University of Maryland Project Management Symposium, College Park, Maryland, USA in May 2019; PM World Journal, Vol. VIII, Issue VII, August. Available online at https://pmworldlibrary.net/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/pmwj84-Aug2019-Wyatt-project-manager-transition.pdf



About the Author

Richard Wyatt

United Kingdom




Richard Wyatt is the Director of Strategic Programs at TIAA, a leading Financial Services provider. He has worked across the globe in UK, US, Australia and Indonesia delivering project of growing size and complexity. He currently manages projects with budgets in excess of $100m. During his career he has observed project managers struggle and the size of their project increase and has researched and articulated the skills set required to be successful. Richard has a BA in Computing in Business and an MBA from Durham University, UK.