Pity the poor project manager - TechCentral

Pity the poor project manager

Matthew French

[By Matthew French] They say the best project managers only ever do one project. Then they go off and do something less stressful — like air traffic control.

Unfortunately, even with this knowledge, the field of project management attracts all sorts of people — some who are just too naive and will suffer a nervous breakdown as a result, and others with delusions of grandeur or control issues that mean they should never be let within a mile of anything that might give them a taste of authority.

More often, though, it is someone who just didn’t duck quickly enough when the call for volunteers went out.

Regardless of what kind of person a project manager happens to be, there is a good chance that they suffer from a common affliction: project managers are people too. This seems like a reasonable assumption, until you spend the third weekend in a row at the office while the project manager who messed up the timelines is fast asleep in a warm bed.

At times like these the lineage and species of the project manager will be called into question. No doubt there will also be much speculation about what dubious acts he performed to get the job.

If you do find yourself thinking nasty thoughts about your project manager, then it is important to go back to the point that project managers are, in fact, human.

This means they cannot predict the future. And they can’t be expected to understand every tiny detail of every project. In IT projects, it is unreasonable to expect a project manager to understand the implications of a seemingly insignificant technical problem nobody has told them about, even if that problem will ultimately cause a two-month delay in the project.

Having said that, project managers are not blameless. In my travels through the IT industry I have worked with a number of problematic project management styles.

The worst of these is the dictator. These are the project managers who have been put in charge and you better do what they say. Project deadlines are set in stone, and you will meet the targets because the project manager has ordained it will be so.

Any setbacks or failures are obviously because of the incompetent people the project manager has to work with. Chances are the project will be delivered late, and even then it will eventually be delivered through brute force. It doesn’t matter that nobody from the original project team is around any more. The project will be labelled a success thanks mainly to the sterling effort of the project manager, who will be promoted or given an even bigger project to run.

A less frightening and more common style is the theoretical project manager. This is someone who has bought wholesale into a particular methodology. Everything must follow a process, and if a step is missed then everything comes to a halt while the work is changed to fit the methodology.

Don’t be surprised when this project manager tells you that what you have done is wrong because it falls outside of the prescribed process. It matters not that you have delivered what was required in half the allocated time with twice the functionality.

The project will probably be delivered in the end, but only after the rest of the team figure out how to work around their project manager. This project manager will be identified as capable and will go on to manage other projects, without anyone realising the project wasn’t completed because of the project manager, but in spite of them.

Another style is the Gantt chart manager. This species is more difficult to spot because Gantt charts are a useful tool, so just because someone uses them does not mean there is a problem. However, it’s a big problem when the Gantt chart is the project. Typical symptoms include constant and obsessive optimisation of the project plan, as well as difficulty accepting that deadlines should be moved.

As a result, the project will often be delivered late, after several missed deadlines. This is assuming the project isn’t cancelled altogether or the project manager replaced. The problem this type of project manager faces is that their own schedule reveals their shortcomings. These project managers will probably go on to manage smaller projects or work for another company where their track record is not well known.

There are simply too many other negative styles to cover here, from The General — who treats competing projects as the enemy and routinely ambushes them — to the absentee project manager who is so hands-off that nobody remembers what he looks like. If you have worked on a few projects then you must have encountered a meeting manager, the kind of project manager who arranges many day-long meetings in an attempt to identify why everyone spends all their time in meetings.

Fortunately there are also positive styles — like the consultative project manager, who actually hears what the team has to say. Or there is the efficient project manager, who is so good at getting you what you need, when you need it, that you would swear he really is psychic. The problem is that the good styles are much harder to identify and might sometimes even be seen as a weakness. On the other hand, it is usually easy to identify and remember the attributes of bad project managers.

So what makes a good project manager? To answer this we have to ask what a project manager does.

The goal of a project manager is to ensure the successful completion of a project: on time, within budget and with sufficient levels of quality. That sounds easy enough, except that many projects are like trying to get from Cape Town to Cairo. In two days. On foot. Oh, and by the way we can’t afford shoes. If it were easy, why use a project manager?

Small wonder that many projects end up in a corner with their backs to the wall. By some estimates, this happens to over 70% of IT projects. When this happens, panic sets in, direct action is taken, and any negative aspects of a project manager will be amplified. Team members become slaves and the project manager a slave driver. Process and methodologies become the solution that will oil the wheels of progress and make the impossible possible. Charts showing the looming iceberg cover the walls. Dawn raids are launched on other projects so that their delays can be used as an excuse for moving the deadlines of your project.

To be a good project manager requires doing the opposite of a bad project manager. A good project manager mustn’t panic, and shouldn’t attack every problem head-on. A good project manager needs to protect his team from outside problems, while building relationships with other teams to ensure his team has everything it needs. A good project manager makes people believe in working late when they have to, but doesn’t let it become a habit. A good project manager nurses a project: comforting, cajoling and coaching where necessary.

Note how none of these attributes require the project manager to follow a methodology, or to be technically proficient in whatever is being implemented. A methodology helps, but it is simply a tool. Having experience in the products the project is using will make it easier to identify problems before they arise, but the project manager doesn’t have to be the one with the experience. The project manager just needs to know how to use the experience already available.

The problem for a good project manager is that if they are doing their job too well, then they fade into the background. Everything falls into place and it looks as if the project was easy. If they achieve this by having quiet chats over cups of coffee or by lounging around talking to people, it makes their job look even easier. It doesn’t matter that the relaxed attitude is a conscious effort to protect the team from seeing the enormous pressure they are under.

So, if your project manager seems to have it easy, remember that perceptions can be deceiving. If your project manager is a real monster, just think about how you would react in the same situation. The monster could just as easily be you.

And if you are a project manager, you have my sympathy. But I’m still not working late to meet a mythical deadline based on missing requirements.

  • French is an independent consultant with more than 20 years of experience in the IT industry


  1. After 20 years as a project manager for several blue chip companies (including banks) I have finally put it all behind me and am now running my own little business fixing pc’s. Much less stress. I have to say that in the corporate world in SA the PM has almost zero power to really influence a project. I wouldn’t go back to the days of being a PM if you offered me a telephone number salary. A certain major bank (no names but they aren’t red, green or light blue) treats PM’s as the go-between from high level steering committees who really don’t understand the project and spend an hour a week on the project, and the techies who have to do the work. The PM is powerless to move dates without steercom approval, cannot assign resources without Steercom approval, is given a budget and timeframe before a single plan is produced…… It is a thankless job that I only stuck with for the money. Now I earn less but I am a much happier person.

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