From building a highway to pushing new software releases, there are millions of projects out there hugely dependent on the skilled touch of project managers. Because the field is so broad, it can be hard for an outsider to understand what does and doesn’t fit within project manager responsibilities.
As a workflow management player, Unito understands the key role that project managers play in their teams. That’s why we asked five experienced project managers for their insights on the field and their opinions on some of the most common questions about project management.
This is our first blog post in a five-part series on the role of a project manager. In the next post, we ask our PMs about project management certification. This series also covers project management skills, how to get a project management job, and project management software. Thank you to our project managers for participating in this series!
What are common project manager responsibilities?
All of our project managers agreed that they have a lot on their plate. But to really get a grasp on what a project manager actually does, it’s important to single out some of their responsibilities. Three key areas of responsibility stood out throughout our conversations:
Getting projects across the finish line
PMs manage projects; it’s in the name. In the same way that the buck stops with the CEO when something goes wrong in a company, project managers are the last line of defense for their project. When a project is stuck at a standstill, it’s up to the project manager to figure out how to get it moving again.
For Elizabeth Harrin, who has over twenty years’ experience managing projects and is the award-winning blogger behind RebelsGuidetoPM.com, that’s the most important responsibility for PMs: “Good project managers unblock tricky situations for their teams, smooth over the office politics, and give people the tools and environment they need to do their best work.” A great project manager is an enabler; they’re playing a key support role for the rest of the team.
Laurent DuBerger, an agile coach at Element AI and former project manager at Gsoft, agreed with Harrin: “The role of a project manager can really vary depending on the organization where you find yourself. But, usually, a project manager will ensure that a project is delivered according to a client’s success criteria. Essentially, success criteria are determined by what matters for each client.”
The project manager is the one keeping their eye on the light at the end of the tunnel, no matter what happens along the way. That vision is one of their main responsibilities, and part of that means ensuring deliverables match a client’s requests exactly.
Act as the go-between for clients and internal teams
Be it software development, agency work, or any other field, experts and specialists rarely go face-to-face with clients. Project managers typically act as the go-between, and for good reason. They’re the ones with the project requirements in hand, and they have the best understanding of their team’s internal workings. That makes them the best person to play middle man between clients and teams.
That’s the top responsibility that Martin Thienpont, project manager at Valtech, wanted to outline: “The project manager is the main point of contact between the client and the expert team. He’s responsible for understanding the client’s needs, as proactively as possible, to consequently brief the experts. He monitors costs, timelines, and experts’ occupation, in order to deliver the project or product as required by the clientele.”
As that go-between, it’s crucial for project managers to keep a high-level view of their respective projects while staying deeply connected with a client’s requirements and their team’s needs.
A little bit of everything
Because a project manager’s responsibilities are tied to keeping a project moving, that means not balking at the tasks needed to do so.
For DuBerger, a project manager should be ready and willing to be involved in just about every aspect of a project: “A project manager is someone who has to adapt themselves to the situation. If you need to do QA on a project because you’re going to miss a deadline, you’re doing QA. A project manager is part of a project like anyone else and has to help out. In hockey, a defenseman can get a breakaway and score a goal. So being able to adapt and being useful where needed — when needed — that’s what a project manager is.” Because project managers are ultimately responsible for delivering a project, they need the ability to switch from pure management to rolling up their sleeves and getting things done.
Cornelius Fichtner, president of OSP International and host of The Project Management Podcast, points out that a project manager’s responsibilities will vary hugely depending on their assignment: “If you’re assigned as the project manager of the 2024 Olympics, the work that you will be doing is completely different than if you are assigned to implementing new features of some sort of software that is out there.” And while managing software projects involves close work with developers and deciding what features need implementing, managing the Olympics is “mostly going to be a political assignment. You have a lot of meetings to go to, you’re meeting world leaders, you’re making sure that things are happening.”
The bottom line is that project managers have to be ready to do a bit of everything to contribute to a project’s forward momentum. And because projects are so different, that can look different from PM to PM.
What are project managers not responsible for?
Don’t get caught up in task management
Being a project manager is a leadership position. The day-to-day of a project manager is about keeping a project moving forward and aligning your team’s strengths to achieve goals and hit deliverables.
And although a project manager has to be ready to do whatever it takes to get a project done, that doesn’t mean they should be involved in every single task. A big part of being a great project manager is knowing when to be hands-on and when to take a step back.
“I would say that, generally speaking, a project manager is not really a task manager,” Fichtner explains. “A project manager should be managing the project from a little bit of a distance, but this isn’t micro-management. This is not me breathing down your neck and making sure you do everything right.” It’s crucial for a project manager to trust their team to execute their tasks.
And it’s not like project managers don’t have their own tasks to handle. Getting the project across the finish line is their responsibility, and there’s a ton of work that goes into that. As Harrin explained, “Project managers are the planners, the organizers, the communicators behind the scenes, but they don’t get involved in doing the tasks. You can schedule the work, but you won’t be doing it yourself. You’ll record, monitor, and track project risks but you won’t take steps to mitigate the risks yourself — that’s the responsibility of someone in the team.”
So while a project manager might have to pick up the slack on a certain task to get a project done, it’s not necessarily something they should make a habit of. They’ve already got enough on their plate.
Don’t hang back
Even though project managers are expected to keep an eye on their projects from a distance, that doesn’t mean they should be considered separate from it. Yes, a project manager might spend much of their time directing flow and keeping everyone moving forward, but they have to be prepared to dig in and get things done when needed.
This becomes especially true if a project is nearing a deadline and the deliverables aren’t quite ready. “The role of a project manager is to make sure a project is delivered,” DuBerger points out.“ And a PM has to remove whatever blockers come up along the way. In my experience, a PM’s role was to do everything. From pre-sale to kickoff, managing the actual project, making sure QA was taken care of, and we would even take part in QA. After that, we made sure the project was handed off to the support team. The PM is someone who takes care of their project.” This goes back to what DuBerger outlined as a project manager’s responsibilities: a little bit of everything.
For Thienpont, the image of a PM sitting back in their office is something of a misconception: “I’ve been told people think project management is only a desk job where one gets buried in administrative stuff. That’s not true for me. I’m blessed to work closely with people to face challenges and find solutions. The project manager is more deeply involved in the team’s work than one would think.”
Project managers have to walk a thin line between how involved they need to get in a project to get it done and making sure they don’t micromanage their team into inefficiency. Like many managers, one of the challenges of being a great project manager is having an accurate idea of what their team is up to without hovering over them. And on top of that, they sometimes have to get their hands dirty to get the project moving smoothly.
The “before” and “after”
While a project manager is the person to go to when a project stalls, it’s crucial to understand where the project manager’s responsibilities begin and end. Without proper planning, a project can grow into an exhausting marathon instead of a sprint.
Alexander Nowak, a marketing and business strategy consultant who managed marketing projects for five years, wants project managers to know that all the pre-work that goes into kicking off a project isn’t their responsibility. As a project manager, you don’t “make the decisions on the direction of the project. Given the role of managing projects, too many assume you’re deciding the goals, budget, priorities, and so on when, really, you’re executing the plan that is designed to most efficiently achieve these. Your role is determining the most efficient route to the finish line and guiding the team there; not setting it.” While a project manager needs to be aware of the decisions being made before a project begins, they’re not usually taking part in them.
For Harrin, it’s also important to outline where a project manager’s responsibilities end. “Project managers don’t manage the end product on an ongoing basis. Projects always end, and the thing created by the project is then managed by someone else.” The project manager’s top responsibility is getting the project to where it needs to go: delivery. But just like in a relay race, the baton then gets passed to someone else; a PM isn’t supposed to hang on to it forever.
The dos and don’ts of project management
Project managers have the herculean task of keeping a project on track and every team member on point. That’s why it can seem hard to nail down a project manager’s exact responsibilities, but a skilled PM knows exactly where to apply their knowledge and expertise.
In our second post of this series, we’ll be discussing project management certifications and their importance with our project managers, so stay tuned for that. In the meantime…
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