The Crucial Role of a Project Manager
Just as baseball teams need coaches to lead them to victory and ships need captains to steer them to a destination, project managers (PMs) are needed to bring about changes within budget guidelines and on time. Without a leader in the form of a project manager, chaos reigns because nobody has their eye on the overall objective. Instead, team members from cross-functional areas represent different and sometimes competing interests. Unique skill sets are not coordinated. There is lots of "noise." But, very little work is accomplished.
Designate a project manager and everything changes. The PM accepts full responsibility for the outcome…its success or failure. He or she believes in the objective and is accountable for the results. The larger interest in achieving a defined goal enables the PM to provide leadership in planning, organizing and controlling the work effort, which happens to be a textbook definition of project manager responsibilities according to Successful Project Management.
A project can take many forms and each one is unique. It can be technical or creative in nature, large or complex, relate to a for-profit or non-profit organization, and involve any number of people. Regardless of the details, the project management life cycle and the tasks a project manager performs remain fairly constant. In fact, you may recognize many project management activities in your own personal endeavors, such as moving or landscaping your yard!
Below we take a comprehensive look at project manager duties in three broad categories often identified in textbooks: planning, organizing and controlling. Ideally, the duties would follow a somewhat orderly fashion. Since we don't live in the textbook world, this article delves into the true responsibilities of a project manager, including some areas you might not have considered.
Many of the project manager duties in this section correspond with the initiation and planning phases of the project life cycle. Inadequate time spent in these areas is often cited as a reason for project failure. A sound foundation gets a project off to a good start and sets the stage for resolving the inevitable problems that will be encountered later. Key responsibilities are to:
- Define the project objective. Under the best of circumstances, a PM is presented with a well-defined objective that has been hashed over by project sponsors and key stakeholders. In many other instances, an unclear idea or vague direction for change is thrown out at the start of the project by a senior employee. The PM must perform due diligence on what is needed and clearly define the goal. In other words, the PM will establish what the final outcome will look like and how success will be measured.
- Gain agreement from the customer. Once the outcome is defined, the PM must present it to the customer, who can be external or internal. Obtaining "buy-in" at key points throughout the project will result in less stress and dissatisfaction.
- Identify and gain support of stakeholders. As a result of the work performed above, persons with a vested interest in the outcome will be identified. The PM must establish a working relationship with these individuals, resolve concerns about the impact of the project on their area of responsibility and ultimately gain their commitment to the overall goal.
- Develop a statement of work. The terminology may vary, but the end result is the same. The PM will formally document the project parameters including the project objective, resources and time-line for completion. This high level work product will set the stage for the more detailed plan that will also be created.
- Create and communicate a vision to the team. Once the team has been identified, the PM must translate a load of work and possible resistance to the goal into a mission. The team must understand the goal, why it is important and how it will be accomplished. Setting the appropriate tone in the beginning will allow for smoother sailing down the road.
- Oversee development of a plan to meet the objective. Once the overall goal and scope is established, the PM will get down to the nitty gritty work of developing a detailed plan. The best plans will involve the team members. Not only does this provide crucial expertise, but the collaboration will also result in "buy-in."
- Set up a project management information system. A system for tracking progress, whether manual or computerized is critical. The PM must identify the appropriate system and teach people how to use it.
- Assess risks and develop contingency plans. Rather than adopting a wait and see attitude, the PM must identify and communicate potential problems in advance and establish contingency plans.
Continue to page two to see job duties that involve organizing and controlling.
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The project manager duties involve organizing people and resources in every phase of the project:
- Obtain resources to perform work. The PM will put on a human resources hat to obtain team members from internal sources or hire external staff. This may involve negotiating current employees' job responsibilities and gaining their commitment to the project. If some aspects of the project will be outsourced or equipment will be acquired, then the PM will play purchasing department and legal roles. Bids may be required and contracts will need to be reviewed. The PM may be assisted by corporate departments. However, the PM will be highly involved in the process. Understanding corporate guidelines and how to quickly maneuver through the process will expedite hiring and purchasing decisions so the project moves along in accordance with the plan. (By the way, don't leave these areas off as key stakeholders!)
- Create an environment which highly motivates the team to work together. The PM will also wear the hat of cheerleader and it is an important one. Goals won't be met if the team doesn't work together. The PM must set the right tone at the outset and plan ways to maintain momentum. It may be tempting to relegate this aspect of the job to a low priority since it is "touchy feely." Remember, nothing gets done without the team.
- Develop and deliver key documents. The PM will play the role of wordsmith with a touch of accounting/finance in the creation of numerous documents including the statement of work, budget, deliverables, accountability matrix, communication plan and ongoing status updates.
- Maintain documents associated with project in an organized manner, which is no small feat. Depending upon the size of the project, this could be a full-time job. The PM may be called upon to produce key information at any time and will have to access information to resolve problems and move through the steps of the plan.
The third broad area of project manager duties involves controlling the project. Many of these tasks are performed during the execution and monitoring/controlling phases of the project management life cycle. To continue the hat-wearing analogy, the PM will add to the ever-growing list of roles that of taskmaster, problem solver and motivational coach.
- Implement the project management information system. The PM will oversee the process of updating and maintaining this system. Up-to-date and reliable output is critical to the rest of the controlling activities outlined below.
- Provide ongoing management and motivation. Once the project is humming along, the project manager will manage the daily work flow. It may seem similar to what any line manager does during the day. Difficulties may arise when team members don't have line reporting responsibilities to the project manager. Put the human resources and cheerleader cap back on!
- Monitor progress. Much of the PM's time during the middle stages of the project revolves around monitoring project status. This is done through multiple mechanisms including status reports, meetings and informal updates. If the proper management information system is selected and maintained, this responsibility will be easier.
- Manage a change control process. Inevitably someone will want to revise all the hard work accomplished in the planning phase. The PM must allow for the adjustments and manage the process of controlling changes or the job will never get done.
- Develop corrective actions when necessary. The PM plays a crucial role in resolving problems. They should be expected and dealt with promptly. Potential issues range from falling behind on certain tasks and cost overruns to conflicts between team members.
- Communicate with sponsors and stakeholders. The PM will be on the hook for updating everyone on the project status, informally, at board meetings and to staff. Establishing a communication plan will ease some of the burden in this area and provide a mechanism to prevent surprises at inopportune times.
- Hand it off. Ultimately, the business must take over the new process, product or change that was implemented. The PM will coordinate the transition, provide training and monitor the results. The last step will involve analysis of project success. These duties are performed in the closing phase of the project life cycle.
As you can see, the project manager wears many hats and has numerous responsibilities. However, an individual with the right qualities and the support of a good team will find the experience very rewarding.
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- Gido, Jack, and James P. Clements. Successful project management . 4. ed. Mason, Ohio: South-Western, 2008. Print.
- Carroll, John. Project management in easy steps . Southam, Warwickshire: Easy Steps, 2009. Print.