Dialogue request: What is a project manager?

I recently hosted a lean coffee during which project management roles and responsibilities were discussed. The discussion helped me realize that this title held many different meanings for people.

The first line of Wikipedia’s entry on project management reads: “Project management is the discipline of planning, organizing, securing, managing, leading, and controlling resources to achieve specific goals. ”

The words in that description are quire provocative to me, but I’d rather hear what others believe.

I am keen to get some more understanding around this prevalent role. This blog post, more-so than others, is an explicit invitation to engage in a dialogue in the comments.

The questions I’d like to use to seed this discussion are:

What does a project manager do?

What problems would you hope to solve by hiring a project manager?

What’s the difference between a project manager and a program manager?

What are the most important traits of a good project manager?

How does a PMP certification make a project manager better?

Okay, so I’ll gladly add to this blog post and maybe even take what we learn from the comments in what I hope will be an educational, lively yet respectful discussion, and aggregate a subsequent post.

I’ll also add that I recognize there are not “best practices” I don’t believe there is a correct answer to be learned. What I hope is for us to learn from people in various contexts what the answers to these questions are for them.

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7 Responses to Dialogue request: What is a project manager?

  1. Adam,

    As mentioned on Twitter, I’ve been tackling this topic a lot and Hogarth and I have been talking about it a lot over at The Gorilla Coach. Last week I took up the search for a better description of what I do, for the very fact that Project Management is a poor descriptor of what a good PM does these days. http://thegorillacoach.com/does-a-gorilla-by-any-other-name-still-smell/

    Strong credit goes to Tobias Mayer for starting the exploration with his provocative “Scrum is not project management” blog last year (http://agileanarchy.wordpress.com/2011/04/25/scrum-is-not-project-management/).

    Now you asked specific questions: Let me answer those.

    What does a project manager do?
    – There are plenty of places to find official definitions. I sum it up in one of two ways, depending on what a person views as important. “Helps a product/process get from point A (start) to point B (launch) within the constraints.” or “Helps the team get the project from point A (start) to point B (launch).”

    What problems would you hope to solve by hiring a project manager?
    – Poor communication, poor communication, poor communication. It’s a PM’s number one job.

    What’s the difference between a project manager and a program manager?
    – In practice, nothing. The titles are almost completely interchangeable now. In definition, a program is usually a series of related projects. The projects may or may not have project managers assigned to them. I’m a program manager in my day job, it’s really more a project manager position.

    What are the most important traits of a good project manager?
    – Good communicator, good communicator, good communicator.
    – Ability to energize and inspire.
    – Ability to say “I don’t know,” “Can you help me” and “We are in trouble.”

    How does a PMP certification make a project manager better?
    – A PMP won’t make you better, anymore than a degree in engineering means you’re a great inventor.
    – What it does is gives PMs a common language. Every PMP knows what Earned Value is, even if they don’t use it. In Potato, Pahtato I look into the “why certify question?” While it focuses on the ACP, the same arguments apply. (http://thegorillacoach.com/the-potato-pahtato-gorilla/ )

    • Adam Yuret says:

      Wow Joel, great thought out response. It took me forever to reply because your blog posts are brilliantly written engaging but not brief. I’d say “TL;But I couldn’t stop reading it” TL/BICSRI?

      Anyway, I think you should keep listening to Hogarth, hopefully I find somebody that insightful to help me out in the future.

      I worry that a common language can do harm to communication. We may know certain terms and make assumptions about what those mean to others when we have a shared language. Asking “Why” is an important underutilized approach in my experience. When we have professional certified “experts” there is a risk that people will engage in model 1 behavior out of fear of being discovered as ignorant. This kind of thing can lead to more more perpetuated ignorance. I love the idea of a project manager as servant-leader/facilitator but in my (admittedly limited) experience project managers can have the unintended side-effect of becoming information bottlenecks. “I don’t need to know why I’m doing something, the project manager told me to do it.”

      The project manager can become the wring-able neck which can lead to what I call the “Chicken Little” project manager. I had a project manager once tell me the sky was falling and I tried to rally the engineering team to push hard through a weekend, and called out CTO on his cell phone during his vacation to tell him we were having an emergency.

      I was thanked for my urgency and told not to worry about it. “We’ll tackle it on Monday.”

      Later people said “Oh, she’s always in a panic, it doesn’t actually /mean/ anything.” Obviously this is not very respectful to the PM but when you become or make yourself the arbiter of “The schedule” and the “communication bottleneck” and the “keeper of the big picture” you’re maybe more prone to panic and pushing.

      I don’t think renaming this role is necessarily the answer, I don’t have an answer. I’m trying not to devolve into my usual anti-certification bias but when we crown experts we sometimes inadvertently suggest to the uncrowned that they should abdicate judgement. I call this the “Secret sauce” of business. “I don’t need to understand that, it’s above my pay grade and I’m sure it’s far too complex for little old me to know.” :-)

      For example the “point-A to point-B” metaphor has a risk of bringing a linear view to what may be non-linear work.

      Again, I’m just stirring the pot, this is a great discussion and I am super-grateful for your participation in it. My bias is to try and help facilitate people to challenge their thinking and approach these often complex challenges from a learning perspective. When we can learn to engage, discuss respectfully and think as individuals, we may be better positioned to reduce the waste and focus on producing more awesome. :-)

      Edit: I just realized I spewed Jargon (Model I vs Model II): I am talking about these models: http://www.infed.org/thinkers/argyris.htm

      • Adam,

        Thanks for the kind comments about my blog. I’ve never been excused of being a man of few words and it’s a failing I’m working on. Sometimes though, important messages are not simple.

        And Hogarth is already with you (or someone similar). You just have to listen for him (or her).

        As to your comments:
        Certification doesn’t make you an expert:
        Any certified person who claims to be is one you should promptly ignore. A medical doctor graduates with a degree and them promptly spends a couple years as an intern. That’s just so they aren’t dangerous to their patients, even then they are not experts. If you take the zen approach, you never achieve expert status as there is always more to learn. Certifications have value, they don’t make experts.

        Asking Why:
        One of my five personal principles is “There is no one, right way.” To follow this principle requires me to ask “Why” all the time. It’s one of the most important tools in a ‘s tool box. Though as I have learned formal coaching I’ve learned “Why” can be a little to fraught with land mines. “What” and “How” work a lot better. “Why did the build fail” will usually lead to finger pointing. “What caused the build to fail” has a better chance of leading to root cause.

        Renaming the Role:
        I may have not gotten my point across as well as I had hoped. Lots of words is not always the solution. My point is what we tend to think of as the classic duties of a project manager are no longer what is important. If I call myself Superman and I’m still the bottleneck on the project, I’m still not effective.

        Point A to Point B:
        Good point, not the greatest metaphor. Amazing how almost any words can be taken wrong. :)

        Joel BC

  2. lisacrispin says:

    So glad to see this discussion on a topic I’ve been ruminating on lately. I get a lot of questions about it, and it’s not my area of expertise, for sure. I’m planning to refresh my agile PM knowledge by going thru Jim Highsmith’s Agile PM book and Roman Pilcher’s Agile PM w/ Scrum book. But, a lot of good sources say that PM is built into frameworks such as Scrum, sort of delegated to more people. Are there situations that call for a PM, and others that don’t? IME we benefited from PMs when I worked on a project where there were many different other teams & customers we had to coordinate with.

    • Adam Yuret says:

      Thanks for the comment Lisa, I am also excited to help us clarify these concepts and roles. I would like to add that I, in no way, want to limit the discussion to lean/agile teams. I am just as interested in what traditional teams consider project management. Even outside software, in health care, or manufacturing. Maybe we have something unexpected to learn from other approaches that can be applied to our contexts. :-)

  3. Nomad_Alien says:

    Good post! I have been wondering about this same issues for a while now. What I do notice is that when we talk about project/program managers we are thinking scrum/agile/lean. It seems to me everybody is so focused on the development/testing phase of a “project” and asking what place a project/program manager fills. I agree fully with the statement above…..if you have bad communication in your development department you do need something like a project/program manager, if communication is good and visible, then you don’t…..but….who makes sure the contracts/legal docs are in place before the software/product ships? Is there 3d party dependencies? hardware? what is the lead time on getting a part/cable? How quick can the factory ramp up production? How much time do they need to flash software onto the devices? Is marketing ready? Is their “message” correct or are they stretching the truth a bit too much? Who is training sales? or the trainers for that matter?…and and on.

    Yes, there are dedicated people for all these tasks, but how do they synch up and make sure they know when what is happening and how the other departments delay can potentially impact them? Even without a PM…somebody has to take the lead and setup the weekly meeting, take meeting minutes and ask the difficult questions.

    I have seen the brain dead decisions where the “web guys” release a cool new feature with their super cool agile methods in record time, only to be pulled a few hours later because the embedded side (think mobile phone) does not support this new functionality and crashes.

    I agree the terms project/program management is vague and does differ from company to company, but still, in many cases there is a need for someone to “walk the floor”, ask the difficult questions and make sure EVERYBODY is ready, not just the developers.

    • Adam Yuret says:

      I completely agree with your sentiments on having clarity acros the team and a focus on the interdependencies within the system.

      I am unsure if that’s what project management is intended to do. I have many thoughts about ways to use visual indicators to help teams coordinate these constraints together and avoid acting without sufficient insight into the contexts of how those actions will impact other parts of the system. I think a facilitator or consultant to help bring an outside perspective and map out the different parts of the system can be helpful in identifying those constraints and helping teams construct approaches to reducing the impacts of those issues.

      I’d love to hear more about how you think a project/program manager or a PMO can help with those issues. What would have to be true for the PMO to empower the various interdependent teams doing business to achieve greatness?

      Thanks again for your contribution. :-)

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