PM-Foundations – What Does a Project Manager Do?

One of my favorite questions to ask potential project management candidates is, “When you were managing the project what did you actually do throughout the project delivery process?” It is amazing how vague and ambiguous the responses can be.

“I managed the project deliverables.”

“I led the team.”

“I guided the project.”

“I managed customer relationships.”

“I facilitated project planning.” (this one is a little better)

None of these examples very effectively describe what the project manager actually “does” to ensure the project is planned, executed, and closed in a manner that delivers on customer expectations. The other response that I frequently get to this question is a “deep dive” into the content of what was delivered. For some reason candidates think describing what was delivered articulates their contributions to the project outcomes.

The reason I think it is so important for candidates to be able to clearly describe what they do as a project manager is that it helps identify whether or not they consistently do the right things at the right time during the project delivery process. Focusing on the key elements of what a project manager does is also helpful to identify improvement areas and professional development opportunities when coaching and mentoring project managers. Below are 9 of the project management activities that I focus on when working with project managers. I thought about ranking these in order of importance, but honestly I believe these represent the handful of things that are all important for a project manager effectively and efficiently perform to consistently drive positive project outcomes (therefore these are in no particular order).

Top 9 Things a PM Does throughout the Project Life Cycle

1. Create and Manage the Project Schedule – Without a good schedule that directly supports the project objectives (scope, time, and cost), the project manager will struggle to effectively deliver on customer expectations. The project manager has direct responsibility for creating the project schedule, including defining the work breakdown structure (WBS), performing activity definition and sequencing, loading and leveling resources, and performing schedule analysis. During project execution the project manager updates the project schedule in a consistent and timely manner. These updates ensure that the project schedule always provides an accurate picture of work completed, and work remaining to be completed.

2. Create and Manage the Project Budget – The project manager creates the project budget by efficiently leveraging the planning assets created to that point in the process. The project manager performs analysis to develop a project budget that will be understood and approved by the client/stakeholders, and just as importantly can be managed throughout the project life cycle. Creating the project budget includes developing a project staffing plan that details planned resource utilization (in hours), identifying other project costs (e.g., software licenses, infrastructure investments, and travel & expenses), and complying with the organization’s financial processes (e.g., capitalization, investment approval, project budgeting vs. funding). During project execution the project manager updates the project budget with actual hours reported by project resources and other actual costs incurred (e.g., from vendor invoices). The project manager forecasts cost variances based upon costs incurred and estimated cost to complete the project, and identifies / implements corrective actions required to deliver the project within budget.

3. Create the Project Plan – The project management plan represents the key deliverable created during the planning phase of the project that connects the project management activities throughout the project life cycle. The project management plan describes the elements of the baseline project plan (scope, timeline, costs and resources), as well as the approach, processes and tools that will be utilized to manage each component of the project (e.g., cost management, schedule management, change management risk management, roles & responsibilities, project communications). The project manager ensures that a strong project management plan is efficiently created (the project manager generally authors a large portion of the project management plan), and is proactively utilized throughout the project life cycle to successfully deliver on the project objectives.

4. Identify and Manage Risks / Issues – Throughout the project life cycle the project manager facilitated the investigation of project related uncertainties to identify potential risks of things that may occur that would impact the project (scope, cost, or timing). The project manager is responsible for capturing and tracking risks and issues in a manner that minimizes their impact on the project. The project manager ensures that key risks and issues are reviewed on a regular basis, and the appropriate actions are completed to close issues or reduce the impact / probability of risks.

5. Manage Team Meetings – The two most important team meetings that the project manager has responsibility for are the core team and steering committee meetings. Effective planning, facilitation and follow-up for these meeting by the project manager is a key to ensuring that the core team members and project sponsors are well-informed, focused on the right things, and resolving issues in a timely manner. The project manager creates the agenda, organizes information to be presented, facilitates the meeting, communicates meeting outcomes, and initiates / tracks the follow-up actions from the meeting.

6. Manage Change – Change is an inevitable component of managing a project – nothing works out exactly as planned. The project manager manages change by maintaining the appropriate balance between control and discipline to manage to the baseline plan, and flexibility to adapt the plans to meet customer expectations. The project manager establishes the change control process for the project, ensures that potential changes are captured and assessed in a timely manner, implements approved changes by making the appropriate adjustments to the baseline plans, and tracks / communicates the impact of change on the project.

7. Measure and Manage Project Performance – The project manager updates progress against plans (budget and schedule), performs analysis required to accurately interpret the key project performance metrics, and recommends / implements corrective actions. This process is performed in a consistent and timely manner to ensure that problems are identified early on, and the appropriate actions are taken to keep the project on-track.

8. Facilitate Stakeholder Communications – The project manager communicates with key stakeholders in a regular and consistent manner, targeting the messages to specific stakeholder groups using the appropriate communications channels / vehicles (e.g., project update meetings, status reporting).

9. Close the Project – Project closure represents an activity that is often minimized or entirely overlooked by the project manager. At the end of a project, many project managers are hurriedly preparing for their next project or client, and miss a prime opportunity to leave a lasting impact on the client organization. Project closure starts with effectively shutting down project activities, validating all product deliverables are complete & key product issues closed, and smoothly transitioning resources to new roles (onto new projects, or within operational functions). The second component of closing the project is gathering customer input about the project, and summarizing the project results in the form of the final project report (also known as the project closeout report). This component of closing the project includes facilitating the lessons learned process to identify improvement opportunities (things done well, or areas for improvement), and to initiate actionable next steps to improve future projects and upgrade the capabilities of the project office.

How do you know if you are doing the right things?

This represents a long list of things to do on a regular basis – how do you make sure you are focused on the right things? Part of the answer to this question depends on where you are in the project life cycle. During the planning phase your focus is on creating the planning deliverables – the schedule, budget, and project management plan. During the execution phase of the project your focus shifts to updating the schedule and budget, tracking risks and issues, managing change, communicating with key stakeholders, and measuring / managing project performance.

The other element of answering this question relates to establishing a personal organization system that the consistently helps you understand and focus on activities that will have the greatest impact on driving positive project outcomes. Neal Whitten, in one of my favorite project management books, “No-Nonsense Advice for Successful Projects”, talks about ensuring that the project manager is managing the top 3 problems. Neal states, “The No. 1 reason projects run into trouble is that the project manager and other project members lose sight of the problems that need the most attention – the top three problems. The top three problems become the top priorities.” I think this concept relates directly to the everyday life of a project manager. What are the top 3 things that need to be performed / resolved to keep the project moving in the right direction? There are many personal organization techniques that you can use as a project manager to ensure you are focused on the right things. I utilize a project planning pad (see below) to record and prioritize my activities at the beginning of the week. This tool personally helps me maintain focus on the “right things” throughout the week, and summarize accomplishments and open issues at the end of the week. The same organization system does not work for everyone, but my personal opinion is that effective project managers consistently utilize personal organization processes / tools of some shape or form.

 

On a Personal Note: I got the idea to write this blog when I was talking to a good friend of mine the other day, Mark Ducharme, about what people do (at work). He said I know that you are a project manager, but I have no idea what that means in terms of what you actually do when you go to work each day. Thanks for asking Mark!

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About Steve Hart
Practice Manager responsible for project leadership & delivery services for the Cardinal Solutions Group in the RTP area. I am a PMP with 25 years of project management and technical leadership roles, have developed an extensive practical knowledge that spans a wide variety of industries, and project delivery approaches. As a practicing PMP, I am a member of the North Carolina PMI chapter. I am an avid sports fan, particularly the Miami RedHawks, Cleveland Indians, Cleveland Browns, and most recently the NC State Wolfpack.

5 Responses to PM-Foundations – What Does a Project Manager Do?

  1. Pingback: PM-Foundations – What Does a Project Manager Do?

  2. Attask says:

    I am really inspired together with your writing abilities as well as with the layout to your weblog. Is this a paid subject or did you modify it your self? Either way keep up the nice quality writing, it is rare to look a nice blog like this one nowadays..

    • Steve Hart says:

      Thanks for your kind words. This is my personal blog about Project Management best practices. I write about project management related topics that I am passionate about and enjoy sharing with others.

  3. Jennifer says:

    What about the Project Charter? Is the PM responsible for the Project Charter as stated in the PMBOK? I know it’s possible that the two organizations I’m familiar with are not necessarily using the PMI project management standard as a guide to organize but neither have the PM’s developing the Project Charter.

    • Steve Hart says:

      In most organizations the business owner is responsible for completing the charter. Having said that, most customer struggle with articulating their business problem in a manner that is effective and actionable. I recommend that the project manager is a strong partner in this process and assists as much as possible. It represents a “win-win” for the client and the potential project.

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