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What does a Project Manager actually do?

January 20, 2015
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Other than staring at Excel sheets and Power Points, that is.

In a way, that’s what the PMP course is all about. But, the role of a Project Manager (PM) is quite often misunderstood, wrongly perceived or at the least, there are some myths hovering around it.

Is Project Manager a human schedule tracker?

For example, one of the most common perceptions about a PM is that he is a glorified schedule manager. Well, to be honest, this can be true in some firms and in some projects or in the case of some people. But, an excel sheet or a Microsoft project plan could do the same thing.

Defined in a simplistic form, the PM’s objective is to ensure the overall project success. He needs to always be in control of the project. His goal is to bring clarity into the project, from the stage of project conception to closure. Not only that, he ensures there is a post-mortem, so it can help the firm with future projects. He has to see the big picture while not ignoring the smaller details.

So, looking through the lens of that definition, the role is quite expansive and covers various sub-roles. From laying out the vision, scope and estimates to managing stakeholders – upward, downward and peer groups, the PM has to be able to adapt to different functions. Ensuring project success i.e. the end product delivered in expected time with assured quality is one of the core expectations from a PM.

Is a Project Manager all about soft skills?

Another common perception about a PM’s role is that it’s all about soft skills such as communication and negotiation. It’s irrefutable that it is one of the mandatory requirements for a Project Manager, which is precisely why most individuals with good communication skills opt for a managerial path instead of a core technical one.

It is also one of the reasons that organisations decide to recruit MBAs for the role of a Project Manager. However, just being an MBA does not guarantee being a good PM. In some cases, if the individual has no prior IT background it may be a setup for failure. The reason is because there is a lot more to it than just communicating well.

For example, most PMs in the software industry have a good technical background. They have mostly been programmers themselves and this gives them the necessary foundation to understand and execute the project. They also need to have good analytical and number crunching skills (for costing and budgeting, risk analysis, metrics). You may not need calculus for it, but it is important to have an understanding of the constraints and variables in play.

The people element

A project manager may not have people responsibilities i.e. he may not be directly responsible for a person’s career. However, there are several people elements and collaborative aspects within the team that a PM has to work out. For example, he needs to set up a transparent environment in the project so people are comfortable to communicate openly. Then again, a balance needs to be maintained, so that in the name of open communication people do not turn into whiners who are constantly thinking only from a personal standpoint.

In order to establish such a setup and gain people’s trust, subtle elements and people skills are certainly in the need. Many PMs tend to ignore some of these aspects and sink themselves in to status updates. Staying on top of people sensitive issues and resolving conflicts with a holistic picture on the project is a definite job requirement for a Project Manager.

Jack of all trades

One of the challenges of being a PM is that you are required to be a generalist i.e. you need to know a little bit of everything.

Now, many firms have started investing in multiple Project Managers. One of the reasons is to manage the large scale of projects. However, the other reason is that it is literally impossible for one person to have all the competencies one expects in a Project Manager. For example, someone is good at procurement and vendor management, some are good with managing stakeholders and some with estimation and schedule management. Not to forget the ones who specialise in delivery versus the ones who can ably support QA projects.

Is he a manager or a leader?

The answer is clichéd but yes he is required to be both. The title can mislead but successful Project Managers are those that are good leaders too. Does he roll his sleeves and work through difficult situations? Does he see through impending problems that others in the team find difficult to see through? Does he adapt and also help the team adapt to new methodologies? Does he appear to be in control so the team feels assured?

The objective of this article was to dispel some of the myths around the role of a Project Manager and to give a realistic idea of the expectations on the role. You will be surprised how many PMs themselves believe some of these.

One thing that helps in breaking these myths is to have good role models. Firms, who have good trend setters, are the ones who are heavily invested in having a good middle management. It is important to ensure that a PM is not seen as an overhead but as someone who is indispensable and provides direction to the rest of the team.


About the Author

Ramya Srinivasan lives in Bengaluru, India and is a freelance writer and blogger. She has a management degree from IIM-B and a corporate experience of twelve years. She loves to share her views on project management based on her own hits and misses in the domain. With many featured stories and articles on books, travel, parenting and movies to her credit, she aspires to publish her first book soon.


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