Once the project enters the implementation phase, the project manager's primary role is to monitor the progress of the project on an ongoing basis to ensure that work proceeds according to the project schedule and that expenditure is maintained within the project budget. He or she will also be required to report project status to senior management on a regular basis, and will liaise with other project stakeholders including the project client, suppliers, and sub-contractors. Other tasks with which the project manager will be closely involved include:
Part of the project manager's job involves dealing with the human aspects of project management. They will need to motivate the project team, give them a sense of purpose, and resolve conflicts between team members. The human side of project management involves leadership, as opposed to the purely administrative, technical and functional aspects of the job. As a leader, the project manager must be able to motivate people to perform to the best of their ability and gain their commitment to the project. At the same time he or she must be a good listener, provide encouragement and support when things are not going well, and attempt to remove or minimise barriers to progress. An effective leader should know when to delegate responsibility for carrying out tasks, and when to step in to shoulder some of the burden. The broad spectrum of people with whom the project manager must interact, both within and outside of their own organisation, calls for excellent communication and interpersonal skills, as well as the technical skills required to manage and monitor the project.
The "hard" skills required by project managers involve knowledge of and competence in a variety of project management techniques, many of which involve estimation and measurement and the preparation of reports and documentation. Thankfully, there are a number of project management software packages available today that make the performance of these tasks relatively painless. The effectiveness of such tools does of course depend upon the skill of the user, and the accuracy of the input data. It almost goes without saying that the project manager should be familiar with standard project management tools and techniques, and should be competent in the use of the chosen project management software. Depending on the nature of the project, he or she will also be expected to be familiar with relevant aspects of the business environment within which the project is executed, and where the project's deliverables will be used.
Many of the attributes commonly found in a good project manager are gained only by experience. The ability to develop and maintain an overview of the project as a whole, for example, without getting too bogged down in the day-to-day detail. At the same time, it is important to be aware of what is going on with each project team member, and to understand the work being undertaken in sufficient detail to be able to address issues as they arise. Decisions often have to be made without all of the information pertaining to a particular situation being available, so good judgement is also vital. The decisions made may not always be perfect, or even the right ones, but they should always be justified by sound reasoning. The project manager will be accountable for their decisions, and will have to explain their actions to senior management and other stakeholders when things do not go as planned. A reputation for being fair and having integrity is also an important attribute, particularly when dealing with project team members. People are more likely to go the extra mile for a team leader they can trust, and who has demonstrated that they will "do the right thing", even when this does not always endear them to senior management.
One commonly encountered problem for project managers is that the degree of responsibility that usually goes with the position is not always matched by a commensurate level of authority. Formal authority is vested in the title "Project Manager", but the precise definition of that authority may vary widely from one organisation to the next (or even from one project to the next). It implies that the project team members report to the project manager directly in the first instance, and are accountable to him or her for their actions. This authority sometimes, though by no means always, includes the power to hire and fire people as and when required. In the long term it may extend to the ability to influence the career prospects and remuneration of individual team members. In many cases however, such matters will be the prerogative of each team member's functional manager. Authority to set or amend the budget and allocate funds is another area where the project manager may or may not be empowered. The extent to which the project manager controls the purse strings is often a reflection of the extent to which they control the project overall, and the authority to award financial incentives to productive team members can be exploited to good effect.
Informal authority can be exercised by virtue of the project manager's demonstrable knowledge, expertise and experience. A number of other factors can also contribute to informal authority, such as social connections (otherwise known as having friends in high places), personal charisma, or simply having a personal code of conduct that is above reproach. The authority vested in the project manager, howsoever gained, should be directed towards achieving the objectives of the project. If authority is used in any other way (for example to pursue some private hidden agenda or fulfil a personal need to exercise control over others), then the overall effect on the project is likely to be negative rather than positive. That is not to say that "office politics" can be entirely avoided, but it should certainly not be allowed to cloud one's judgement.
Good negotiating skills are a huge plus for the project manager. Skilful negotiation involves knowing how much to ask for, and how much to concede when necessary, as well as an astute sense of timing. Sometimes, the timing of a request to senior management for more resources is as important as the arguments presented to justify the request (e.g. when they have just captured a major contract, or recorded an increase in profits). It often requires the use of certain other useful personal characteristics, like intuition and the ability to weigh up exactly how strong your negotiating position is. A rule of thumb when negotiating is to ask for more than you actually need and offer less than you are actually willing to concede. This will give you a margin within which to negotiate – but don't get carried away. Perhaps most importantly, a successful negotiation should leave both sides feeling as though they have achieved at least some gains. An alternative to negotiation is coercion, in which the objectives are gained simply by pulling rank or using some other form of leverage to get what you want. Be aware, however, that coercion should only be used where absolutely necessary, and when all other strategies have failed to yield results. It will not gain you many friends, and may have unforeseen (and unfavourable) repercussions at some future date.
One of the problems faced by project managers is the imposition of targets by senior management that are not based on realistic estimates, but are based instead on unrealistic expectations of what should be achievable. This creates problems when it comes to planning, particularly with regard to the project schedule. The project budget will also be affected, since the man hours required to complete the project will inevitably be underestimated if an unrealistic project deadline is set. Even assuming the project manager is not saddled with unrealistic targets, there is often a tendency for senior management to expect a high degree of accuracy in the estimation of project deadlines and budgets that is simply not achievable, given the complexity and uncertain nature of most projects. The prudent course of action when asked for estimates is to provide a realistic range of values that reflects the degree of uncertainty involved. While management will probably be less than happy with what they may perceive to be a deliberately vague forecast, predicting a range of possible outcomes is better than committing yourself to a very specific and perhaps overly optimistic forecast.
This article was first published on the TechnologyUK.net website in January 2009.