If you ask 10 project managers to give a definition of their role, you most likely will end up with 10 different descriptions ranging from project admin and task master to program manager. In marketing terms, our profession has an image problem: there is no standard job description and most people have no clue what we do. If I am at a party and the unavoidable question comes up “what do you do?” I cannot just say “I’m a project manager” since in general the other party will have the deer-in-the-headlights look on their face, so I always end up mumbling something vague like “I organize and manage all kind of stuff to help companies get a project from the start to finish”. My friends who are accountants, question-199x208lawyers, engineers or yoga teachers never seem to have this problem.

I have to admit: this problem was way worse 10 years ago, but we are still far from where we need to be. The definition you find in the PMBOK is also not very clarifying: “a project manager is the person assigned by the performing organization to achieve the project objectives”. I wonder how well that will go over next time I am asked what I do for a living.

What is it that we do? We plan, organize and manage resources to successfully achieve the specific project goals that were identified at the beginning of the project. Depending on the situation we act like traffic cops, parents, sergeants, and managers. In today’s world, I personally believe our role is more and more that of a coach. Coaches are part teacher, part counselor and part conscience. Think about it:

  • We help our customers clarify their goals and requirements in specific and measurable language
  • We teach our executives to set priorities and to understand the dynamics of the triple constraint
    – If budget gets reduced, either scope needs to be reduced or time added for delivery
    – If requirements get added, other requirements need to be removed or budget and/or time needs to be increased
    – Etc.
  • We highlight risk and issues of the direction taken and decisions to be made
  • We continuously build relationships and manage expectations to ensure project success
  • We empower our team to perform at their best and are there for them to remove roadblocks

We achieve most through active listening: we need to figure out how a team member “works” so we know how to motivate them, how to critique them and how far they can be “pushed”. Our objective is to build trust so people will listen to us and they feel comfortable confiding in us any concerns they might have since these concerns are most likely risk and issues our project is facing.

As coaches, we take pride in the success of the team. We should leave our ego at the door: it is not about us, it is about the team and the project result.

I would love to hear your feedback on what you think a project manager is.