Do we really need project managers?

 I’ve graduated through the ranks from being a team contributor to becoming the project manager.  I didn’t graduate to this level because of some superhuman capability, often times its because  I inherited it.  In my experience and as far as I can recall, I’ve been called in to be the Project Manager because of my deep expertise in the product I know and because the project required more than just oversight and governance.

There are, in my mind, two types of project managers. Deeply technical ones that understand every possible permutation of what could go wrong on a product or process that they can define a project plan with very little variance to a project outcome.  And then there are the true organizational “managers” where they they know how to manage processes, time and allocation of resourcing.

I can’t say we do or don’t need project managers. One can argue this as it becomes a question of organization and human resourcing. I think the better question to ask are the reasons why organizations choose project managers.

If you throw 10 random people together and assign them a complex, challenging task, with no other direction than ‘go’, these individuals will naturally evolve and gravitate to certain roles. This is a very natural phenomena just take a look at Survivor. Even if there is conflict with a certain role, it works itself out as the team gels with little to no outside intervention. (Yes, some “teams” have self imploded.)

In roles where leadership evolve, there appear to be two “roles” that emerge, a Monitor, someone who keeps people on the straight and narrow and accountable to deliverables and the Coordinator, the true administrative manager that manages by process and road map

This role and the function a project manager works in is a natural result of people working together. So the answer to this question goes beyond some induced theory or examples in practice. Whether you think you need a PM or not, one will emerge anyway. Thus, I would ask how organizations use Project Managers.

“CRACKING THE WHIP”

This is a case where management believes it’s team is too lazy or incapable. Wow, for management to think this then you have to wonder how the project would end up anyways. Of course, we have all dealt with some people on our teams that are not as engaged as others or even as committed. However, that becomes less of the norm on my teams since these people will be weeded out to begin with or conform to the status quo.

If one is brought in to manage this kind of role, then I would say this is a bad use of a project manager. This puts the project manager as the dirty henchman to go out and do management’s bidding. If this is the case then I would say, you don’t need project managers. I’ve done this once and would say that would be last time I would flirt with such an effort.

WE’RE SWAMPED WITH WORK

A more sophisticated version of the previous argument, is not that people are lazy or incapable, but that staff allocated to project teams have too much to do. I think this is actually very common – and is generally a failure of organisations to prioritise properly and load staff appropriately.

The normal scenario in organisations is that many project team members are not allocated full time to the project, but only part time. The project work has to contend with everything else they need to do. Human nature is such that we tend to focus on the activities which we are chased for – we do the work of the person who shouts loudest. In this scenario, the project manager has to be one of the people shouting loudly! By chasing people, the work on the project gets prioritised above other activities they have also been asked to do, and the project progresses.

This is a real feature of modern organisations, and a role that most project managers find themselves having to do on a regular basis. I still don’t think this is a good reason for needing project managers – but I do accept it is a valid reason given the failures to explicitly prioritise and load staff appropriately in most organisations.

A variant on this reason is when organisational processes impede the execution of certain non-typical activities. A project manager is brought on to run a project “outside” of normal operational processes. Again common, again this can work – but I don’t think this alone should be a primary justification for project managers. Fix the process and the project manager is again not required. – Richard Newton “Project Management”

SME HELPER

Another reason why we need project managers is that the team just doesn’t have the expertise in the area of which they are working on and need a expert guide to help them along.

This is something more dear to me as this has been the case for most of my projects. It makes it much easier to get people through the weeds because you kind of some variation of the obstacles before.  I can say that this not  such a bad use of a project manager. The best people to lead anything, usually is if they have some experience having done it before.

RISK MITIGATION AND COMPLEXITY

The final issue around a claim for project managers is that as organizations become dependent on technologies and processes, the complexity of those artifacts becomes exponentially so to manage. Organizations are often times matrixed and global organizations. Managing this kind of environment is an art form in managing complexity.

The argument for a project manager is the positive justification for project management in that there is a need for someone to manage all of this and to communicate progress to a program and oversight management.

Many projects, for better or worse, have had to use project managers for the three bullets above but it’s nice to see a project that uses one to manage operational risk inside of the organization. It means that management views the role and the project with a good deal of regard and want things to go right.

 

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