Alex Leonov's Blog

After talking to a few project managers lately, I have discovered a shared sentiment. It seems that the term ‘project manager’ has no face. Or rather it has too many faces. At the same time.

Depending on the organisation, industry, department, and location, requirements and responsibilities for project managers vary. And I am speaking only about PMs in technology - not the event managers, construction project managers, project coordinators, and others.

What happens is that there are too many requirements for the PM. Then, the ‘extra’ ones come at the expense of the core.

The Many-Faced PM

The Many-Faced PM

Can we find a face for the role of Project Manager? I think, we can.

To do that, we need to do away with the confusion, and then paint a picture of a well-rounded PM. As a source, I took quite a big range of role descriptions that you can find in the internet.

Hopefully, this will help those, who are PMs already, want to become ones, or who’s looking for them to fill their roles.

Let’s start with the confusion. It comes from the three areas. First one is the job/role title itself. Second is the required skill set. The last one is the expected experience.

The Title Confusion

If you scroll through the titles, here’s the variety you’re up against:

  • project/program manager
  • project manager
  • it project manager
  • agile project manager
  • customer project manager
  • project manager/business analyst

Jaqen H’ghar: Give a name, any name.

First of all, there should be a clear distinction between project and program management. Not surprisingly, it comes from the difference between projects and programs. Recently I was at the breakfast organised by Owen McCall, and we talked about this difference. Programs deliver value for the business. Projects deliver capabilities within respective programs.

Taking out program management, we’re left with phrases that have ‘project manager’ within. But when you look at them, then PM, IT PM, Agile PM, and Customer PM are really one and the same.

The last remaining item in the list is dangerous. A combination of roles like this will work against the business. Since BA role is usually a part of a team, and PM is that team’s manager, there is a conflict of interest, which never helps.

After all, despite a variety of names, there really is one true god title for the role: Project Manager.

As I said before, this doesn’t cover non-tech manager roles. If you want to read a similar article about any of them, please leave a word in the comment section below.

The Skill Set Confusion

Here is where the PM role has the most similarities and the most discrepancies at the same time. Some skills are needed virtually everywhere, but some appear only rarely (still often enough to make the list).

Jaqen H’ghar: To be a dancing master is a special thing, but… to be a Faceless Man… that is something else entirely.

I took the liberty to group them together (but you’ll see the variety in brackets):

  • the winners:
    • stakeholder management (in any shape or form: key/range/senior/external/internal/across-the-business/relationship-building/networking)
    • communication (verbal, written, and sometimes documentation skills)
  • the runners-up:
    • change management (sometimes in form of continuous improvement)
    • reporting (sometimes in form of monitoring)
    • team skills (the whole lot: teamwork, team building, team leadership)
    • risk management
    • scoping
  • the hidden gems:
    • customer loyalty/satisfaction/enthusiasm (enthusiasm!)
    • vendor management and negotiations
    • requirements/business case/complexity management
    • governance
    • quality assurance

I skipped task-at-hand-specific skills. In my opinion, they are ‘nice-to-haves’, not the essentials. If your specific projects involves, for example, a particular type of contract negotiation or a lot of procurement, then having a PM with that experience will speed you up a little bit.

As you can see, there is variety in skills. Yet supposedly the results of the work are the same: projects are completed according to the requirements, on time, and within budget.

And the confusion doesn’t stop with the skills.

The Experience Confusion

Expected experience also differs, but has the least variety of them all.

One perspective is the tenure: it ranges from a plain PM, through an ‘experienced’ one, to a ‘senior’ PM.

Another perspective is the kind of environment you’ve been in. In some forms, it’s generally ‘enterprise level preferred’. Occasionally, it includes ‘agile experience’, and ‘business transformation experience’.

Jaqen H’ghar: No harder than taking a new name, if you know the way.

The last perspective is a specific set of experiences related to the project a PM is being sought for. They are a nice filter to rank multiple people pretending for a role, but have no relation to the essence of the PM role as such.

Let’s now talk about what defines a PM.

‘A Man Needs A Name’

You would think that the Project Management Institute will give you a clear definition. I thought so, too. Here’s what I’ve found:

PMI 'definition' of the PM role

PMI 'definition' of the PM role

This is how I read it: project managers are adrenaline junkies that love extra responsibilities and have no right to complain about the pressure and stress.

Jokes aside, let’s define in the fewest words possible, what a PM is.

A Project Manager is a person responsible for successful delivery of a project. He/she is in charge of its planning and execution.

This is the essential value that a PM brings along. Get things done with other people.

Now, to get things done a PM needs certain skills. What skills?

‘All Men Must Serve’

All skills should serve the goal of the successful project delivery.

Here they are:

  • work with the people…
    • communicate within the project team
    • communicate with the project’s stakeholders and other teams
    • manage the project team (in a way that preserves their sanity)
  • …to get things done
    • define and manage the scope (but not the specific requirements themselves)
    • keep the hand on the pulse while the work is being done (report/monitor/dance around the fire)
    • manage risks and react to the changes (change/improve/panic as necessary)

That’s it. Left ‘half’ of a PM organises the work, and the right ‘half’ does the communication.

‘Finally A Girl Is No One’

Is that it? Is the role of the PM that simple?

Finally, the PM has a face

Finally, the PM has a face

Yes, and no.

If a PM has the ‘short-listed’ skills from above, they are good enough to do the job, and well set to have a successful project. If a PM doesn’t have them, no other skills, tools, or techniques will help anyway.

To be fair, there is nothing wrong with additional requirements (such as enthusiasm). It is just important to focus on getting the basics first, and look at non-essentials when they don’t come at the expense of the core.

So, the first step is to make sure that a PM is ‘No One’ - he passes the basic skill test. Do you really need the next step? With the average global projects’ success rate (or, should I say, failure rate?), maybe not. If you do, though, keep a close eye on the basics.

Good luck with the projects, and may the Force be with you! Oops, that’s from the wrong movie.