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The Role of the Project Manager

~ By Duncan Haughey

A project management workflow diagram written on yellow sticky notes

A project manager is a person who has the overall responsibility for the successful initiation, planning, design, execution, monitoring, controlling and closure of a project. Construction, petrochemical, architecture, information technology and many different industries that produce products and services use this job title.

The project manager must have a combination of skills including an ability to ask penetrating questions, detect unstated assumptions and resolve conflicts, as well as more general management skills.

Key among a project manager's duties is the recognition that risk directly impacts the likelihood of success and that this risk must be both formally and informally measured throughout the lifetime of a project.

Risks arise from uncertainty, and the successful project manager is the one who focuses on this as their primary concern. Most of the issues that impact a project result in one way or another from risk. A good project manager can lessen risk significantly, often by adhering to a policy of open communication, ensuring every significant participant has an opportunity to express opinions and concerns.

A project manager is a person who is responsible for making decisions, both large and small. The project manager should make sure they control risk and minimise uncertainty. Every decision the project manager makes must directly benefit their project.

Project managers use project management software, such as Microsoft Project, to organise their tasks and workforce. These software packages allow project managers to produce reports and charts in a few minutes, compared with the several hours it can take if they do it by hand.

Roles and Responsibilities

The role of the project manager encompasses many activities including:

  • Planning and Defining Scope
  • Activity Planning and Sequencing
  • Resource Planning
  • Developing Schedules
  • Time Estimating
  • Cost Estimating
  • Developing a Budget
  • Documentation
  • Creating Charts and Schedules
  • Risk Analysis
  • Managing Risks and Issues
  • Monitoring and Reporting Progress
  • Team Leadership
  • Strategic Influencing
  • Business Partnering
  • Working with Vendors
  • Scalability, Interoperability and Portability Analysis
  • Controlling Quality
  • Benefits Realisation

Finally, senior management must give a project manager support and authority if he or she is going to be successful.

Enjoyed this article? Now read 21 Ways to Excel at Project Management

Comments (36)

Topic: The Role of the Project Manager
4/5 (35)
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4th October 2019 5:57am
Deb McCarthy (Sydney Australia) says...
This article was great! I am mentoring a project coordinator and she now has a great appreciation for her role as support for projects, but also has a great roadmap for building a great path to be a PM.
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16th April 2019 1:03pm
Tora L. (Lauderdale lakes) says...
I am an operations administrator and I found this article useful in that it helps me understand more about what kind of support I give to my residential PMs. How can I help minimize the risk and provide the best support to them? I will focus on those issues more in my daily work. Any advice is appreciated.
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12th April 2019 7:28pm
Mateo (London) says...
Interesting discussions going here. In my perspective, I see the role of PM similar to that of orchestra conductor. The conductors doesn't need to play all the instruments in order to conduct an orchestra, so the role of PM needs to manage a team of people who have different roles and skills in a project, in addition to other abilities mentioned above on the article.
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12th February 2019 6:02pm
Alexander Orsini (Philadelphia) says...
Many comments here have little to do with the original article. The article was good. The posts that "a project manager is a project manager" and therefore can successfully oversee any type of project are not. A few people used snippets of various standards bodies and orgs to justify that PM skills and leadership are all you need to be a good PM. Let’s look at this in more detail.

According to PMI, the talent triangle covers 3 major themes: technical PM skills, leadership skills, and strategy and business management skills. Technical PM skills, I believe, are what most of the "a PM is a PM" supporters use as their key points. This is the scope, schedule, budget, risk, quality management angle. Leadership skills, like technical PM skills, are also supportive of the "a PM is a PM" argument. This includes motivating and inspiring people, emotional intelligence, etc. This is all clearly reusable across business domains.

The conversation gets more interesting looking at business and strategy skills. PMI includes domain knowledge for developing pertinent products and having industry experience as necessary for a PM. PMI further states that a PM is expected to explain to others the essential business aspects of the project. How do you do that with little to no domain knowledge?

Giving new PMs advice that misleads them to think that investment in business domain knowledge is not critical to success is not giving good advice. Continuous improvement and learning, if you really want to excel and succeed as a PM, should include a balanced investment in PM tech skills, leadership skills, AND strategy and business knowledge for your preferred domain of employment.

Project managers work in the context of an industry. Knowing the industry and the project domain helps you win the job and increases your chance of success. I'll add the counter-point that people strong in domain knowledge should balance investment in learning in leadership and PM skills if you want to be great.
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1st February 2019 11:26am
Kenneth Okoronkwo (Abuja) says...
I came here to really gain an understanding of project management by definition and have gotten more than expected.

I quite understand the standpoint of a worker being supervised or controlled by someone who does not have full technical knowledge of what they do. It seems insulting. So I go with the point that the PM builds good rapport with workers in all aspects of the plan, makes them understand to the best of their ability the expected goal and sees to it that they are in compliance with the original intent of the project.

It suffices to note that the Owners/Funders of a project cannot trust AECs and other parties with their money as they will the PM. The PM therefore gets AECs and others on the project based on thier experience, repertoire and even reliability built on relationship where obtainable, and the project sets sail with minimized friction and risks.
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11th January 2019 2:21pm
Dan Bruno (Muskegon) says...
All good points. However, there are a few things that I see on a daily basis as a PM that are also issues. Not that I am perfect. We all have room for improvement.

A project manager must also be willing to stand up and make the hard decisions and take ownership of a project and be proactive. I see some PMs that wont make a decision to save their own lives in a crisis. Right or wrong, you have to make those decisions to the best of your ability with the information that you have on hand.

The other thing that you have to do is to be able to have the social skills to work with your customers directly. In my roll, it is also my responsibility to be the point of contact with the customer and to build that relationship almost like a sales person.

It is important to remember that if you are running a project that all of the communications with a customer should go through you or at least involve you because you can't run a project if you are not the one making the decisions or are in the dark about what is going on.

This has been one of my weaknesses, as an engineer for over 20 years, I was not customer oriented, but it is something that I have had to learn over the past five years as a PM.
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13th October 2019 7:13pm
Kenneth Kachimbura (Goldcoast. Queensland) says...
This article is great, however, like Bruno, as an Engineer for over 12yrs, l have no clue on customer and social responsibility. Moving into the PM role, this is very critical.
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15th October 2018 6:22pm
Heather (Portland Maine) says...
All good points, but I haven't seen anyone comment on what I think is a critical perspective. Folks have raised concern about a PM that does not have solid technical knowledge of the subject matter at hand. But here's what I haven't heard anyone raise...what if you have a VERY technical (or even relatively technical) PM on a project, but he/she isn't a good leader, coach, mentor, listener, an organized person, etc... In other words, its a bonus if a GOOD PM has good subject matter understanding. But if they ONLY have great technical skills and no people skills - it spells disaster for any project. If he/she does not possess that technical knowledge, BUT is very good at the imperative skills of a Project Manager - removing impediments, identifying/mitigating risk, organized, team leader, coach, excellent communicator (to stakeholders/business owners), etc... then he/she will still be able to have successful outcomes because the team will work together to overcome any obstacles. Just my opinion.
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31st October 2018 11:11pm
Adrian C says...
Leading a group of people doing work primarily means giving those people instructions on how to perform that work. If the leader has never done the work himself, then he can't give instructions and as such he can't be a leader. Can the coach of a sports team be someone that has never played the game or does not have at least some very good technical knowledge about the game? No!

A project manager that does not have very good technical skills can't really lead the project team. Still, such a PM can manage the project as a process and when it comes to the people (including all the stakeholders, not just the team members) can act as a facilitator.

A facilitator is not a team leader, he does not tell people what to do or how to do their work, but he just facilitates the decision process taken by others.

In conclusion, I do agree that non-technical PMs can successfully manage projects, but they can't really lead the project team members and they are not fully in control of the project.

I've seen that when the PM has limited or no technical skills, the team members are led by a very experienced technical expert that many times, is more senior in the organization than the PM. Also, non-technical PMs are not given formal authority over the team members and are not allowed to do performance appraisals. Non-technical PMs are generally peers with the team members and not superiors.
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18th September 2018 3:17pm
Tom (Boston area) says...
The hard fact that no one has touched is that you need people skills more than any other skill to be a successful PM. I often say "you need to be a psychologist to be a PM". Getting your team to be productive can sometimes be more challenging than the task at hand. Understanding your team and how to get the most out of them is the road to success for any PM. Having technical knowledge can be helpful, but is not an absolute necessity if you have the skills to communicate with those that do.
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9th September 2018 10:55am
With the little understanding of the discussion going on here and the comments made, it is clear that majority of us here seem to think that a PM should have the technical skills in a particular discipline before they can successfully implement a project.

How about PMs with good strategic management?

I don't believe experience and technical skills alone will be sufficient here. A manager should also be a leader. An individual who can work well with others and willing to listen to the views of the project team and incorporate their ideas to the implementation of the project to achieve the set objectives. Being a PM requires one to build synergy within all department and aspects of a project and maintain sufficient flow of information.

There is obviously a lot more to do, but it all begins with consultative strategic planning where all parties are involved in developing the strategy.
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24th August 2018 9:49pm
Troy Nall (Baton Rouge) says...
Bottom line: if a PM does not understand how to do something in the real world (update or compile a new library module) then all the projections, schedules and budgets will be impacted in a negative way.

I’ve witnessed PMs saying, just do a specific task. You have 45 minutes to complete it. The task was outside the programmers ability and the PM took this up with programmer’s superiors. Furthermore, this task was not included in original project details.

PMs quote jargon and have little or no clue how things operate in the real world. And this is why PMs should be required to work at a lower level for 300 man hours, to be completely familiar with the basic mechanics of his group.

This PM material is just spouting technical jargon-ness.
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6th June 2018 7:33am
Christee (Singapore) says...
Extremely interesting discussion here. Looks like there are three camps of thought:

  1. PM needing technical expertise because they need to be able to understand the process for effective implementation and risk mitigation.
  2. PM needing a higher up view to be able to link the project team together and tying things up from a birds eyes perspective.
  3. PM needing problem solving skills.
I'm new to project management and I agree with these views. But I think it is difficult to achieve a technical expertise in every area of a project. If the project involves engineers, architects, visual designers, business owners, which domain of technical expertise should that project manager have? How in-depth should the technical knowledge of each domain be? I think it might be a challenge for a person to possess technical knowledge in all domains. But I believe that with experience, the right exposure, curiosity to learn and empathy to understand project member's perspective/strength/weaknesses we gain a little bit of knowledge in each domain.

It does help if the project manager has a process tracking system that's easily understandable by all parties involved. This way it's easier to track changes (whether it's design or technical specification or business requests) and efficiently navigate through the delivery process as all members understand what's coming, and what's expected of each phase.
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10th December 2018 9:36am
Adama Bakayoko (Abidjan) says...
Every comment has its merit. This debate will always be a tough one. Maybe we need to go back to the very basics. What is a project?

My Grandma says: "It's a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service or result. A project is temporary in that it has a defined beginning and end in time, and therefore defined scope and resources".

This definition completely ignores the technicality or non technicality of a project. Nothing in this definition says that a technical leader and a project leader cannot cohabitate in a given project. There should be a scope for peaceful cohabitation between both roles. One in charge of the product and one in charge of the project. The project manager should be able to rely on other people’s technical know-how to deliver his project on time and on budget. The two jobs have commonalities, but they do not overlap.

Maybe to manage a specific project where they do not have the technical knowledge of a specific business, project managers should start at project coordination level on one project and then gain momentum with a similar project when they have had a good grasp of the technicality involved.
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19th March 2018 7:32am
Gary (Grantham) says...
From my experience, you don’t need to be a subject matter expert to be a competent PM, but you do need a thick skin if entering a new industry environment for the first time. There are often bumpy times ahead while you get up to speed and not every employer can wait.
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18th March 2018 8:50am
Remi ADETUNJI (Igbaye) says...
Let's take a look at this definition of PM. 

Project management is defined as the discipline that involves “initiating, planning, executing and controlling the work of a team of people towards the achievement of a specific goal, or sets of goals”. These goals could be the development or production of unique products, services, or some other metric improvements, all of which are expected to deliver additional value. Through project management, activities are conducted using various tools, skill sets, knowledge, methodologies and techniques in order to meet the requirements of the projects.

The main goal of project management is to ensure that the objectives of the project are achieved within specified constraints.

Where is the technical experience/knowledge?
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16th January 2018 5:48pm
Dan (London) says...
Some interesting conversations on here.

Having worked in the digital, print and the insurance industries as a PM, one of the things I've come across, which has frustrated me, is peoples’ knowledge around what project management actually is. Some confuse this with managing and being heavily involved in the work, others just managing. I've found that CAPM and PMP don't seem to be too popular here in the UK.

My view is simple, your responsibility is to deliver projects on time, in budget to the right quality as efficiently as possible on a consistent basis. Doing so means sheparding the work through the process not carry out the work which needs to be done. Therefore, your knowledge as a PM is more about the process for what it takes to deliver that particular product.

Any thoughts on different PM styles throughout different industries?
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26th June 2017 5:47am
Tony Stevens (Christchurch) says...
Re: Post Christchurch NZ 2011 Earthquake Repair Strategy

For domestic dwelling repair we had 4 supervisors and three different PM's. Three building supervisors were totally ignorant of the job in hand as were two of the PM's. This resulted in three demolitions and four rebuilds before the work was completed to the required building and engineering standards. In my opinion it is imperative that considerable expertise in the project in hand is the first imperative for the project to progress to a satisfactory conclusion. This job ended up taking in excess of two years and from an initial estimate of $39,000 escalated to over $120,000.
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20th April 2017 2:36pm
Cheryl (Wichita) says...
A project manager does not have to be an expert in the field he is managing, but he does need to have enough knowledge to be able to understand what needs to be done and communicate effectively with his team.

For instance, we had a PM that knew nothing about our business. In a meeting we talked about some things we could do now to decrease the learning curve for the users we were affecting. This PM left the meeting and assigned someone the task to 'test tile view', which made no sense to anyone. When the person asked the PM what he meant by that, the response was "what was discussed in the meeting".

The problem with that is thar our PM knew NOTHING and rather then going to that person and talking about the situation then assigning a task that made sense where both the PM and the party assigned knew what the PM wanted, the PM just threw a task out there and basically threw the person under the bus. Regardless of age, the PM needs to know enough about the subject to be able to understand what he is asking people to do. But he doesn't need to be an expert.
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28th September 2018 10:04pm
Tiffiney Groce (Dallas) says...
I have been a PM for about 20 years and I don't think that I have to have a vast amount of knowledge to successfully manage a project. My role in the project is to be a facilitator, and to move roadblocks. If both of those tasks are done successfully I can have a successful project. I also don't agree with PMs assigning tasks and work. as a PM I facilitate conversations and discovery sessions and ensure that the best resource is responsible for a task. I also refuse to build timelines without the input of the people actually doing the work. I love the variety and change that being a project manager affords be and I am able to learn from all aspects and career levels.
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16th October 2018 8:19pm
Jo Day (South Elgin) says...
Hi Tiffiney, I am intrigued by what you commented. I am new to project management and would really appreciate any additional coaching/feedback you have. I currently have 27 projects I managed and I know a little bit about each one. I find it difficult to dig in and provide direction, since I do not have a deeper understanding of each project. I also find that I am getting high level tasks and status updates from the "project owners". Would appreciate your direction in how to ask the right questions to get more information when I have limited knowledge and I am not part of the meetings with stakeholders.
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11th April 2017 9:29am
George Rooney (Glasgow) says...
Interesting comments. Those against technical knowledge are most probably young, came out of college, all sorts of degrees, more letters after their name than in my name. Most likely, can tell you the cubic capacity of a jam jar but can't get the lid off it.

Knowledge is a wonderfull thing; a little bit of knowledge is a catastrophe waiting to happen. If I'm building a house, I'm looking for someone to built it facing the correct way not someone from a college background with little experience, trying to bully their way through the project to cloak lack of knowledge. And yes, I am an old b@"££ard
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27th June 2017 8:25am
Emma (Hampshire) says...
I disagree that Project Managers without copious amounts of knowledge are a bad thing - yes, with construction and IT projects some good level of understanding is necessary to understand building regulations and HSE legislation etc., but I think a Project Management role, although able to roll up their sleeves and get involved, should also be able to keep a high-level view of everything. Too much knowledge in an area may mean they get bogged down in the detail, and fail to manage the bigger picture.
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20th October 2016 8:14pm
Alick Nyangulu says...
I totally agree with Matthew. A project manager in any particular field must primarily be technically qualified in the field in which one is engaged. In-depth knowledge in one's field, coupled with experience creates a very successful PM. The lack of knowledge in a particular field can yield very catastrophic contractual issues. I have worked with a number of PMs who frankly don't know how to manage projects because they do not fully understand what the roles and limitations of their team members are.
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28th December 2016 9:12am
Samantha Maeer (Dubai) says...
I completely disagree. I have been a successful PM for many years and have covered the following areas Hospitality, Construction, IT Design, Finance and now Aviation.

A PM is there to ensure that the teams responsible deliver on their milestones. Not to know everything about everything. In fact, having too much technical knowledge can be a detriment. Obviously you don't let people pull the wool over your eyes but...
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10th January 2017 4:24pm
Eddie Ignacio (Hermitage PA) says...
Samantha, reality is that both of you are right. There are areas where you MUST have an understanding of what you are doing to properly understand the risks. Because you don't know what you don't know, a good PM must do his/her homework. The question then becomes what constitute in-depth knowledge. I do not need to know how to perform the specific tasks from every project but having an understanding how they can impact the outcome can and will likely prevent potential 'catastrophic' failures. To define the PM role as "there to ensure that the teams responsible deliver on their milestones" is way too simplistic. Bottom line, there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to the selection of the right PM. At the end, it is a matter of how much there is at risk.
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17th March 2017 1:30pm
Janine Greene (Baltimore) says...
I think it depends on the field. A technical project manager, like one for IT, requires experience in IT, not just from a human resource perspective, but from a comprehension of the IT environment. There aren't always resources for technical expertise, so if you know IT and you know project management, you have the best of both worlds. I currently work with someone who was a production manager in the theater world. Her skills translate very well into project managing the types of projects we do at work, so I believe it's all about the industry you're working in and how technical it is. Just my two cents...
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23rd August 2018 11:39am
Seth C Samuel (Jos) says...
I totally agree with this point of view. Having so much knowledge about a project can be detrimental to a project execution. I'm new to PM, but personally, I might be negatively affected cos of my love for detail. Just know what is required and ensure they are executed appropriately.
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29th February 2016 10:58am
Dave Hanson (Dubai) says...
Let me ask a general question. Looking through the list of tasks defined above as the responsibility of a project manager, how many require an engineering degree?

Why is it those job descriptions in the engineering-based industries inevitably dictate that PM applicants must have an engineering degree, often a masters, and/or 20+ years as a discipline engineer?

It makes no sense to me at all. The PM is a business manager, and other people sort out the technical stuff.

Any thoughts?
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2nd March 2016 3:38pm
Matthew Lake (Birmingham) says...
Hi Dave,

To answer your question from my perspective, I am currently employed as a Project Manager within the Asset Management Discipline, however, prior to this, I operated in a similar function for a medium sized M&E firm. I agree that a technical based degree is standard fare on a lot of the job specs for Project Managers within those related industries, and I think it is in part to give you a deeper understanding of the tasks at hand.

How could you, for instance, control costs and time on a project if you have no understanding of the topic. Yes, you could have a right-hand man who is a technical expert and helps you to understand those intricacies, but wouldn't it be a lot easier and not to say cheaper to amalgamate the two and have a technical expert, and a Project Manager rolled into one?

I agree that a great many tasks on the list could be handled by someone non-technical, but how would you go about Quality Control, Resource Planning and Time/Cost tasks without at least an industry related degree or a number of years experience. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, if you are operating as a PM on behalf of an Engineering Firm you need the knowledge, autonomy and confidence to successfully engage with the client, who will, in turn, expect the PM to have a broad knowledge base of his/her industry.
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4th March 2016 3:45pm
Greg Philp (Scotland) says...
Hi Dave/Matthew,

To a degree I agree with you Dave, that the job spec for a lot of the positions advertised are chasing unicorns, everyone wants to find that ideal candidate.

Matthew, you're right it definitely makes sense to have a candidate with experience in the field you are operating in, but you end up employing experts. A project manager should not be an expert in engineering or IT or otherwise -because expertise requires you to be incredibly focused on the minutiae, and if you are focused on the tiny details, then you cannot possibly be looking at the big picture and properly enabling change.

A lot of people end up in project management by accident, or rather they were never destined to be there but happened to get to that position through promotion from other positions. Most lack the leadership skills required to deal with conflict or enable change in an environment that is resistant to the very thing you are trying to achieve...

It's tough to know which way to go. In my opinion, the project manager doesn't need to have a complete understanding of the engineering, the software, or the business (prior to appointment) but with appropriate subject matter experts advising him/her throughout the requirements spec and planning process there is no reason he/she cannot successfully manage any of the above.

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12th March 2017 12:30pm
Ben (Adelaide) says...
I have some how bumped into this forum online while surfing for information relating the topic of discussion relating to my essay topic on; Should project managers posses strong technical background in order to manage a project.

From my research, I have realized that project managers plays a management role in managing projects. Management of a project means managing the Human Resource and the system to actually deliver the intended project objective. So I don't see why some organizations choose to recruit project managers with technical background in the project.
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11th January 2018 9:29pm
Suzanne (Concord) says...
Great discussion. My take is that the Project Manager does not have to be technical, he needs to be able to say, "I don't understand, can you explain that to me in non-technical terms." He should be high level, he should be open minded, he should be able to admit that he isn't the expert, he should be able to ask the right questions to the right people. He should be able to keep the conversation going through out the project. I also don't think he should be making business decision or technical decision. The business unit or the technical unit should be making the decision, they are the experts.
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26th January 2018 12:34pm
Helena (Sydney) says...
The thing is, if the team member is not qualified to explain everything to the PM, then PM should do what she/he can to understand the project better. Or the project will fall.
11th January 2019 2:41pm
Dan Bruno (Muskegon) says...
I think this is dependent on the field that you are a PM in. In my field, if you don't have the technical background and understand the tasks of your resource/people then you will flounder and fail as a PM. Everything about my field is technical. The more of a technical background you have, the better you will be.

I came up through the ranks as an engineer and I am now in a position where I am leading and mentoring other engineers resource/people.

I have drawing, controls, and order entry resources below me and it is my job to instruct them on how a particular system is supposed to operate and to check their work. If I do not have a technical background, I can't perform those tasks.

For the first three years in this position, I did all of my own resource work. I was a one man show because we did not have enough resource/people. It has made me a better PM, overall and now that I have my own resource/people I am juggling much larger projects simultaneously. I can do it more efficiently.

I have seen other PMs hired that do not have the background and try to keep up. I have watched them run from here crying that they can't take it when they don't even have their feet wet yet because they don't know the job.

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