The project manager’s job

I’m a strong believer in wide learning.  What is wide learning? That’s (somewhat) unfocused learning intended to build knowledge in a number of topics. (As opposed to focused/detailed/deep learning which is intended to build knowledge in a specific topic).  I feel that if I can get one good quote or one good point from a learning opportunity then that has been a good investment of my time.

Although I’ve been focused on writing books lately (and so haven’t written in my blogs), I’ve still kept up on my own education. One of the best ways I’ve found to do that is through TED talks. These are short 10 or 15 minute recordings of live presentations (speeches) by interesting people on interesting topics.

One of my latest discoveries is the presentation by Benjamin Zander on “The Transformative Power of Classical Music”.  I’ve included the video at the end of this article. If you have any interest in music feel free to watch it, however, the topic of the video really isn’t of importance to this article.

From the video I picked up two quotes that struck a resonance with me:

  • “The conductor of an orchestra doesn’t make a sound, he depends for his power on his ability to make other people powerful.”
  • “I realized my job was to awaken possibilities in other people”

One of my  former partners at VProz Inc. used the metaphor of conductor, band, and music to illustrate the relationship of project manager, project team, and product.  So I guess it really isn’t surprising that I realized that these quotes almost perfectly describe the job of a project manager.

“The conductor of an orchestra doesn’t make a sound, he depends for his power on his ability to make other people powerful.” 

One of my bug-a-boos with the current habit of HR to search for the purple squirrel, is that they totally miss the purpose of a project manager. It doesn’t matter if I know anything about the latest release of Salesforce CRM version 232 or Grumpy Accountant G/L 2016. And having ten years experience in a product that is only 1 month old is totally unimportant. In fact, I’ve led enough projects in enough different disciplines in enough different companies  in enough different industries to know that my knowledge of the subject matter is irrelevant. Yes, there are certain areas I back away from.  But that’s because I’m afraid of them not because I can’t do them. (e..g. I don’t do construction projects although I have done so in the past.) The problem isn’t the project, it’s my confidence in my abilities in that type of project.  The reality is that the only thing that is unique is the company. And if you are hiring externally, then there is nothing that will help you with that uniqueness.

The purpose of the project manager is two fold.

First to bring tools and understanding to the process of projects. Most managers focus on the centre of a team’s lifecycle. They bring a vision,  tools, and a paradigm that is calculated to maximize the perform stage of a team’s life.  Everything they do is based on the given that their team has no beginning and no end. It simply goes on forever. Their tools and skills are focused on continuation and a smooth flow from day to day and on into the future.

A project manager’s toolset is predicated on a different base.  The team begins under his or her guidance, lives only for a short term, and then disbands. So the tools are focused on building the team, identifying their tasks, and then saying goodbye.

One good illustration of this is that an operating manager must focus on growing their employees. They need to identify potential, and courses that will allow that potential to be reached. A project manager couldn’t care less. They identify training only so far as it is needed for the project or as part of the project. Development is an irritant. (Of course, in real life most project managers do care but that’s because they are good managers and people not because it is their responsibility.)

The second purpose of a project manger is to facilitate the efforts of his or her team.  In effect, the project manager’s job is to make the team members powerful. It is the team members who bring the knowledge of the task.  It is they who have the power to succeed or fail.  It is their efforts that cause the project to reach its goals. The project manager needs to unlock that knowledge and make them display the power that they already possess. This ability to unlock the skills is the reason that a good project manager is able to claim up to 20% (or more) of the value of a project.  And why bad project managers are responsible for 20% (or more) of the project failures.

“I realized my job was to awaken possibilities in other people”

Up until today, my catch phrase was “Your avatar in the game of business.” It was a good description of what I do. After all, my main job as a project manager is to represent the project sponsor and act on his or her behalf to accomplish the grunt work associated with running a project. A typical executive sponsor is typically too busy to actually do the work of managing a project. My job is to relieve them of drain on their time by doing most (if not all) the associated work. In some ways, I’m an executive’s assistant. Not an executive assistant — that’s a trumped up secretary title — but a true assistant. In effect, I act as an avatar. Participating and effecting change that the executive is unable to become embroiled in.

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to consider changing my tag line to “Awakening possibilities in others” or some variant.  Perhaps “Awakening possibilities through other people” would be more appropriate.

The same ex-partner at VProz described project management using the catch phrase “Innovation is the product of creativity and execution. We’re execution.” And while that is correct, the product of project management is more than just innovation. Even if you have a very broad definition of innovation (which we did), it still doesn’t take into account non-strategic projects (i.e. operational projects).

But possibilities does include both innovation and improvement. It embraces change both revolutionary and evolutionary.  The ability to see what could be and achieve that possibility.

The ultimate job of a project manager (as I’ve said) is to make his or her team express their power.  Through this power, the team can achieve goals that they never thought possible. And the product of their efforts can bring their organizations closer to achieving its goals.  It’s not the tools — they’re just a set of tools that the project manager brings to help achieve that goal. It’s the achievement of possibilities which a team is capable of if they are guided in the expression of their own power. The project manager brings those tools to bear to facilitate his or her team to express their power to achieve through motivation, planning, governance, and learning.

The ultimate job of a project manager then is to awaken possibilities through other people.

It is this ability that you need to select for. It is this ability that distinguishes the mediocre project manager from the great project manager.

Posted in Business, Entrepreneurship, Project Management, Strategic Management