Often, during my tenure as a project manager, whenever conversing with someone on the subject, a few choice questions often pop up that I think deserve a more thoughtful explanation. As more organizations contend with competing and shifting priorities in our ever changing environment, I thought it would be a good idea to share, once and for all, my answers to these common questions about project management, project managers and their purpose in organizations.. hopefully this will help teams and managers better understand what PM's are attempting to achieve.
Why do people need project management?
The question really on their minds is, can't everyone just do their job and things get done?
In a perfect world, work would get assigned, each employee would diligently perform the necessary tasks, and everyone would turn in their work on time with no issues.
We all know that this does not exist.
In a perfect world, work could be easily prioritized. There would be no grappling and arguing over competing projects, resources, and timelines. We would have enough talent, with the exact skill set needed, to assign all the projects to and get them done in a timely fashion.
Unfortunately, it doesn't work this way either .
So, how does a project manager help?
Project managers (PMs) see the project as a whole, often as a part of the larger portfolio of initiatives that the company is driving at the same time. We are diplomats, organizers, collaborators, and puzzle solvers helping each of the groups and visions we are tasked with to become successful in their endeavors.
Because corporations and organizations tend to want to get more than one thing done at a time, there are always conflicts amongst which task is most important, work that falls through the gaps, people that get pulled in multiple directions at once. Just like a team needs a manager to create a strategy for all of the positions to play well together, a project manager does the same for a department or team within an organization. A good project manager can measure the project from start to finish identifying issues and gaps and creating plans to mitigate the known and unknown risks.
A good PM is ALWAYS looking ahead while others in the organization need to be focused on fulfilling their roles. PMs spot risks in the next phase while triaging current issues, and coordinate the necessary parties to move the project forward when things tend to get stuck.
Don't you feel like a glorified babysitter?
This question confuses me. I guess I DO understand the sentiment, but I do not see it this way. A PM is not working to keep someone corralled and safe, a PM is there to motivate the team members to help them towards a goal, like any coach or leader. Project management is meant to get a number of different experts with different rhythms and different motivations and idiosyncrasies to function as a team working on a single vision. It is an honor to coach and guide the different project members, to understand them in a way that I can help them to work at their highest and best.
A good project manager knows the capabilities of each team member: how much they can handle at any given time while still providing outstanding work, how to deal with the externalities of their availability, and how best to get them through whenever they get stuck.
Creating synergy within a group of unlike experts to craft a finished project that meets the client's needs is the main goal of the game for a project manager. This means we need to ensure that all team members are healthy, happy, and able to provide their best work. Sometimes this means working one-on-one with someone and adding in guardrails to keep everyone on track. Sometimes this means staying the extra mile with the team to ensure the magic can happen. Our goal is to make the environment copacetic for those involved so they do not lose heart halfway through, and if the vision changes (like it inevitably will do!) we are there to recorrect course and bring the team along too.
Who should use a project manager?
Short answer: Almost everyone!
Long answer: Project managers exist in so many places, often where you least expect them and many times invisible to the end result. From planning to get astronauts to the moon, to launching music festivals, project managers are at the center of each implementation. Whenever someone needs to get something accomplished that will take some time and needs more than two people, it is usually a good idea to have someone in the group that understands planning, coordination, implementation, controlling, monitoring and closing. Not everyone thinks and executes in this way. We use our strengths of strategic vision, interpersonal communication, and a bit of hope to help pave the way to excellence.
So, in closing, I hope that this helps bring some clarity (and levity!) to the nebulous world of project management. Being a project manager can feel thankless at times, because the better we do our jobs the more invisible we are in the end. It always reminds me of the quote from Lao Tzu, "The best of leaders, when the job is done, when the task is accomplished, the people will say we have done it ourselves". I say this with no saltiness, but instead to be proud of my skills and those of others in the project management profession. Creating synergy is a beautiful thing, one we get to attempt every day.