Why Do We Need Project Managers? A Positive Justification

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?

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.

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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.

What do you think? Why have you been employed as a project manager – and how much of your time is spent doing the “positive” aspects of project management, and how much is spent doing the “negative” related to organisational or staffing failures? I’d love to get your feedback.

Richard Newton is a consultant, author and program manager. He has published 8 books, and is the author of the best selling The Project Manager, Mastering the Art of Delivery, a book which can be found both on Amazon UK (for European readers) or Amazon US.

Related content:

Project Managers: Leaders or Managers?
Six tips for getting a new project management role
Taking Over the Project No One is Running

Comments

This is a great post! I was referred to this page from pm.stackexchange.com and this really should have more views. I like how you explicity split a PM's role into positive vs. negative tasks. For me, since I'm huge on time tracking, I can tell you that my time is split roughly into 60% of PM tasks versus 40% client specific ones (like reviewing requirements, email correspondence, creating docs, etc.).

Of the 60% of the PM portion, I hate to say it, but only 20% would be spent on the positive aspects. This is because our company doesn't have a solid process for what other team members need to do, so it falls on the PM's head to prioritize their tasks accordingly. The majority of the time is spent on reviewing daily tasks and this is due to the nature of the projects. The projects are smaller budgets ($50K - $100K) and it is expected that a PM would handle 4-5 of these on a quarterly basis.

Long story short, I totally agree that it is very difficult to explain to a client what a PM does and why he/she is needed (it might be easier to explain what would happen if a PM didn't exist). Also, your analogy of a conductor in an orchestra is perfect: A PM should NOT be the SME as that could lead to unnecessary distractions, but he/she should be knowledgeable enough to know how the project is progressing.

Hi John - thanks for your comments its always nice to get some positive feedback. We try to right stuff that is meaningful and useful for the real challenges project managers face, but is not just the ordinary things that are written everywhere else. I hope you find some other articles to your liking!

The situation when you are running smaller projects - and I expect several of them at a time - really exacerbates the sort of issues I have raised in this article. So I feel your problems! But we all operate in a real world, so your ratios of what you spend your time on don't surprise me. (But by the way I'm impressed that you actually know them - most people I know could at best make a guess!)

Richard

PMs are the most pointless resource out there... Where I work we have more PMs than workers (I'm not even joking, that's the truth!). From my experience, the PM's job is to ask the engineer what needs to be done, then repeat it back to the engineer in an assertive way in the form of an instruction. Dumb.

Not only are PMs useless, they create administrative barriers... Often they are managing things they know nothing about, so can take information and report it incorrectly or make bad decisions because they don't know what they're talking about.

A better approach would be to say: Do we actually need a PM to manage a project this small? Can the line manager manage the staff and let the staff manage their own projects?

I think the only situation we need PMs is in the case of very large projects, where there is a requirement to do some actual coordination.

Hi Richard,
I would like to answer your queries one by one:
Why have you been employed as a project manager?

Answer: I have been hired as PM because my higher management only wants to get the status or a single version of the status from a single resource, they dont want ask each and everyone to provide their work status individually, and this answer might also cover the question "Why we need PM".

Just imagine, I work in a Bank having more than 11,000 branches and almost 10,000 employees and on an avg 15 to 25 employees works simultaneously on a project, in this scenario PM has to play a vital role.

and how much of your time is spent doing the “positive” aspects of project management, and how much is spent doing the “negative” related to organisational or staffing failures?

Answer: I disagreed with the two terms "positive" or "negative", actually or in practical grounds the good PM framework or process doesn't make any difference if you don't have the management support. Sometimes your "negative" work looks good if management supports you and "Positive" work look bad if they don't support you.Its all depend on the Psyche of the management.

Hi thanks for the alternative answer. I think this is something we probably disagree about.

Regarding your first comments. It sounds like you have an important role, bringing together the reports from many projects into a single status report. But whilst doing this is important, in my view it is not project management. Project management is much more than reporting - it is about taking ownership for the delivery of a project, not just reporting on it.

As for the second comment, I think we may actually agree. I am not saying whether your work looks good or bad. I agree, even in the situations which I define as negative reasons for project managers the role performed adds value. My point was that in those negative situations there are other ways to get to the same result - primarily by better general management. But however well managed an organization is, I think it will still need project managers - those are the positive reasons.

Once again, thanks for your thoughts.