Sometimes you might think that why you are paying for a project manager when all your departments are doing their job flawlessly.
The project manager is the person responsible for ensuring the success of the project, from ideation to delivery and beyond. They are the central node around which all the other elements of the project gravitate, and they keep all of those other pieces coordinated and aligned.
That is why.
They are the one person who needs to have a full overview of the project, and ultimately, when it comes to the project, the buck stops with them.
Let’s dive a little deeper into what they actually do.
Project Management and the PM
Before diving in, let’s go back to basics.
What is a Project?
A project is basically any undertaking that is designed and planned to achieve a specific goal. The Project Management Institute expands on this, saying that a project is:
“… a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service, or result.”
A project is temporary in that it has a defined start and finish, and also defined scope and resources.
It is unique in that it is not “operational” work within a business, but tasks that are designed to meet a very specific goal. As such, projects often bring together people and resources that don’t usually work together.
What is Project Management?
Again, according to the Project Management Institute:
“Project Management is the application of knowledge, skills, tools, and techniques to project activities to met the project requirements.”
So project management is the separate management of this work package, alongside but distinct from the normal operations of a business. This includes the specific challenges of being limited in time and budget and bringing together people that do not normally work together.
What is a Project Manager?
Finally, according to the Project Management Institute, the role of the project manager is that of a change agent. The PM:
“… makes project goals their own and uses their skills and expertise to inspire a sense of shared purpose within the project team.”
They are the leader, or director if you will, of the specific project.
They are often confused with product managers. Here are the differences between a product and a project manager.
What Elements of the Project is the PM Responsible for?
While we have said that the PM is ultimately responsible for the entire project, obviously they are not “doing” every part of the project singlehandedly, so let’s get specific.
The particular activities that the PM will engage in will differ from project to project, but on the most basic level, the PM is responsible for the following areas of work:
Project Planning and Oversight
The PM is usually the person that needs to come up with the plan for how the project will be delivered, on time, within budget, and in a way that meets the needs of the user and the stakeholders.
They define the scope and the deliverables at the outset of the project and ensure that these are met. They will measure the success of the project using tools such as milestones and KPIs.
Ensuring that the project plan is executed and met involves a huge range of tasks. They will be managing budgets, overseeing work packages to ensure that each team completes their work on time, and replanning as the inevitable issues and setbacks occur.
Risk management is an essential part of this process. The PM should have a firm grasp of the potential risks posed to the project and contingency plans in place for dealing with the most likely and most serious risks.
Managing Project Staff
The PM has overall responsibility for everyone working on the project.
In general, the heads of all the project teams will report directly to the PM. The PM is responsible for making sure that all teams deliver quality work on time, and that every member of the project team is happy and thriving.
This is often a complex task in a project environment, as projects often bring together people who are not accustomed to working together, and may have very different work cultures.
For example, programmers working on a team may be accustomed to working using an Agile methodology and to deliver agreed work on a relatively strict schedule. In contrast, creatives working on the project may be accustomed to more independent ways of working that allow for more flexibility. The PM needs to work as the enabler that allows these teams to work together.
But more than just being a manager of people, the PM also needs to be a leader. It is up to them to ensure that everyone on the team understands what the project is and why it is important and is highly motivated to go above and beyond and see the project not only completed but a success.
Engage and Represent Stakeholders and Users
Projects generally have two key sets of stakeholders: the product or service owners, usually called stakeholders, and the users of the end product of service.
The PM is responsible for engaging and representing both of these groups.
In terms of the product owners, the PM represents their interests within the project by developing the scope and deliverables of the project according to their requirements and then ensuring that those are maintained and met throughout the project.
When decisions need to be made during the project that may affect the scope or deliverables, or when significant issues arise, it is down to the PM to escalate these issues to the product owners.
The PM is also responsible for keeping product owners appropriately informed about the project. They may also be called on to engage other stakeholders with the project, for example informing other areas of the overarching business of the benefits and impacts of the project.
The PM also needs to manage stakeholder input. Tight project budgets and deadlines mean that input provided by stakeholders needs to be provided on time and be relevant. It is down to the PM to ensure that the product owners meet those deadlines, even if they are the director of the company.
The PM is also responsible for representing the interests of the users on the project, as all successful products and services are built with users in mind.
Projects will often have a UX (user experience) Designer on the team, whose role it is to ensure that the needs of the user are always at the forefront of the team’s plans. But ultimately, like so many aspects of the project, it is the responsibility of the PM to ensure that the product or service is created with the needs of the user in mind.
One of the most important tasks carried out by a PM is documentation, which is basically the written record of everything about the project. This is essential for:
- holding the project accountable for achieving what they set out to achieve, tracking changes and the reasoning behind them, and tracking responsibility when necessary;
- transferring knowledge about the project, between different project teams, to new staff members so that knowledge is not lost when individuals leave, and ultimately to the user when the final documentation is composed.
Moreover, documentation is what someone would use to pick up the project if the PM was hit by a bus. As such, it needs to be up-to-date (it’s not very useful if it doesn’t include the last two weeks of activity) and accessible.
While these are the main areas of responsibility for the project manager, this description certainly doesn’t cover everything.
Since the ultimate responsibility of the PM is to see the project delivered successfully, anything unknown that comes up, they are responsible for dealing with it. This is why no two projects are the same, and even no two days can be the same for a PM.
What are the skills of a Project Manager?
Considering how large and varied the role of a project manager is, what skills and characteristics make for a good PM? Again, our list is not exhaustive, but this is a good place to start.
It takes true leadership skills to get disparate teams working together, especially on a short time scale when the time available for building understanding, camaraderie, and trust is limited.
Bringing together different work cultures and engaging with sudden changes of direction as issues emerge means that PMs should be adaptable and not flustered by surprises or sudden changes.
While the PM is not expected how to know how to do everything on the project – they don’t need to be an expert coder and an expert leader of user focus groups – they do need to understand what everyone on the project is doing so that they can engage with them, and explain what is happening on the project to others.
For this reason, they should be good at learning, so they can quickly come to grips with relevant information.
When issues emerge on a project, the PM is usually the first person that everyone turns to in order to find solutions.
They need to be good at coming up with creative solutions to challenging problems, and also at weighing up the value and risk associated with different potential paths.
Managing a project always means keeping a lot of balls in the air, and having what you need at your fingertips. This requires being organized and on top of things, including documentation.
The PM needs to communicate with a huge range of people including everyone on the project team, a variety of stakeholders, and a broad cross-section of users.
The PM needs to be comfortable talking to everyone from the CEO of their company to interns and young product users. They need to know how to be both likable and firm, as well as clearly understood.
Hopefully, having read our summary of what exactly it is that a project manager does you realize how key a good PM is to the successful execution and delivery of a project.
In a sense, they are the sun that sits at the center of the project solar system that keeps all the other moving pieces where they should be. It is not an exaggeration to say that the success of a project depends on the quality of the project manager.
Frequently Asked Questions
😎 Who is a Project Manager?
A Project Manager is someone who is job is to manage every aspect of a project from ideation to delivering, ensuring the project’s success.
❓Why is Project Management important?
Project managers align every team and employee under the same vision and build a bridge between the teams and the product owners, making them irreplaceable.
📚 How can I become a Project Manager?
Online and in-class courses on project management are available throughout the world if you are interested in becoming a PM.