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Why do we need project managers?

We seem to be going through some pretty protracted difficult economic times. The impact is not universally felt – some sectors are thriving as are some types of jobs, but many are struggling as are other types of jobs.

As project managers we sit in all this turmoil sometimes face serious threats to jobs whether those are permanent or contract. No cloud is without a silver lining and many project managers are having a “good” recession. But many in our profession have found the last few years tough.

When jobs are threatened, it is always useful to be able to define why the role you are performing is essential or critical to the business you are involved in. As project managers we spend a lot of time thinking about the best ways to go about managing projects. There are books, bodies of knowledge, training courses and tools. But all of these are built on an assumption that is rarely questioned. Do we really need project managers?

In this article I have re-worked some old themes that people who have heard me speak will have heard me mention time and again – but they are still worth saying again.

As a practising project manager you will not be surprised to find out that my answer to this question is a resounding YES. But that really is not a good enough answer. A better answer is to say why we need project managers. My thinking on this was triggered by a client who told me that she felt she only needed project managers because of a failure of her staff – if she had good people she would not need project managers as everyone would get on and do their jobs. I am simplifying a bit as her argument was a little more sophisticated than this, but that was the heart of it.

Of course, her statements made me challenge her, but when asked precisely why we need project managers my counter arguments were right, but clumsy. So I have spent some more time thinking about this. In this article I am going to give several real, but bad, reasons for needing project managers – and what I think is the core right reason.

People are lazy

A common reason for thinking we need project managers is the belief that people are lazy. If no-one chases them, they won’t do their work. This is the “student syndrome” view of project management – I’ll only do what I need to do because there is a deadline approaching and someone else is chasing me to get the work done.

I think this is a very bad justification for project management. It would be naive to say that project managers never end up doing this. We have all met members of staff who are lazy and who won’t do what is required unless someone chases them hard, but they are a minority. And if this is the reason for project management then my client was right – get the right people and you won’t need project managers anymore.

Project team members have too many things to do

A more sophisticated version of the previous argument, is not that people are lazy, but that staff allocated to project teams have too much to do. I think this is actually very common – and is generally a failure of organisations to prioritise properly and load staff appropriately.

The normal scenario in organisations is that many project team members are not allocated full time to the project, but only part time. The project work has to contend with everything else they need to do. Human nature is such that we tend to focus on the activities which we are chased for – we do the work of the person who shouts loudest. In this scenario, the project manager has to be one of the people shouting loudly! By chasing people, the work on the project gets prioritised above other activities they have also been asked to do, and the project progresses.

This is a real feature of modern organisations, and a role that most project managers find themselves having to do on a regular basis. I still don’t think this is a good reason for needing project managers – but I do accept it is a valid reason given the failures to explicitly prioritise and load staff appropriately in most organisations.

A variant on this reason is when organisational processes impede the execution of certain non-typical activities. A project manager is brought on to run a project “outside” of normal operational processes. Again common, again this can work – but I don’t think this alone should be a primary justification for project managers. Fix the process and the project manager is again not required.

Expert helper

Another common reason for allocating a project manager to an activity is because the project team does not have enough expertise in the subject matter of the project and they need an expert guide. This happens often, and it can work – so it is not a bad reason for allocating someone to lead a project. But being the central expert in the subject matter of a project is, in my mind at least, something different from being a project manager. If you need an expert, hire an expert. If you need a project manager, hire a project manager. These are two separate roles.

My words have to be interpreted carefully here, because I do not believe in generic project managers – I do think the best project managers have deep experience in the subject matter and context of the project they are running. But this should be so they can apply project management in the best way, not so they can be the central expert on the project.

Additionally, for some smaller projects an individual can act as both the project manager and the main subject expert, but these are different roles and as the projects get larger and larger it becomes difficult for a single individual to combine both. My analogy is with the orchestra conductor. All conductors can play instruments. Some can play brilliantly. But few try to conduct a large orchestra whilst playing their instrument.

Risk and complexity

The reasons I have given for project management so far position project managers as people who get things done by overcoming failures in organisations or weaknesses in the staff the organisations employ. Many projects I have been involved in have required project managers for these reasons – but these are negative justifications for project managers.

Even in perfect organisations with perfect staff I still think you would need project managers. The positive justification for project management is that it is inherent within project tasks that there is a level risk and a level of complexity. There is a need for a dedicated role to manage this risk and this complexity.

Even perfect staff need alignment and coordination of their tasks. Someone needs to think about the logical ordering of tasks, and find the resources to do the work. Even perfect organisations face risks and need someone thinking about what the risks are and how they should be mitigated. No other role does this management of complexity and risk. This management tasks will always need performing on project. This is the positive justification for project managers.

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