Are You a Project Manager?

the definition of Project Management is not clear to everyone         

March 19, 2021 | Helen S. Cooke

project managerThe term “project management” has become a buzzword. And like any buzzword, it’s thrown around freely without much common understanding of what it really is. As a result, people who aren’t actually doing project management are given that label, and their failures to produce are attributed to problems with “project management,” when in fact they weren’t performing the role of a project manager in the first place. It would seem the workforce doesn’t have a clear idea of what a project manager is, or how to delineate project managers from general managers or supervisors. Confusion abounds.

In an effort to clear up this confusion, let’s take a look at what project management is and isn’t. Project management used to be called the “accidental profession” because people who were adept at implementing something different—innovation, change, new products or services, or solutions to vaguely defined problems—were selected to take charge and make it happen. If you have found yourself thrust into these types of roles again and again, you’re probably a project manager. Whatever your job’s official title, the roles and duties are pretty much the same. The project manager is comfortable with implementing something quite different from what has gone before, using a combination of knowledge, skill, ability, and talent to get it done. Every real project has one project manager, the one in charge.

The term “Project Management” can include the management role that a project manager performs, as well as a field of work, which can include project managers as well as a cluster of related roles found on large complex projects: scheduler, analyst, estimator, procurement specialist, or even the process a project follows as it moves through initiation, planning, execution, control and closure.

Common Attributes of Project Managers

Are you a project manager? If you’re not entirely sure, ask yourself if these characteristics match your current or previous roles:

– Your job history includes projects that benefited from your unique knowledge, skills, and abilities to succeed

– Your heart beats a little faster when someone describes a job full of challenges and unknowns

– You took a test to certify yourself as a member of the project management workforce

– You relish the challenge of taking charge of something completely new and different

– You enjoy walking into an unknown or undefined environment, asking questions to get a general scope and purpose of the job to be done, assessing the facts on the ground, and taking it from there to make it happen

– You enjoy leading teams, and you know how to give your team members the autonomy they need to thrive while meeting the requirements of the sponsor or project executive.

Project Manager is a leadership role, yet rarely will a project manager intervene in a team member’s work. The reason is clear when you consider the definition of a project and how it differs from normal business operations. A project has a definite start and a definite end, and because it seeks to do things differently from what has been done before, projects require a team of people with different backgrounds and from different work environments who must work together to get it done. These people work with a common goal, but seldom with a common set of skills or work habits.

The project manager is the facilitator of team unity and purpose, and the project manager and team together decide how to proceed based on the reason the project was formed. If changes occur unexpectedly or are needed to respond to evolving trends, the project manager determines that status and negotiates with senior management to change the plan. Because changes often occur, the project team and its manager need to be given a good deal of autonomy and authority. Senior management and executives are given general updates, but their hands-on involvement occurs only at the beginning and end of the project, when resources are allocated, and when final deliverables are turned over. One of a project manager’s chief duties is keeping outside interference in the project to a minimum.

Project Managers Thrive on Uncertainty

A project manager is more of a wilderness trekker than a sports competitor. The whole team must work together to “win” at the end of the project. A project’s environment and the route to the destination are significantly less defined and predictable with a project than in a routine work setting. The team members are new to the project and may have different job training and skills from other members of the team. The project plan functions like a map, not a procedures manual. Deciding next steps is an iterative process. Some decisions are made by the team itself; others are the project manager’s to make. Both the project manager and the team are critical to the success of the project.

Because of the uncertainties and risk inherent in a project, the project manager needs a complete “work kit” of knowledge, skills, abilities, and preparation to step into the leadership role. Those capabilities are tapped regularly and ultimately lead the team to a successful finish. A wilderness trekker without a plan and adequate resources can end up in desperate straits. Some ventures require not just preparation, but a lifetime of learning to prepare to cope with changes and unknowns.

A poignant example of project management is the “landing on the Hudson” that took place when a U.S. airplane hit a flock of birds soon after takeoff from a New York City airport. When the pilot, “Sully” Sullenberger, landed the plane on the Hudson River, he successfully delivered all passengers to safety. Essentially, he had taken charge of a project. Landing on a river in an emergency was completely different from normal flight operations, and Sullenberger had prepared for this scenario before it ever happened, long in advance. Over his career, he had been rehearsing how each risk he might encounter would be handled. The “project” had a definite start – bird strike—and a definite finish—safe delivery of the passengers. He implemented what he had planned in advance, playing out in real time with unpredictable factors. This delivered results. His management skill and finesse were stunning.

A project’s success cannot depend on anyone outside the project to step in and ‘save the day.’ There are too many risks and unknowns. Things change so quickly the project manager and team must rely on a combination of good planning, anticipating and preparing for possible risks to emerge, and fast thinking.

Compare the team on a project to a team in a sports arena. A sports competitor in a familiar field of competition gets help from coaches and team members. They rehearse options and carry out their roles. For the most part, the environment, the team, and the rules remain the same throughout the game. If something occurs – such as an injury or equipment failure – help is accessible, and there is a specific type of plan in place for these limited scenarios.

The functioning of a sports team is analogous to a routine operations group in a work environment. If a routine operations worker encounters uncertainties and barriers, they go to a more experienced operations worker or boss and clarify how to change their approach. But if a project manager encounters uncertainties or barriers, they and the team need to figure out how to make it work based on what they know and where they happen to be at the time. Often, they need a solution quickly. There is no time to buck it up to management, seek an expert, or consult an operations manual. There is no operations manual on a project.

When unpredictable situations arise during a project, the project manager, the team, and the situation at that point in time are the only resources. The team members may have a proper method for conducting the technical work, but the project manager needs to know what the options are for getting to a solution on the spot. Project managers, not surprisingly, are typically people who thrive on uncertainty and love to meet challenges. With these attributes, their team is far more likely to succeed.

Project Managers Are Not Supervisors or Operations Managers

Now that we’ve explored the common attributes of project managers, let’s take a look at the distinctions between project managers and other roles that are often adjacent to project management. One of these is operations manager, an individual who is responsible for making things happen, and has the line authority to carry out the intent of the executive above them, as well as the operations methods of the organization as a whole.

In a regular operations environment, a manager knows what people ought to be doing. The operations manager directs people; they correct problems when things are going wrong. They respond to reports that there is a problem that needs fixing. They keep track of activities and submit regular reports to top executives on how the new direction is evolving. If an employee resists doing things in the predetermined way, the employee—or the manager–can be fired. An operations manager may or may not have subordinate managers, based on the size and complexity of the operation.

The ambiguity normal to a project might be daunting to an operations manager, whereas ambiguity is routine to a project manager. In an operations environment, many things are predictable, few things change, bosses are considered “superiors,” and subordinates are direct reports. Employees are to be assigned specific roles, directed, and controlled. Whereas if a project manager tried to control a project team like that, the team would likely move on to another assignment! Project teams expect to be given goals, facts, and role assignments. They negotiate reasonable responses to changes, and they use what they are given to deliver what they agree to deliver. Within these parameters, they are given quite a bit of latitude. They are part of a team.

The project manager thus has a fundamentally different way of managing compared to an operations manager. Rather than directing the team, the project manager facilitates the best use of each person’s talents and abilities. If they do well, and do so repeatedly, others want to be assigned to their projects.

Another role that is often confused with project manager is supervisor or team lead. Projects sometimes have supervisors on the team, and they’re typically referred to as “team leads.” The job of the team lead is to know and understand the technical aspects of the work, and to ensure the methods used to create work deliverables are sound so that the product is fit for use by the project’s customers. Team leads or supervisors conduct oversight. The supervisor role requires a person who is knowledgeable. They need to make sure the people creating the technical deliverable do things the right way. A supervisor does not manage the whole project, but rather the team responsible for creating a particular outcome or deliverable. A project may have many deliverables, often quite unlike one another. A team lead or supervisor is assigned to each team with that type of work, technical method, outcome, or deliverable. In an operations environment, similar assignments occur repeatedly, so they are not real “projects.”

The project manager is responsible for the job of managing the entire project. If there is a “right way” and a “wrong way” to do the work on the project, and everybody knows it in advance, then the work is probably an operations job. It is not a project. A team doing operations type work does not need a project manager. An example of this might be “product development” or “software development.”

If you thrive on uncertainty, have a history of leading teams, and know how to successfully deliver projects without relying on just “one way” to do it—then you’re probably a project manager! By keeping these key attributes in mind, you will stay on the career path that fits your talents and preferences, rather than being led astray into roles that might be called project manager but don’t really fit the bill.

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  • About The Author
  • Helen S. Cooke is a 20-year project management veteran with experience in Fortune 500 companies, universities, the service industry, manufacturing, government, military and defense. She is a PMP® and a PMI® Fellow, and an experienced management consultant. She has worked on five continents and was elected a Fellow of the Project Management Institute in 2005. Helen was a PMI officer and served six years on PMI’s Global Board of Directors.

    Helen led a profit and loss practice at Deloitte for 10 years, was Senior Principal at American Management Systems, was a mid-level manager in the federal government, and was a university administrator. She headed the Project Management Center of Excellence at McDonald’s Corporation and implemented SEICMM Level 2/3 and a PMO at United Airlines. She has taught project management systems at the graduate level at Keller Graduate School and a PMO course at DePaul University in Chicago. She is the author of several books about project management and organizational project management maturity.