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How to plan your project management career

Drawing up a career path

Your career is something that relies very much on the organisation you work for – or indeed the way you choose to work i.e. freelance, permanent, part-time.

If you work for an organisation, chances are you may even have a development plan – formed on the back of an annual performance review or something similar.

But are you actively using it?

Tools like SWOTs (Strengths, Opportunities, Weaknesses and Threats) have long been used to pinpoint what it is we already have in areas such as experience, competencies and skills. It’s a simple tool that helps to get down on paper the thoughts we have before pulling together a development plan.

But for project managers in particular, there’s another tool that can be used alongside this, which expands your thinking, and takes into account the fact that your career is not something that is done in isolation.

The Butterfly Model

The butterfly model is born out of risk management. It’s an extension of a familiar risk management tool seen in the gas and oil sector when preforming risk assessments in hazardous situations – the bow-tie diagram. If you’re not already familiar, take a look at a simple overview.

The Butterfly model takes the bow-tie to the next level by introducing Assumptions, Stakeholders, SWOT and the ability to see both positive and negative outcomes. (see Figure 1).

In the middle of the butterfly we have our risk – or this case of career planning – what it is that we want to do or what it is we want to achieve next in our careers.

By working through the model and highlighting each part, it can be used to trigger much wider thoughts than SWOT can.

Underlying Assumptions

We have to make some assumptions throughout our careers, otherwise we would never make any steps or advancements if there are too many ‘unknowns’ that might stop us.

We make assumptions so we can at least start the plan. Some assumptions may be right, some wrong, but the trick here – just like in risk management – is to show that at least they were recognised and thought about.

The example shown below in figure 2, is for a project support worker who wants to move to a programme office.

To start the next step in their career, their assumptions are that a role will exist for them and that the organisation is committed to increasing maturity in the PMO, as this worker wants to work in a PMO that is going places.

Figure 2

It is here that you start to think about the bigger picture of what you’re looking to do in your career.

There is a recognition that the project support worker’s career expectations will be realised if their stakeholders are supportive and satisfied it is the right move for all parties concerned.

But just because you think it’s time to move on, others around you may have a totally different view.

So who are your stakeholders in your career, how well do you know them, what does their bigger picture look like, will they support you or feel threatened?

Just like in projects, it doesn’t hurt to know who your stakeholders are and how to communicate with them individually.

Underlying Assumptions and Stakeholders make up the antennae of the butterfly. Now we’re ready to look at the SWOT elements:


Here we look at all the strengths and opportunities. While figure 2 has just two, yours may have 10 or more.

This is what we already have that stands us in good stead for being able to make the change we want.

Highlighting this is a great process to go through, as often we forget about the great skills we have, or how we do a particular job really well. It’s a bit like doing a stocktake on yourself.

Controls (Harnessing)

When we have identified our strengths and opportunities, it’s not enough to just sit back, safe in the knowledge that  you have some great skills.

To move forwards in your career, you have to make sure you harness/control these – and make great use of them.

It’s a reminder that there are always some skills that form a solid foundation that will allow you to make changes in your career with relative ease or comfort.

The question to ask is what are the core skills that have given you the strengths and opportunities? Make sure they are visible, people know about them and you think about how you can get even better.

Weaknesses/ Threats

Here we are concerned with the areas of weakness, or threats, that stop us from achieving what we want.

Rather than jumping straight to solutions, it helps to take time to explore all aspects of what might stop us. It may be weaknesses on your part e.g. lack of skill, experience or competency, or it could be more of an organisational issue e.g. glass ceiling, politics or bad timing.

In our example, the project support worker has two fundamental concerns – no previous experience at programme level and the fact they’re already working on a long-term project meaning they’re fully utilised and resourced so the project manager they work for would not be too pleased to lose them.

Try to be as realistic and as insightful as you can – leave it a few days and revisit it again.

Controls (Preventable)

Just as with risk management, there are some things we can do to try and prevent weaknesses and threats derailing our career plans.

With preventable controls, we’re interested in exploring what control we have over changing these threats, or stopping them from impacting on our plans.

In the example, the lack of experience in programmes can be addressed by undertaking some form of study, course or accreditation.

If we want a career change badly enough, we will consider shouldering the costs and doing the work outside work hours.

With our example being engaged on a long-term project, the preventable controls are about working through the scenario of being released early, and how you can make this happen with minimal objections.

Having started to make these initial changes, you are now ready to take a look at the right hand side of the butterfly model, which looks into the future.

This will be discussed in the second part of this blog, the impact of a career development plan on your future.

Author bio

Lindsay Scott is Director of Arras People, the programme and project management recruitment specialists and co-editor of Handbook of People in PM.

Find her on Twitter @projectmgmt

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About Lindsay Scott

Lindsay Scott
Lindsay Scott is Director of PMO Learning, the PMO training specialist and Arras People the programme and project management recruitment specialists. Lindsay is the project management careers columnist for PMI's Network magazine and co-editor of the Gower Handbook of People in Project Management. Lindsay created and hosts The PMO Conference and hosts the monthly PMO Flashmobs

One comment

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    Trish Sutter PMP

    Thanks! Nice.

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