First published in August 2002 as an editorial for
Project Management World Today Web Magazine.s


Musings Index

What does a PM really do?

From time to time we get asked this age old question "What does a project manager do?" You would think that by now the answer is well established, but apparently not. In fact we know what the project manager is responsible for, such good things as planning, organizing, monitoring and controlling, i.e. "management". But none of that explains to the uninitiated what that person actually does – all day and every day!

Some years ago we had a boss who insisted that the best project managers "delegated", the implication being that you don't run around ragged all day. With skill you should be able to offload all of your responsibilities and sit at your desk with your feet up. For years we cherished that dream and tried our darnedest to emulate it. The problem with that scenario is that in reality bosses expect you to be doing something, doesn't really matter what, as long as it is something. People who have been in the armed forces know the drill. Wherever you go carry a file or official-looking paper in your hand. You can go anywhere at anytime for as long as you like with that "passport", you will not be questioned. But as a project manager, perish the thought that you should be so well organized that you really did have time to sit at your desk with your feet up.

Then there was the flavor-of-the-month admonition to "manage by walking around". Very sensible on the face of it, as it is a good way to know what is really going on. But not on a project. If the vision is right and everyone knows it, and is thoroughly motivated by it, then the last thing that team members want is some "busybody" manager nosing around interrupting their best productive thoughts.

So what does a good project manager do all day? The best we can come up with is: "Creative thinking and effective communicating", where effective communicating may be either formal or informal. But whichever it is, it means essentially chatting people up along with a healthy slice of listening. Funny thing that these concepts rarely appear in serious texts on project management!

What is the creative thinking all about, you ask? Remember this project has never been done exactly like this before, so some one, the project manager, needs to think through all of the ramifications of the "project plan" to make sure that it will and/or is working, and that potential problems or road blocks are minimized or avoided altogether. Some people call this risk management. Invariably there are unique problems to be solved, and the project manager is in the best position to solve them.

What is the effective communication all about? Getting information from the people who have it, sifting, synthesizing or interpreting it, getting that to the people who need it and persuading them to act on it. We think this takes place on several levels. First and foremost in order of process flow, the project manager is the communication link with the sponsor, client or customer, or whoever has their hands on the money supply.

This link includes such things as discovering the client's true requirements, cultivating client confidence, soliciting client cooperation and proper sharing of project responsibility, listening for any shifts in priorities or direction and nailing down "scope creep". That is to say, managing expectations by keeping the project free of undue outside influences and unrelated, unwanted, unbudgeted work. Or, again, contacting suppliers, subcontractors and others and negotiating higher priorities for your project on their lists. Of course there's also standard team stuff like holding meetings, distributing minutes, and following up on action items.

Then there is the role of "People Manager". Spotting shortcomings and moving in to plug the gaps. Persuading supporting departments to play their part instead of dumping the work back on your people. Or, persuading people to come on board when needed, making sure they are motivated and well looked after – and leaving when no longer required, probably the hardest of all three. Associated with this is the standard business of managing the project team, meetings, maintaining open communications, reporting project plan updates and clearing the way for the Next Big Activity. On the other end of this work is the business of being the "Acceptor of the team's deliverables." A lot of explaining will have to be done if the deliverables do not measure up.

Finally there is the role of Project Product Delivery Executive. This is where the project manager reports back to the project's sponsor, client or customer with the results of the project effort. This is not a simple exercise, also under-represented in the literature, in our opinion. It involves a lot of verification and validation of the product in all its aspects, e.g. functionality, quality criteria and so on. This is where the "rubber hits the road" as they say.

But at the end of the day, if your project is a resounding success, remember it is the result of the heroic and indefatigable efforts of your project team members - for which they must by justly rewarded. If, on the other hand, the project proves to be a dismal failure, just remember that this is entirely your fault. It has nothing to do with your peoples' ineptitude, incompetence, apathy, lethargy, indolence, idleness, stubbornness or opposition. Nor, for that matter, does it have anything to do with management's interference and their ineptitude, incompetence, (etc. etc.)

Have a happy project management career!

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