Why Are Project Managers Necessary Anyway? [Interview]
For new project managers, it is important to understand why they are important and what role they perform. What are their responsibilities and non-responsibilities? What is expected from the PM and the team? A good way to do this is to sit down with your boss to discuss their expectations and the role you will be performing.
So I sat down with Eamonn here at BrightWork for 30 minutes to discuss this topic. This post is the Q&A from this discussion.
Why are project managers necessary? People know their jobs, they’ll do their work and it will get done… so why require a project manager?
While most people do work hard and get their work done, some do not. For those people, a PM is needed to keep them on task. Most people are responsive, but whilst they may like to be of assistance, they are often juggling competing requests.
For those people, a PM is necessary to make sure they spend enough time on project work and don’t get too distracted by the other stuff. A big one is no project will ever go according to plan. A project manager is absolutely necessary when (not if!) the project isn’t working and needs to be tracked and re-planned.
He remarked that “if it’s anybody’s job, then nobody will do it.” People are happy to work on the project, but without a project manager to plan the project, delegate tasks, and keep the team on point, nothing will get done because everyone will think their task is someone else’s job.
Sometimes original assumptions (cost, budget, resources) don’t hold true, so it is a PM’s job to go back to the sponsor to communicate this and renegotiate. He also said that someone has to be responsible when the project is late.
Tell me, in two lines, the job description of a project manager.
A project manager’s job is:
– To initiate, plan, track, manage, close, and learn from the project.
– To be chief communicator and cheerleader for all stakeholders (team, customer, sponsor, supplier).
Name the top six skills that you look for in a project manager.
A strong project manager would:
– Be a good listener, to understand what’s really going on
– Be a good communicator, both verbally and non-verbally
– Be well able to naturally plan, logical
– Have attention to detail
– Have the ability to see the big picture and the detail, and be able to connect them
– Have domain expertise.
Now we’ve established why the project manager is necessary and what role they perform, what is a PM not responsible for?
A great PM will agree the scope, budget, resources, objectives, schedule of the project up front and is responsible for those parameters. Sometimes though, one of those will change wildly mid-to-late in a project and even the best PM will have no control over it (e.g. resources available). In this instance, he said, it is unreasonable, yet not at all unusual to hold the project manager responsible for the original objective.
He also noted that a good PM would be aware of such risks and take mitigating actions along the way.
When do you feel it’s appropriate for the PM to ask the sponsor for more involvement in the project?
The project manager should always keep the sponsor up to date, even when it’s all good news. This will help the PM build a relationship and rapport with the sponsor, thus making it easier to indicate to the sponsor the possibility of trouble as soon as it comes up, even it hasn’t happened yet.
Likewise, the role of the sponsor is just that, to sponsor. A good project sponsor will always be ready and willing to assist and advise the PM when the “yellow” flags go up to help get it back in the “green”.
Which decisions should be escalated to the sponsor and which must the PM handle himself?
If the parameters have been agreed, the PM should manage to deliver those – their job is to be always planning and re-planning to meet objectives. However, if one of the key parameters is completely out of whack and cannot be controlled by re-planning (e.g. project will be 1 year late, or will need 2x resources, or will finish with half of the deliverables), those issues must go to the sponsor at the slightest indication.
He said: “Sponsors don’t like bad news, but they hate bad news late”. Early warnings are best because if you wait too long, it will be too late to do anything about it.
And what exactly would you be tracking in status reports and using to make decisions?
You can use the acronym S-I-R:
- Status, with respect to the parameters
- Issues, problems that need to be sorted
- Risks, problems that might happen.
Finally, many PMs operate in a loose project environment. How is a PM supposed to demonstrate success if they are operating in an immature project management environment?
Generally speaking, the project manager must lead by example and in some instances introduce an evolved set of practices.
In a loose project environment, the PM has to set objectives and declare what success is in terms of a measure (e.g. reach first milestone in two months). Those objectives then become quantifiable measures of success that become rallying points for the team. If performance goals aren’t specific, the PM needs to be the innovator and introduce them, and then lead by example.