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What Does A Project Manager Do?

written by: Eric Stallsworth • edited by: Michele McDonough • updated: 5/12/2009

This article is a brief glimpse into the world of Project Management from the viewpoint of the ringleader - the Project Manager. The necessary skills and background of an effective project manager are discussed, as well as what one can expect to encounter when taking on this role.

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    Project Management is a demanding field that often requires knowledge in multiple areas. Depending on the particular project, it can be a stressful position. With this type of environment, why would anyone choose to embark on this type of career? This is a question that deserves answering. Let's examine the position at the center - the ringleader of this multi-ring circus. And, hopefully when you're done, you'll at least have an appreciation for the position.

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    A Multi-Faceted Background

    A Project Manager (PM) needs to be a jack-of-all-trades. The PM deals with all aspects of a project - often times multiple projects - and so needs to be able to converse intelligently with individuals from many specialties. The PM has to be a politician who can wade through the torrents of office politics and survive. Better yet, he or she needs to be successful in pulling what is needed from the river of demands. They need to be able to lobby for resources from upper management, coerce funds from budgeting, and ease stakeholder's fears. Unfortunately, there are no ticker tape parades for being successful in this regard.

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    A Fireman, a Drill Sgt, a Salesperson ...

    During a project, the PM will wear many different hats. Oftentimes stakeholders will attempt to advance a project's scope - sometimes inadvertently and sometimes on purpose. A good PM needs to be able to head off these changes where possible. This skill requires the ability to stand strong in the winds of adversity, because stakeholders don't always know what they really want or need. A good PM can help interpret their needs and deliver a product in the end that meets them.

    When things go wrong, a PM takes some of the blame. After all, the PM is in charge of the project and should be making many of the guiding decisions - or at least helping managers come to decisions when necessary. Being able to clean up issues neatly and put out fires quickly is an absolute necessity. An effective PM can mitigate an unexpected problem, leaving little room for finger pointing, thereby keeping the project rolling along. Tact is required in many circumstances, since tempers often flare when surprises pop up.

    Lastly, a PM needs to be able to sell solutions to difficult individuals. Sometimes a stakeholder gets an idea in their heads, and nothing can get them to change their mind. When a change needs to be made in order to help the project along, a PM has to have the ability to help smooth things along without ruffling feathers. This can be a difficult tightrope to walk. Strong personalities can make things especially difficult, and sometimes these are exactly the people that a PM has to "sell" a compromise to.

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    The "Meeting Attendee"

    Often enough it has been said that, "a Project Manager is the one at ALL of the meetings." They always have their fingers in everyone else's pies, and yet nobody really knows what they are there for. There are words flung about indicating the necessity for a PM to be involved, but it isn't always apparent why.

    The reason a PM is constantly involved in meetings is because meetings usually only involve a subset of a company's various groups. A PM may attend a budgetary meeting to ensure active projects are allocated the appropriate resources. A meeting with IT people can be necessary so that a PM doesn't promise the world, when it's not technically feasible. Meetings involving stakeholders take place on a regular basis and the PM is usually at every one of them. Project managers ensure that everyone is aware of how the project is progressing and that all necessary objectives are being met. In fact, the PM has to attend so many meetings; they should have an American Express gold card for coffee and donut purchases.

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    Dotting the "i's", Crossing the "t's"

    A PM has to be thorough in their documentation. For a project to succeed, documentation is the key, and depending on the project, quite a few "virtual trees" may be killed in the process. From a project plan to a scope statement to a final review, the documentation for a project can involve an incredible amount of effort and usually takes a great deal of a PM's time. Every milestone, every objective and every change to the scope has to be noted somewhere and this task usually falls - rather heavily it seems sometimes - on a PM's shoulders.

    After working on a year-long project, there might even be a tendency for a PM to avoid putting down every detail or change. But, in order to be effective and completely successful, documentation is a necessity that must be maintained throughout a project's life. A PM must be dedicated to adhering to a thorough process of documentation, regardless of how tiring it may become months later. Their reward is when someone asks a question about the project, and the PM knows exactly where to find the answer. And seeming to "know it all" is never a bad thing in project management.

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    As you can see, a Project Manager actually does perform many necessary tasks. It's often quite a demanding job, and unfortunately the accolades aren't always forthcoming. But, there are rewards when a project is successfully completed, particularly when you're the PM and you've had a significant impact on making it happen. There is something to be said about pride in doing a job well, and often enough that is the reward a PM will receive.

    If you're capable of juggling multiple balls, cracking a whip, and walking a high wire without a net - project management just might be the right job for you. You can even buy a coffee cup that reads "Why yes, I DO attend meetings all day!" And if it doesn't work out, there's always the circus.

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