Musings Index

Is the Project Manager's Job Really Any Different?

From time to time we receive thoughtful questions from our readers. We try our best to give helpful answers but readers should interpret the responses in the light of their own circumstances and experience. Here is an interesting question: Is the job of the project manager really any different from that of a general (line) manager?

On 10/25/06, Christian L. wrote:

Dear Mr. Wideman,

Recognizing you as one of the thought leaders in the field of project management, I am just wondering whether you would be so kind to provide me some thoughts on a project management issue I am currently facing.

While I have been working as a project manager on large-scale ERP-related endeavors for quite some time already, I recently asked myself whether the job of the project manager really is that different from the job of a general (line) manager.

If the differences are rather marginal (as I actually do hypothesize) then I am asking myself why we as project managers are in dire need of competency frameworks and the like, if general managers actually perform their job decently well without such frameworks. Or is it fair to say that general managers would do way better on the basis of a formal management framework?

To make a long story short, are you aware of any (academic) work that has been done in this regard, for example:
  • Comparing the roles of (identifying the differences between) project manager versus general manager,
  • Comparing the efforts of managing a going-concern versus a project, or alternatively
  • Comparing the functional domains (Scope, People, Contracts, Procurement, Risk, etc.) to be managed by a general manager versus the ones to be managed by a project manager
Any input is highly appreciated!

Best Regards,

Christian L.

Max replied on 10/26/06

Dear Christian:

Your question is indeed a profound one, one that might fill a whole book! So I can hardly do it justice, but I will attempt a brief synopsis.

I do believe strongly that the job of a project manager is very different from that of a general or line manager for a number of reasons. You will find some of these described in Chapter 1 of my book A Management Framework for Project, Program and Portfolio Integration. You will also find this subject discussed in some of the writings and Issacons on my web site.

Nevertheless, as you have observed, there is much overlap in terms of "tools and techniques" such as planning, estimating, reporting, people management and so on. The real differences are in perspective and the degree of those differences depend very much on the culture of the organization in question and the types of project in which they are involved.

For example, if there are a lot of similar sized "projects" that are put through a production process, then while some of the techniques of project management may be invoked, what you have is really a "Jobbing shop" - a process stream where there is a steady throughput of work, but the work batches are all different.

If you are in a "Big Project" environment, then the differences between project management and general management are very evident. This is because there are typically three groupings in an organization:

  • Executive Management responsible for corporate governance
  • Operations management responsible for maintaining core services or production, etc, and
  • Project management responsible for producing new products.

The orientations of each of these groups are quite different. In fact I recently reviewed the book "The Right Projects Done Right!",[1] a book that you might like to take a look at (along with my own of course!)

When it comes to managing an individual project, if managed properly, two of the outstanding differences between managing a project versus an ongoing process are in managing the project life span and managing project uncertainty. The project life span must be correctly designed to suit the project including appropriate control gates. The distinct variation in the level of effort through this span must also be carefully managed. Further, the project uncertainty also tends to be unique and requires careful attention to both opportunities and the risks involved.

As to the other functional domains, I think that a study of the various groupings of my Issacons (see my Site Map) will bring to light the similarities and differences. Of course, it is equally possible that the "General Manager" is also involved with projects and is, in effect acting as a program manager!

Hope that helps,

1. By Dinsmore and Cooke-Davies, Jossey-Bass (now Wiley), 2006
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