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What Do Project Managers Actually Do?

I am often asked what project managers do. Sometimes, I’ve even been asked that by members of my own project team. It’s not easy to describe: My mother, when I patiently explained to her my job, replied, “That’s nice, dear.”

So what is it we do? At the highest level, we apply a set of tools and techniques to move an organization toward a goal. That goal could be to develop a new product or service, to create more effective ways of operating internally, or simply to fix some problem that has become an irritant or exploit some opportunity that has arisen. The organization hands the goal over to a project manager who then does whatever is necessary to achieve it. We are, in effect, goal achievers, turning organizational goals into reality. In doing so, we (mostly) follow proven processes and standard steps, which we modify for each particular goal or project.

At a somewhat lower level, we break the project down into four stages: Initiation, Planning, Execution, and Close-out. During the initiation stage, we find out all we can about the goal. Why does the organization want it? What are the benefits? Are there any alternatives? What are the underlying expectations and politics around this goal? One of our jobs is to ensure that, however projects get approved in this organization, this particular project follows that procedure. Good project managers are alert for smuggled projects: those that are the favorites of some senior executive, but that plunder rather than exploit the organization’s limited resources.

Once we understand the project, we now enter the planning stage. We won’t start actually running the project until the planning is complete—not counting those many times that we are called in to manage a project that is already under way and that is failing and that someone decides needs a project manager on whom to cast the blame. But I’m not bitter.

The planning consists of a set of five major steps that will produce a detailed schedule and budget. The first step is to identify all of the tasks that need to be done in order to complete the project. The tool we use to do this is called the Work Breakdown Structure or WBS, which is a top-down way of breaking the project into successively smaller steps until we end up with the actual detailed tasks.

The second planning step is to arrange these tasks in sequence. Some tasks can be done on the day the project starts, while some can’t start until others are finished. For example, you can’t build the roof until the walls are up; you can’t install the software until the hardware is running. We often arrange these tasks into a network diagram that illustrates each task and the sequence in which it is to be done. It is one of the advantages and frustrations of managing projects that some tasks can be done in parallel—you can wire the building at the same time that you’re doing the landscaping, and some can’t—until you dig the foundation, everything else has to wait.

The third planning step is to estimate the duration and effort of each task. There’s a difference between duration and effort. If you’re pouring cement and it takes two hours to pour it and twenty-four hours for it to cure, the duration is twenty-six hours—the time from when you pour the cement to when vandals can no longer immortalize themselves. On the other hand, the effort—the actual work that’s required—is just two hours. Now that we know the sequence of tasks and the duration of each one, we can come up with the schedule—almost. There’s one final step that will disrupt our carefully laid out sequence of tasks.

That fourth step is assigning people to the tasks. If we had an unlimited number of people, there wouldn’t be a problem, but, of course, we don’t and there is. The problem arises when we assign Fred to two tasks but we’ve planned that those tasks are to be done at the same time. Now what? We could clone Fred but right now, that’s not technically feasible and in most countries it’s illegal. Assuming that we can’t assign a different Fred to one of these tasks, we have to move one of them along so that Fred can do them one after the other. Of course, that will change our schedule, but it’s a necessary part of planning. We call this step “resource leveling,” because we still insist on referring to some very nice people as “resources,” despite sensitivity training.

That completes our schedule. Now how about the budget, our fifth and final step? Well, we will have to buy some things such as equipment or material or supplies or consulting or travel or training, so we had better make sure we have planned for those. We will also need to pay for the people who will carry out the project, so we had better figure out how much of their time we will need. Remember back when we estimated the effort and the duration of our tasks? We used the duration to give us the schedule. Now we use the effort to give us the budget—or at least that part of the budget that comes from having to pay for the people we will use. For each person, we simply multiply the number of hours of effort we will need by that person’s rate, then add up the results for all of our people. Add in the costs for the equipment, etc., and we have the budget.

The planning stage is complete.

Now we switch gears and enter the execution stage. And we truly do switch gears. Planning is serene, solitary, almost monastic. True, we need to consult with people so that we can build the plan, but the work is heads-down, step-by-step, analytical. Execution, on the other hand, is hectic with everything happening at once. We have to assemble a team, assign tasks to people, and track them so that we know if they’re doing their tasks on time. We have to handle problems that lurk in dark places and pounce on unsuspecting projects when the timing is perfect. We have to deal with the owner of the project who comes up with new bright ideas about how this goal can be made even better, which means we have to re-do the plan for the extra work or convince the owner that unless he wants to convert this project into a career, he should perhaps ease off on the enthusiasm. During this stage, we have to understand the status, track risks—those that are new and those that have become nastier, intervene when the project deviates from the plan, and keep the project’s owner happy.

Finally, once the project has been executed, we enter the close-out stage. This is where we hand the completed project over to the people who will accept it and use it, we set up any support or operating procedures that will be needed, we close down all of the charge codes so that nobody can bill any more time or costs to the project, and we dissolve the hard-working team so that they can abandon us and flit off to other projects. That’s when we finally get to sit down with a glass of wine or whatever other stimulant we choose, and reflect that, once more, we have moved our organization to its goal. We have fulfilled our purpose of delivering value.


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