What is a Project Manager?

If you ask 10 project managers to give a definition of their role, you most likely will end up with 10 different descriptions ranging from project admin and task master to program manager. In marketing terms, our profession has an image problem: there is no standard job description and most people have no clue what we do. If I am at a party and the unavoidable question comes up “what do you do?” I cannot just say “I’m a project manager” since in general the other party will have the deer-in-the-headlights look on their face, so I always end up mumbling something vague like “I organize and manage all kind of stuff to help companies get a project from the start to finish”. My friends who are accountants, question-199x208lawyers, engineers or yoga teachers never seem to have this problem.

I have to admit: this problem was way worse 10 years ago, but we are still far from where we need to be. The definition you find in the PMBOK is also not very clarifying: “a project manager is the person assigned by the performing organization to achieve the project objectives”. I wonder how well that will go over next time I am asked what I do for a living.

What is it that we do? We plan, organize and manage resources to successfully achieve the specific project goals that were identified at the beginning of the project. Depending on the situation we act like traffic cops, parents, sergeants, and managers. In today’s world, I personally believe our role is more and more that of a coach. Coaches are part teacher, part counselor and part conscience. Think about it:

  • We help our customers clarify their goals and requirements in specific and measurable language
  • We teach our executives to set priorities and to understand the dynamics of the triple constraint
    – If budget gets reduced, either scope needs to be reduced or time added for delivery
    – If requirements get added, other requirements need to be removed or budget and/or time needs to be increased
    – Etc.
  • We highlight risk and issues of the direction taken and decisions to be made
  • We continuously build relationships and manage expectations to ensure project success
  • We empower our team to perform at their best and are there for them to remove roadblocks

We achieve most through active listening: we need to figure out how a team member “works” so we know how to motivate them, how to critique them and how far they can be “pushed”. Our objective is to build trust so people will listen to us and they feel comfortable confiding in us any concerns they might have since these concerns are most likely risk and issues our project is facing.

As coaches, we take pride in the success of the team. We should leave our ego at the door: it is not about us, it is about the team and the project result.

I would love to hear your feedback on what you think a project manager is.


9 thoughts on “What is a Project Manager?”

  1. Good points Nathalie! The project manager’s role in a nutshell is the overall responsibility for the successful planning, execution, monitoring, control and closure of a project.

  2. Pingback: What makes for a successful Project Manager? | UCSC Extension in Silicon Valley

  3. Briefly, a project manager ‘gets things done’, just as a business manager does, but with respect to a specific effort: a project, instead of a continuing operation.

    In other words, a project manager helps people work together to produce a change in an organisation or its relationship to its environment; often to reset the equilibrium state of the organisation.

    But, the nub of it is: helps people work together; providing a communications hub, a focus for finding problems and opportunities and making a ‘safe place’ for problems to be solved and oppportunities to be understood before action is taken; building or using a system to keep the project community working together on the right object as that object changes (as inevitably it will).

    At the formal level, the PM makes sure that the right management and effort structure is developed and used, that resources are adequate for the investment required to produce the results sought, that the right technical and financial controls are working and that stakeholders are properly informed.

    At the informal level, the PM keeps people talking, questioning, making and keeping commitments and planning their own contribution to the community effort they are guiding.

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    The best definition I have found for what a project manager does comes from a Harvard Business Review article about the different between leadership and management.

    – Set Direction
    – Align People
    – Motivate and Inspire

    – Plan and Budget
    – Organize and Staff
    – Control and Correct

    Project managers do all of this AND are “the buck stops here” person for delivering the results of the project.

    In other words, the Project manager is like a business owner, only they get paid a lot less, and they have a higher risk of getting blamed, or even fired, if they fail. Business owners can just file for bankruptcy. (OK, I jest, but I’m in a mood . . . have been sweating like a dog in Houston for a week, and hiding out in air-conditioned buildings while I gaze longingly at the mosquito-infested outdoors is starting to get to me).

  6. Pingback: What is Project Management? | pmStudent

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    Dr. Paul thank you for adding a great perspective to this blog. It is true that the construction industry has always had a more mature project management practice. I also think this is driven from the fact that you work with contracts between clients, contractors and subcontractors. Somehow we are always better at setting expectations when a legal contract is involved. I will contact you privately for more information.

    Josh, thank you for pointing out influence of the size of projects and a lot of time also the size of companies on the definition of what a project manager does. On the other hand, it is interesting that no matter the size of the project or company an engineer is still an engineer, an accountant is still an accountant. This has most likely to do with the maturity of our profession. Who knows maybe in 10 years a project manager is a project manager no matter what the size of the project or company.

  8. Hi Nathalie,
    Unfortunately, there is ample proof that your opening statement about 10 different definitions being alive and well remains just as valid now as it did 10 years ago. To see just how valid, go to Max Wideman’s Comparative Glossary of Project Management Terms http://www.maxwideman.com/pmglossary/PMG_P09.htm#Project Boundary and see how many different definitions there are for “Project” or “Project Manager”. http://www.maxwideman.com/pmglossary/PMG_P12.htm#Project Manager

    Another aspect you may want to at least think about. There are two very different kinds of project managers. There are project managers for contractors or “sellers” of professional services and there are project managers who work for owners, or the buyers of project management professional services.

    If you are a seller or contractor, project management MUST be a core competency, otherwise your company will quickly be driven out of business. On the other hand, owner or buyers project managers have historically NOT been good at project management. The core competency of most owner companies is operations or asset management focused, NOT project management.

    Coming from a background in construction, this dichotomy is well recognized and has resulted in companies evolving that address this weakness inherent to most owner or buyer organizations. In construction, we have design build, as well as the outsourcing of construction management skills, either on a fee basis or “@ risk” In the past 2 years or so, I am seeing strong evidence that the IT and Telecommunications sectors are following the lead of the the more mature construction sector in recognizing the difference between owner and contractor competencies in PM and developing a professional services model to address that need.

    Email me privately at pauldgphd@gmail.com and I can provide you with more information.

    Dr. PDG, in Boston

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      That’s an excellent point Dr.Paul, about the difference between the role of project managers and PM in firms who make their money from projects versus PM just being a part of the business.

      I’ve noticed those companies who don’t make their money from projects tend to be the ones who cut back in project management maturity and investment most during a downturn. That’s just my anecdote though.

      Nathalie, the other thing is that the role of PM varies with the size and complexity of a project. When I worked small projects, I wore a lot of hats that I don’t wear on large, complex projects. There’s more specialization on the large projects.

      Josh Nankivel

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