During a recent conversation with a colleague about the qualities of a project manager, I decided to explore various organizations’ standards regarding the “role of a project manager.” Here’s what I discovered.
My initial source was PMI’s PMBOK Guide Version 5, which states on page 17 that project managers are responsible for satisfying task needs, team needs, and individual needs. It also mentions that the project manager’s role becomes increasingly strategic, but merely understanding and applying good practices is not enough for effective project management. I must admit, after reading this multiple times, I found it somewhat confusing.
To illustrate my point, let’s replace “project manager” with “airline pilot.” Pilots also need to fulfill needs related to tasks, teams, and individuals. We could say, “A pilot’s role becomes increasingly strategic. However, understanding and applying good practices in aviation is not sufficient for effective piloting.” Do you see the parallel?
Next, I examined Axelos’ description of PRINCE2. According to them, the project manager is solely responsible for the day-to-day management of a project and has the authority to run it within the constraints set by the Project Board.
This description seems like stating the obvious. Even a third-grader could tell you that a project manager manages projects.
It appears that most definitions and descriptions, including the ones I mentioned, effectively portray project managers as mere followers of orders, akin to stormtroopers. This notion is absurd.
Climbing on my soapbox
Based on my 20+ years of experience managing and directing government, aerospace, IT, financial, and legal projects, leading GPM, and serving as President for the U.S. member association of the International Project Management Association (IPMA-USA), I would like to provide a concise and practical description.
Before I do that, I must acknowledge my general agreement with GAPPS when they assert that defining the project manager role across different organizations, application areas, and project types poses challenges. Nevertheless, these challenges should not prevent us from offering a clear role definition. They should, however, emphasize the importance of simplicity and sensibility in such a description.
Use the Force or follow orders?
I believe it’s time for project managers to resemble Jedi rather than stormtroopers. Why? A Jedi possesses five key traits: reliability, objectivity, humility, patience, and wisdom, all of which are essential for achieving positive results.
Think of the classic line from The Empire Strikes Back, where Yoda instructs Luke, saying, “Do. Or do not. There is no try.” This means wholeheartedly committing oneself to a task, regardless of the outcome. This is the kind of project manager I would hire.
Now, compare that with a scene from The Force Awakens, where Captain Phasma addresses Finn upon his return from his first battle, finding he hadn’t fired his blaster.
Compare with the scene in The Force Awakens where Captain Phasma addresses Finn when he returned from his first battle, having not fired his blaster.
Captain Phasma: FN-2187, submit your blaster for inspection.
Finn: Yes, Captain.
Captain Phasma: And who gave you permission to remove that helmet?
Finn: I am sorry captain
Captain Phasma: Report to my division at once
A stormtrooper’s traits are limited to “don’t stick out” and “shoot when told.” This approach focuses solely on output and requires nothing more than task management skills. This is not the kind of project manager I would hire.
So, without further ado, here is my short and sweet 16 word definition.
“The role of the project manager is to ensure successful delivery of the project business case.”
Was that so hard? No.
I chose to word it this way because the business case serves as a vital test of the project’s viability. It is used to secure funding and should be actively maintained throughout the project’s lifespan, continuously updated with current information on costs, risks, benefits, and impacts. If the project’s goal is to realize the business case, it goes without saying that the project manager’s role is to ensure the realization of those benefits, relying on their skills, abilities, and knowledge. It isn’t “do what you are told.”
So ask yourself, are you a Stormtrooper or a Jedi?
If you are stuck in the command and conquer role and want to be a jedi, it is possible. The first step is to request the business case to aid you in decision making.
The business case gives you a solid and detailed justification for starting a project. It lays out the project’s goals, what it aims to achieve, and all the costs, risks, and benefits involved.
This helps everyone involved make smart decisions about whether to go ahead with the project and invest in it. On the other hand, a project charter usually just gives you a high-level overview of the project without getting into the nitty-gritty financial and strategic stuff.
Another big advantage of a project business case is that it shows how the project aligns with the bigger goals and priorities of the organization. It’s all about making sure the project fits in with the organization’s overall strategy and contributes to its success. The business case spells out the expected benefits and explains how the project will help achieve those benefits.
This is way more powerful than a project charter, which is basically just a quick document to authorize the project. So if you want to make sure your project is on track and delivering real value, a project business case is the way to go.
May the Force be With You!
Related: For a deeper perspective on output vs benefits focus, see Peter Milsom’s excellent post. To get the Jedi’s PM weapon, download our P5 Standard for Sustainability in Project Management. It’s free!