The real role and responsibilities of Project Managers

How to make project manager’s role crystal clear:

There are many variations in interpretation of the role of a Project Manager, especially by PMs themselves.  What follows in this post is our interpretation, but it is based on what we have seen delivers by far the best results (i.e. from projects).

Origins of the Role

One of the most important aspects of the role of a project manager was the introduction of a single point responsibility for a project, namely the project manager. When this does not emerge for whatever reason, projects can struggle, or even fail.

Project Manager Competencies

Key responsibilities:

The following will vary and be influenced by project and domain, but in principle it will apply to most projects:

  • confirm the objectives and planned benefits of the project
  • define the scope of the project, and if not already in place the delivery strategy;
  • develop an effective organisation for the project including all key roles and responsibilities;
  • plan the project (with the input and often support of others);
  • develop financial and budget controls for the project;
  • define and develop the management processes to be employed (if they don’t exist and match the needs of the project already);
  • lead the team in all phases of the project;
  • ensure risks are understood and are being mitigated successfully;
  • communicate with and manage stakeholders;
  • regularly assess progress in relation to plan and implement appropriate control processes;
  • monitor project cost and budget performance (i.e. workscope achievement relative to budget);
  • ensure relevant reports (e.g. relating to progress etc.) are periodically produced;
    • more common in Customer projects – less common for internal ones
  • liaise and negotiate with any internal or external party or partner as required;
  • ensure all issues are being managed in the most timely manner;
  • develop recovery plans when a project is not expected to meet any of its targets or constraints.

The above is a fairly standard list but:

for any project based business to be successful accountabilities of project managers need also to be defined, in as clear as possible terms, as is evidenced by our post on lessons learned.

Accountabilities of Project Managers:

This is a complex question that benefits from starting with some core principles.  Project management was founded on a number of first principles, one of which was single-point-responsibility for projects.  Business life is complex and it would be unreasonable to ‘blame’ a project manager for all issues on a project, as projects by nature carry inherent uncertainty.  It would be entirely correct however, to clarify to project managers what their accountabilities are, especially if a project suffers from issues that known to be common challenges to projects.  If any of those challenges are happening or expected to, the Project Manager must address them.  Another way of expressing this is saying that PMs are responsible for creating an environment where these issues are less likely to occur.

The responsibility of a project manager is broad – when they delegate a task to anyone, they retain their accountability for the project’s success.  Great project managers understand that, and their behaviours demonstrate this.

Responsibilities of Project Managers-v-Project Boards

Some organisations (or PM methodologies) advocate having a project manager and a Project Board.  This can work but it can also complicate the role of a project manager and in worst cases, PMs end up doing little more than reporting (progress etc.) to Project Boards.  If this occurs it can be a major constraint on successful project delivery. Establishing thresholds for reporting (between PMs and Project Boards) can also be counter-productive.

Project Managers need to be, feel and behave as if they are responsible for the project’s success.

They must be responsible for developing an environment where a project can succeed, ensure transparency regarding progress and all issues (the good, the bad and the ugly) and keep the team focused on delivering the outcomes the project is intended to achieve.

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