What Project Managers Do All Day?

The Project Manager's Role

Meeting room
Project Board meeting. Sam Edwards/Caiaimage/Getty Images

I’m often asked what a project manager does because the role is so wide-ranging. Here’s my take on the role of the project manager. This is what project managers do all day.

Project Managers…

Develop The Big Idea

The first job of the project manager is to develop the big idea. It hasn’t always been like this. Not that long ago project managers were expected to pick up a fully fledged idea, probably a full business case, and turn that into a project plan that could be executed.

Today, the role of the project manager has evolved somewhat, and you are likely to find yourself getting involved earlier and earlier in the project before it has even become a ‘project.'

You’ll work with the project sponsor to flesh out the idea to form an initial picture of the project and work out whether it’s feasible.

Put Together The Team

If your big idea is considered feasible, then your next step will be to put together a team who can work on turning that idea into reality. You’ll need a number of people who can fulfill various roles on a project team.

Ideally, you are looking for subject matter experts in each functional area, but you’ll also need to take availability into consideration. Project managers can’t always get the staff they want on a team because those experts are busy on other projects. If you aren’t able to wait for them to become available, you’ll have to work with the people who are available.

You won’t need everyone involved in the team all the time. Some functional experts, such as lawyers or press officers, will only need to join the team at relevant points along the way. Part of the skill of project management and resource management is making sure that you let them know their tasks are coming up and then bringing them up to speed on the project as soon as their expertise is needed.

Organizing What’s Going To Happen

During project initiation and the early start-up stages, you’ll work with your team to define exactly what needs to be done. That involves setting a clear definition for the work and making sure that everyone understands the objectives.

It’s worth phrasing all this in terms of business value or benefits: in other words, explain why you are embarking on this new piece of work.

Lead The Team

Now you’ve put together your team, and you all know what you have to achieve together, it’s the job of the project manager to ensure that all the team works together to achieve that.

It’s harder than it sounds! Successfully leading a team means negotiating the challenges of disagreements, conflict, and being on top of communications at all times. You have to motivate your team to do a great job, even when times are tough. It also involves coaching, training, mentoring and developing the people who work on the project, even if they don’t directly work for you. That’s an overhead often forgotten on projects but remember that people perform better if they feel that they are respected and encouraged to do their best work. If you can make your project a place where people grow and develop new skills, then people will want to work with you.

Leading the team also involves setting up and managing collaboration on the team. This could be through online project management tools or face-to-face team meetings, or something in between. Collaboration and building a sense of ‘team’ will help your project resources cope when there is conflict or difficult times on the project, such as a deadline that is suddenly brought forward.

Managing The Money

Projects cost money, and being able to put together a project budget is a key skill for a project manager. However, your role doesn’t end there. You need to be able to manage the money and control costs on the project going forward.

You can do this by:

  • Developing estimates that cover all the project tasks and resources required.
  • Working with your subject matter experts to make sure that these are comprehensive and complete.
  • Using your estimates to create a project budget.
  • Using your budget to explain to the project sponsor and be clear about how much the project is going to cost.

Then, throughout the project, you can manage your costs through accurate cost control. This involves comparing what you are spending in real life to the estimates and project budget that you put together. Hopefully, they aren’t too far apart, but if you notice a trend towards spending too much or incorrect estimates, then you’ll be early enough to correct it, with any luck. You can only fix what you notice, so good cost control is important.

Expert tip: Good cost control involves more than just tracking spend. You also have to monitor the amount of work being done on the project. It’s the combination of money and tasks completed that gives you a view of whether the project is spending beyond its means.

Making Decisions

Let’s get one thing straight: while the project sponsor is there for the gigantic decisions, you are the project manager and responsible for the majority of the decisions made on the project. Even the big ones. Even when you aren’t making the decision, you’ll be putting forward a recommendation for what decision you think the sponsor should take, because you have all the details and have spent ages considering it, and they might not have the ability to do that.

Engaging Stakeholders

Not that long ago, the project management literature talked about ‘stakeholder management.' Today it’s recognized that you can’t ‘manage’ a stakeholder. It’s naïve and a bit insulting to suggest that, so we talk about ‘engaging’ them instead.

In practical terms, the tools involved haven’t changed – it’s just the rhetoric and the attitude that’s different. You’ll still plot out who the stakeholders are on the project and whether they are particularly powerful or influential in relation to the work you are doing. Develop a communications plan and put it into practice.

Stakeholder engagement means working with the people who are affected by the project to ensure that they understand the changes that are coming.

Read next: Dealing with difficult stakeholders (because not everyone is going to be easy to work with).

Deliver The Project’s Objectives

You’ll do this with the involvement of your team, and it’s what all the work so far has been leading up to.

Being able to deliver effectively on what you promised relies on being very clear about what that should be. You’ll need to document key success factors and the measures that will be used to assess whether you achieved what you set out to do.

This should be set out in the project’s business case or project initiation document (or both, to varying levels of detail). Therefore it should be relatively straightforward to see what those objectives are – it’s less straightforward to make sure that you are delivering them.

Good planning, strong leadership and ability to see the big picture as well as the detail will help immensely.

Manage The Handover To Live

Delivering the project’s objectives isn’t the end of your role as a project manager. The most important thing at the end of the execution phase is to make sure that you provide a clear and complete handover to the team who are going to be managing the project going forward.

A good handover means that you can take a step back. You’ll no longer be the ‘go to’ person about the project, and you’ll be able to move on to your next project knowing that the business team is able to make the best of what you’ve delivered to them.

Share The Knowledge

‘Lessons learned’ is how we describe what was learned through the project that could be used on other initiatives in the future. The project manager should hold a lessons learned meeting at the end of the project. This helps the team grow and maintains organizational knowledge. In other words, it stops the company making the same mistakes again.

So that’s what a project manager does all day. Your actual To Do list might look a bit different from this list, but essentially all the tasks on there will contribute to these elements of being a project manager. It’s a wide-ranging and challenging job, but it’s also varied and a great career choice!