Managerial Roles Have Changed & Here’s Where Project Management Fits In

as some management types disappear, project managers fill an important gap 

December 22, 2021 | Helen S. Cooke

project managementAs technology changes how we work, the workforce has evolved in many different ways. One of the major evolving areas is how organizations are managed and controlled.

In past decades, layers of management were put in place to supervise and oversee groups of workers, and larger organizations typically employed several layers of middle management. This layering of management is no longer needed in many contexts, as artificial intelligence tools (AI) replace certain support and control roles, and workers communicate and work electronically. The range and geographic distribution of the workforce is flexible and immensely broader. Standard software packages are tailored to diverse occupations, bringing work methods under a common approach. Templates and spreadsheets guide what workers report, allowing data to be consolidated into different views and assembled into formats useful for management analysis. Internal reports and external data analytics allow executives to assess the success of their initiatives and compare performance with the markeplace. The workforce is increasingly specialized, and teams with common backgrounds are often “under one roof.” This means that even the employee’s work experience can be standardized with those of a team by selecting relevant factors in an employee database. Needed strengths can be sought out through recruitment.

The influx of generations of new, tech-enabled workers changes how work is assigned, controlled, and managed. During this transitional period, large companies still struggle to maintain managerial control as they try to retain agility in the face of continuous change. And one of the best things a company can do while maintaining this balance is to clearly delineate what work is typical and routine and what work requires a custom approach.  If it is atypical, it may require project management, setting aside routine processes and methods and creating a different solution altogether. If not too diverse, work can be assigned to an existing team, and can be accomplished managing by projects. Some initiatives might require some combination of both.

It is clear that not every initiative requires a dedicated and specialized project manager. Work that requires a common knowledge base or occupational background can be handled by means of a team or task force and be put under the direction of a team lead. But try as we might, we have not been able to automate the actual management function. If we are able to effectively distinguish routine team activities from an activity that must be set aside as a separate project, this will help enable prioritization of resources and talents.

The Evolution of Managerial Roles

As described in an earlier post, management by projects is a performance and efficiency improvement method adopted by many operations-oriented organizations to tighten up the delivery capability of its workforce. Management by projects helps executives maintain control over a larger organization as workers assume increased control over their own work methods. Like many of its predecessors, such as Japanese “Quality Circles” in the 1970s, “Management by Objectives” in the 1980s, and “Management by Objectives and Results” in the 1990s, the current performance improvement method of “Management by Projects” helps executives standardize work methods and managerial knowledge in the professional ranks to enable cleaner and faster delivery of work results.

Many of the tactics used in the “management by projects” method are borrowed from the world of traditional project management. When professionals with diverse backgrounds are working together on task forces or team initiatives, getting them to collaborate effectively is difficult to manage. Traditional project management has disciplined methods to work across occupational groups and apply varied work methods. Leadership skills vary widely between people who supervise the application of common methods within a familiar team, and those who need to manage unfamiliar work using new approaches. Even with familiar work methods, team collaboration and delivering robust products and services need to be tightened up: results must be there when they are needed, and must perform as expected. So many of the team methods applied in projects are being transferred to the regular workforce. Professionals in specialized areas are beginning to manage their work assignments in ways similar to a project, but without the risks and unknowns that come with diverse teams and evolving targets.

“Management by Projects” can be seen as a sort of replacement for the traditional command-and-control, mid-level managers, the ones whose jobs were pared down and left behind as automation replaced this type of management. Today, some managerial roles can be replaced by standardized methods and technical tools. Yet there are still many workplace initiatives that need some form of management, but aren’t quite the type of large-scale, innovative projects that need a separate project manager and dedicated team. This is where the management by projects approach steps in. These performance improvement methods are targeted to bridge the gap between the use of projects for innovation, and the use of methods that improve worker alignment and control for everything else.

Training the workforce in many of the knowledge and work methods that professional project managers employ is proving effective. Significant money and time is already invested in upgrading the worker’s scope of capability; giving workers a broader context for self-management and better team skills can produce dividends. Routine departmental initiatives or work improvement task forces—often previously called “projects”—can now be managed by a technical team lead or self-guided work group. Because they use common technical approaches and familiar work methods, they no longer require or want a project manager. They have a common knowledge base, a set of tools and templates to guide their work, and a team spirit to get it done collaboratively.

Teamwork and collaboration make work more interesting and provide broader satisfaction for the individual employee. Team members with leadership skills can do most local initiatives themselves. The myriad small projects within departments and divisions can now be streamlined by deploying these “management by projects” methods. Manuals, tools, training sessions and role definition take these smaller and more routine projects out of the expensive “project management” pipeline. They produce fewer risks, are contained within established work groups, and are budgeted, staffed and carried out within the organization’s departments.

Despite the success of management by projects, it can’t fill the role of true project management in cases where creating a dedicated project is what’s needed. Let’s take a look at the key roles that traditional project managers still fill.

In These Situations, Project Managers Are Vital  

Projects have always been around and always will be. Strategic projects occur at the top levels of organizations alongside strategic initiatives. Initiatives that require implementing something significantly different from prior methods are implemented by projects: they are initiated, planned, budgeted, staffed and executed by selected senior managers and experienced specialists who can be relied on to take charge and deliver results in a new and complex context. Those initiatives that appear too unlike the normal ways of managing initiatives are spun off and established as separate, unique projects. Project managers, who have a different set of managerial skills and methods from line managers, are put in charge. Executives work with the project manager to define scope and objectives of the project and clarify the intended outcomes, risks and benefits. Resources are provided to proceed with the project. Key decision points are defined in advance to realign the progress of the project with an evolving executive context. The project manager and team are enabled to move ahead to deliver results—ideally within the agreed estimates of time and resources.

Efforts to standardize and automate the role of project manager have not been successful. An initiative that is critical to the success of an organization, especially one that requires changes in how work is done and how results are achieved, still remains a project, and requires a skilled project manager. The vision, leadership, integration, and strategy of management is still needed.

These are some common scenarios where a project manager is needed:

  • When diverse teams of professionals and workers must be brought together to do something significantly different than what has been done before, an experienced project manager has the knowledge, skill and training to get it done. In this case, a specialized manager is required who has the appropriate capability to unite workers who do not share a common background or work method into a common effort while keeping the team intact and focused.
  • When risks and unknowns are likely to emerge, and initial plans are changed repeatedly to adapt to these changes, a manager is required who can integrate and reconfigure not only the work plan and direction of team effort, but the deployment of special skills to get past barriers.
  • When deadlines and resource limits collide, or political and environmental pressures threaten to divert the team’s effort, a manager is required who can assess the progress while changes are being made, integrate changes into the larger effort, rework approaches, and redeploy talent to get over the interference. Such an initiative may or may not require a seasoned executive, but does require a skilled professional to manage the project, i.e., a project manager.

So while management by projects has become an increasingly common executive strategy to make the workforce more agile and adept, we have not gotten to the point where we can avoid projects. Projects are needed to handle the really complex and risky stuff. And whenever a project is important enough to allocate time, talent and scarce resources to getting it done, we will still need project managers to step in and take over the challenge. The extra cost of launching a project is easily offset by the potential cost of failure.

What is perhaps more important for performance efficiency and executive control is to distinguish between routine task force efforts and real projects. The organization needs to identify which leaders have not only managerial knowledge and leadership skill but also integrative talents and strategic vision. Those deserve the title project manager, a distinct management role recognized in the marketplace and in the organizational hierarchy.

  • 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.