Project Smart ~ Exploring trends and developments in project management today

Calendar iconNot recorded
Adobe PDF icon

Project Managers, Trackers and Hybrids

~ By Robert McIlree

Smart young project manager with graphs sitting by computer at an office desk

Scott Berkun has some very interesting insights about the distinction between project managers, in the traditional sense and definition of the term, and project trackers, who may have the title of project manager, but essentially only gather actuals and create reports for sponsors and management without actually leading project teams during execution. Scott also provides a handy set of questions that can help one determine exactly what role a project manager is playing on projects.

I have made this distinction for years in the project management courses that I teach at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. The analogy I use to describe a "tracker" is of another position in large organisations - that of an auditor.

An auditor (internal or external) looks at the past to reconstruct financial transactions and report to management and others (government regulators, for example) that such transactions were proper and within limits set by management, regulators, and others with control over the organisation. A project tracker has the same role: collecting actuals (project data), analysing the data, and producing reports for management, sponsors, and other controlling parties. I tell my students that although these individuals may perform an important role, they are usually not leading or managing projects with authority as we would usually expect from people holding the project manager title.

There is another insidious problem that I've seen in the past and warn my students and clients about: that of the hybrid PM/tracker. The hybrid has a number of problems that are hard to rectify successfully:

  • They have responsibility for project outcome, but no real authority when authority must be exercised. These types are the perfect foil for falling on their swords when things go bad (when in truth, others should have fallen); or get routinely second-guessed or countermanded when they try to exert authority or make project decisions.
  • They cannot spend project budget or engage/acquire resources without running gauntlets of permission, sign-offs, and over-justification of need.
  • While they may be told that they have authority for project decisions, they are squelched the minute that they try to make one.

I advise my students that the hybrid scenario is one that they must avoid at all costs - it won't be worth it not only for the project, but their careers as project managers, managers, or project team members. I also strongly suggest to them that the time to establish project authority issues is when the project is in its initial phases (or in the job interview, if that's the case). I usually suggest the following approach with sponsors and managers:

  • You can describe your style of project management to sponsors and managers, making it clear that you expect to have day-to-day authority with respect to leadership and project management issues. You should sell your skills at leadership and decision making versus spinning scenarios that make you look like a power-hungry control freak.
  • If the reception to your description is lukewarm-to-chilly, then ask the sponsors what exactly they expect from you and your role. This is a good way to ferret out sponsors and managers that want an easily-jettisoned scapegoat if things don't work out as planned, not a project manager. Others may indicate that they only want a tracker, which is fine if that's what you want to do - at least it is brought to the table up front.
  • If you receive responses that leave the issue in limbo, think again before accepting the role. The time to define the project and other leadership roles is up front, not as you go along in the project. There is too much risk of getting up future mornings and as you look in the mirror and brush your teeth, wondering how much authority that you really have that given day. A bad place to be, believe me.

The essence of this is clear: if you're going to be held accountable and responsible for project outcomes, you have to have the authority to lead and make decisions. If you're a pure tracker, the point is moot. If you're in a hybrid situation, you're in trouble, so is your project and most likely, your organisation.

Robert McIlree is a consultant and university lecturer/speaker specialising in enterprise architecture and project management. His blog can be found at


Be the first to comment on this article.

Add a comment

(never displayed)

Is it true or false that red is a number?
Notify me of new comments via email.
Remember my form inputs on this computer.

Avoiding Project Management Pitfalls

Foot about to tread on a banana skin

Common pitfalls that projects experience and some tips to help make a project more successful and avoid the potential for chaos.

Project Management Checklists


Checklists are underused in the planning and managing of projects. Here is a high level twelve-point checklist for use during project planning.

How to Become a Project Manager

Senior lecturer in front of his class

If you're new to project management don't be bamboozled by all the jargon. This article sets out the skills needed to become a competent project manager.

10 Steps to Setting SMART Objectives

Measuring tape showing number 10

Setting SMART objectives to guide your team is important for a leader to get right. Badly formulated objectives will steer a team in the wrong direction.

PROJECT SMART is the project management resource that helps managers at all levels improve their performance. We provide an important knowledge base for those involved in managing projects of all kinds. With weekly exclusive updates, we keep you in touch with the latest project management thinking.

WE ARE CONNECTED ~ Follow us on social media to get regular updates and opinion on what's happening in the world of project management.

Latest Comments

Alick Nyangulu commented on…
The Role of the Project Manager
- Thu 20 October 8:14pm

Duncan commented on…
Project Planning a Step by Step Guide
- Thu 20 October 5:04pm

Karim commented on…
Project Planning a Step by Step Guide
- Thu 20 October 12:48pm

Latest tweets

RT @LeanneM_INV: Eternally grateful for the existence of @ProjectSmart getting me through my MSc #speakinginplainenglish about 3 days ago

General Project Management • Re: What is a main priority when looking for PM Software? #pm #projectsmart about 5 days ago

General Project Management • Re: Project Managment Software #pm #projectsmart about 5 days ago