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Legitimising the Project Manager Role

~ By Jason Becker

Overworked businessman with head in hands

For openers, let's look at the meaning of the term "legitimise." Merriam-Webster says "To make legitimate." Enough said, right? If it were, then this would be a very short post.

This post is dedicated to a better understanding of what a project manager is and what a project manager does. Just as important, we will also be talking about what a project manager isn't.

I feel compelled because I have heard the following conversation take place in every company for which I have provided services, ever.

The Scenario

Leadership Figure: I feel like this project is important enough to have a full-time project manager and I think you [insert name here], would be the best choice. You have the technical knowledge and you know the scheduling tool so it should be a no-brainer for you. What do you think?

Technical Talent: I think it is a great idea, but if I'm managing the project full-time, who will be responsible for my technical pieces of the project?

Leadership Figure: Well, I think there is enough time for you to do both. Just put in a few extra hours each week to update the schedule and we'll still be able to make the deadline…

Technical Talent: Um, OK, I'll do my best…

Chances are, everyone reading this has heard or seen something similar, and with just a few short sentences you can see where this is going. In the case that you haven't been a victim of this kind of drive-by PM'ing, or know someone who has, I'll draw out the rest of the above project scenario in shorthand.

Before I can draw out the rest of the scenario, let's make a few assertions to set the stage.

Assertions

  1. The leadership figure is truly interested in seeing the project succeed and he/she is thinking about the right things when asking to place a project manager on an important project.
  2. The technical talent knows something of project management (how to work the scheduling tool) but isn't necessarily what one would deem a "project manager."
  3. The technical talent has many other leadership responsibilities such as "technical lead," "application architect," etc.
  4. The technical talent is truly committed to making the project work and is willing to do whatever is necessary, including take on extra responsibility, to make the project work.

Playing It Out

OK. I'm going to make some generalisations here so let's assume for our purposes that the statements I am about to make apply most, but not all of the time.

  1. The leadership figure becomes disenchanted with project management results or project deliverables or both because there was an assumption that both could be done on a part-time basis.
  2. The technical talent becomes disenchanted because they have been placed in a situation where there is no potential for success.
  3. The company/ultimate customer loses because the project will slip off schedule. Deliverables rejected, milestones missed, cost overruns, scope creep, name it.

This is partly due to the leadership figures' naiveté, partially due to the lack of project management skills in the technical talent, and partly due to timeslicing on an already overallocated resource (technical talent).

What Went Right

The thing that went most correctly in the above scenario was the leadership figure's recognition that he/she needed to apply some project management wisdom to the project. Although this was a misguided attempt, simple recognition is a good start.

What Went Wrong

While the leadership in this case has good intentions, he/she is not seasoned enough themselves to understand what "project management" really is.

The key technical person should have recognised that their technical responsibilities on a key initiative were far too demanding to allow him/her to timeslice.

Summary

Asking a key technical person to take on project management responsibilities is NOT a good idea unless that person is properly trained in project management disciplines and you are going to adjust your technical expectations from that person.

In other words, assigning a project manager is not magic, it is just like filling any other position in your organisation. Start by working with your HR people to open a job title and description that accurately reflects your needs and then prepare a budget for having projects properly managed in your organisation now and in the future.

Do your people, your company, and your project, a service and make sure you spend the proper amount of time in selecting the proper talent to manage your project.


Jason Becker, PMP, CPM, has 14 years of experience in designing, developing, and deploying enterprise-level software products for the Banking, Manufacturing, Real Estate, and Information Technology industries. He is an expert in project management surrounding software products development with an emphasis on disciplined delivery techniques and visionary software development methodologies. He is an experienced leader with skills in IT PMO set-up and management and strategic IT projects alignment.


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