Here’s an incredibly easy question that many people get wrong.

Question: What is a project manager? 
Answer: Someone who manages a project.

Many projects and many companies get this question wrong. They don’t understand the project manager role. They think that the project manager delivers the project. They think the project manager is a “doer” not a manager.  They hire technical specialists as project managers and ask them to get stuck into the technical work.

Let’s be clear: The project manager’s role is to MANAGE the project. He or she is primarily a manager. Any technical expertise is useful but secondary.

Prince2 is clear about this. Prince2 has a well defined project organisation, in multiple levels

    1.    At the top level is the Project Executive (sometimes called Project Sponsor or Project Owner) and the project board. This is the level which takes decisions and assumes accountability.

    2.    In the middle is the Project Manager, who manages the project day-by-day and coordinates the specialist work.

    3.    At the third level are the Project Teams who do the specialist work and need technical expertise.

For Prince2, the project manager is like the conductor of the orchestra.
    •    The conductor doesn’t make music;  s/he coordinates the musicians.
    •    The project manager doesn’t deliver the project’s work;  s/he organises the work

For Prince2, a key task of the project manager is to package up work and give it to the teams.

It’s like a handshake. We need agreement between the project manager and the team manager on the work to be done

    •    The Project Manager proposes a “Work Package”
    •    The Team Managers proposes a Team Plan to deliver the Work Package

Once they are agreed, the work can start.

And once the work does start,  the project manager has to follow up on progress.  The project manager has to MANAGE progress, without being too “hands-on” nor too “hands-off.”

    ❑    If the project manager is too hands-on, s/he wastes time (and often ends up doing the work rather than managing it)
    ❑    If the project manager is too hands-off, s/he may lose control (and fails to manage)

To manage correctly, the project manager should review the work package status regularly at periodic “check-points”. A check-point isn’t a long and boring weekly status meeting. Prince2 avoids “management by meeting” which is time consuming and ineffective.

A check-point is a regular event, typically weekly.
    •    A written status report
    •    A meeting (optional)
    •    Follow up

A check-point should always start with a written status report. It’s important that the status report is written, and it’s important that the project manager gets it before the meeting. This allows the meeting to be a short-and-sharp meeting – the Project Manager can focus on a few key points from the written report. This is “management by exception”, which saves time and helps to ensure that the Project Manager is focused and effective.

The team’s checkpoint report is structured into
    •    what the team has done in the current week
    •    issues
    •    what the team expects to do next week.

Let’s look at an example. Perhaps a team manager sends a Check-point report every Thursday to the Project Manager. On the Friday, the project manager might discuss with the team manager (face to face, or by phone, by instant message…):
    •    two tasks which were not finished on time
    •    one issue which looks worrying
    •    one task which must be planned for next week

The Project Manager focuses on a few exceptional points rather than on the broad status. It’s management by exception. The Project Manager is a manager, and doesn’t need to control everything in fine detail. In some projects, the Project Manager may need strong technical expertise in order to define Work Packages; and may even directly manage one or more teams. But the key task for the Project Manager is to manage.

So now we have the right answer to the question “What is a Project Manager”. The answer is simple with Prince2. The project manager is … a manager.

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Written by Jeff on September 24, 2012 in blog
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