What Do Project Managers Do All Day?

The Project Manager's Role

Project Board meeting
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Many find themselves slightly confused about what a project manager does because the role is so wide-ranging. In a nutshell, a project manager takes on the chief responsibility of successfully initiating, designing, planning, controlling, executing, monitoring, and closing a project.

A project manager job requires someone who can wear a lot of different hats, and who has the ability to skillfully accomplish tasks through managing a team of people since many projects require more work than one person can typically handle.

Develop the Big Idea

The project manager's first job is to initiate the project by developing an idea. Historically, 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, however, the role of the project manager has evolved somewhat, and you as a project manager might find yourself getting involved in the project during the idea stage before it has become a full-fledged project.

You’ll likely work with the project's sponsor, often a high-level employee who supports the project and has enough power to provide the resources and company buy-in to get the project done. You'll work together to flesh out the idea to form an initial picture of the project and work out whether it’s feasible.

Organizing the Project Tasks

During project initiation and the early start-up stages, you’ll work with your team to figure out exactly what needs to be done. That involves clearly defining the scope of the work and the expected outcome while also detailing out all of the necessary objectives to get there.

Phrasing all this in terms of business value or benefits helps gain clarity during this process. In other words, explain why you are embarking on this new piece of work and what you expect to come out of it.

Assemble the Team

If your big idea is considered feasible, then you'll move on to putting together a team who can help bring the project idea into reality. You’ll need a number of people who can fulfill various roles on your project team.

Ideally, look for subject matter experts in each functional area of the project, but also take availability into consideration. Project managers can’t always get the staff they want on a team because those experts might be tied up on other projects in the case of consultants, or too busy with their other, regular job duties in the case of company employees. If you aren’t able to wait for them to become available, you’ll need to do your best with the people who are available.

Everyone involved in the team won't be busy all of 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.

Engaging Stakeholders

Project management literature has talked in the past about ‘stakeholder management.' Today it’s recognized that you can’t ‘manage’ a stakeholder. It seems naïve and considered a bit insulting to suggest that, so project management talk centers around ‘engaging’ them instead.

Stakeholder engagement means working with the people affected by the project to ensure that they understand the coming changes and which changes will affect them if any.

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 your project work. Develop a communications plan and put it into practice.

It's wise to develop your patience because you'll probably need to deal with a few difficult stakeholders as some are resistant to change, and others might be a challenge to work with because they don't believe in the project.

Managing the Money

Projects cost money, and one of a project manager's most important, core skills is being able to put together a project budget. Your role doesn’t end there, either, because you will need to manage the money spent and control costs on the project going forward. If you're working on a consulting basis for a client, you may also need to prepare detailed progress invoices each month or at certain phases or milestones of the project.

Manage the project's money by:

  • Developing a master budget that contains estimates to cover all the project tasks and resources required.
  • Working with your subject matter experts to make sure the budget is comprehensive and complete.
  • Using your budget to show the project costs and duties to the project sponsor, and to provide clarity on where your team sits currently, such as which phase or task they're working on and when the project will be completed.

Then, throughout the project, you can manage your costs through accurate cost tracking. This involves comparing what you are spending in real life to the estimates and project budget that you put together.

With good management, they shouldn't be too far apart, but if you notice a trend towards excessive spending or incorrect estimates, then you’ll be able to correct it before too much damage has occurred. You can only fix what you notice, so good cost control and oversight is important.

Expert tip: Good cost control involves more than just tracking spending. Monitor the amount of work being done on the project as well, since it’s the combination of money and tasks completed that gives you a view of whether the project is spending beyond its means.

Lead the Team

Now you’ve designed your project, put together your team, completed a budget, and gotten your stakeholders on board. You all know what you need to achieve together, and it’s the job of the project manager to ensure that all of the team works together to achieve that.

Successfully leading a team means negotiating the challenges of disagreements, conflict, and being on top of communications at all times. You'll need to motivate your team to do a great job, especially if times get tough.

You may also do some coaching, training, mentoring and developing of the people who work on the project, even if they don’t directly work for you. That’s an often-forgotten part of project teamwork, but people perform better when they feel that they are respected and encouraged. If you can make your project a place where people grow and develop new skills, then people will want to do their best work for 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.

Making Decisions

While you need the project sponsor to make the biggest decisions, you as the project manager have responsibility for the majority of the decisions made on the project. Even when you aren’t making a decision directly, you’ll be putting forward a recommendation for a decision you think the sponsor should make, because you have been immersed in the project and understand all of the details behind the decision, while they might not have that same level of understanding.

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. Document key success factors and the measures that will be used to assess whether you achieved what you set out to do on the project.

This should be laid out in the project’s business case or project initiation document (or both, to varying levels of detail). It should be relatively straightforward to locate the project's objectives, although it’s less straightforward to make sure that you are delivering them.

Manage the Handover

The most important thing at the end of the project execution phase is to provide a clear and complete handover to the team who will be managing the project going forward, or working with the output delivered by you and your team.

A good handover means that you can take a step back. You’ll no longer be the ‘go to’ person on the project, and you’ll be able to move onto 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’ describes what was learned from the project that could be used on other initiatives in the future. The project manager can hold a lessons-learned meeting at the end of the project. This helps the team grow and maintains organizational knowledge, while also preventing the company from making the same mistakes again.