What does a project manager do? (Part 3)

Continuing with my previous posts (Part 1, Part 2) about what a project manager does, here’s Part 3.

The last post got us to an answer, but it’s still very generic. So let’s add a little more detail.

A project manager communicates, organizes, and pilots:

  • What (the tasks which need to be performed)
  • Who (the persons performing, supporting, or requiring each task)
  • When (the deadlines by which each task needs to be performed)
  • Where (the environment in which the task is being completed and communicated)
  • Why (the relationship of the task to other tasks, the project as a whole, and the overall goal)

What about ‘how’? In my experience, the project manager should never define how someone performs a task. That person is performing that task because (presumably) s/he knows what s/he’s doing. Telling someone how to do their job doesn’t usually go over very well.

So here’s the answer I ultimately came up with: A project manager communicates with team members and stakeholders; organizes tasks, resources, and project details; and pilots the project toward a successful completion.

And one final addition: every project is different, which means every project manager probably defines what s/he does in a different way. So how do you define it?


What does a project manager do? (Part 2)

Continuing with my previous post attempting to explain what a project manager does, here’s Part 2.Traffic Cop by Thomas Hawk.

A project manager is like a traffic cop. She stands at a busy intersection with cars coming from all directions, going all directions. Each driver has a different path but they also share a common motivation: to get past that intersection. And the traffic cop is standing in their way.

To maintain some order and keep traffic moving, the traffic cop must do three very important things:

  • Communicate. At every point, she must communicate. To the drivers, to pedestrians, to fellow traffic cops. And not subtly either. She waves her arm repeatedly until a car is through the intersection. She blows her whistle loudly and consistently until the car across the way stops coming. She makes sure the message is clear and repeated.
  • Organize. Before stepping foot in the intersection, she needs to have a plan for how to organize all those cars. Is she going to allow two lines from opposite sides of the intersection to cross at the same time, or is she going to direct one line only, allowing them to go whatever direction they need to? If she walks into that intersection without some idea of how to organize the situation, she might as well not be there.
  • Pilot. Although she’s not the one actually steering the cars, the traffic cop has to guide each driver through the intersection and control their courses. By successfully piloting them through, the goal of a clear intersection is achieved.

So, now we have an answer: A project manager communicates, organizes, and pilots.

It’s still not a complete picture, but if you’re a project manager, would you feel comfortable giving this as a quick answer?

And if you’re not a project manager, does this answer get you any closer to understanding what one does? Or does it still sound like an Initech employee explaining his job to the Bobs?

Photo by Thomas Hawk @

What does a project manager do? (Part 1)

Orange Question Mark Button by jhhwildAlthough a lot of what I’ve done professionally is project management, I’ve never actually had the title ‘project manager.’ Perhaps that’s why I’ve never had to explain what one does; there was no prompt for people to ask. Until recently.

Someone asked my husband what I do for a living, and he found it difficult to answer. He knew what I worked on, but he realized he couldn’t explain what I actually did. So he asked me. I started to explain and he started to laugh. He said, “I’m sorry, but it sounds like the guy from Office Space that just goes back and forth between people.” I could see that, so I attempted to clarify by saying that to keep a project moving forward, someone needs to be a central figure to coordinate and communicate with others. That got an even bigger laugh from him as he reminded me of this quote:

“I have people skills; I am good at dealing with people. Can’t you understand that? What the hell is wrong with you people?”

I laughed and gave up, at least for the moment. But it got me thinking about how to explain what a project manager is, what s/he does. I’ve come up with a couple answers, which I’ll post over the next couple weeks. I hope you’ll chime in with your thoughts, too.

Photo by jjhwild @

Placing Stones

stone path by Joy Weese MollA key to successfully implementing a project is to set small expecatations. I know that. But apparently I didn’t want to remember that when I started this blog.

When setting expectations, imagine each expectation as a stone. If I place them down one at a time, I can create a path. But if I place  several down at once, I create a bunch of little piles that keep me from getting where I need to go (at least efficiently and comfortably). In setting the expectation that I would post three times a week, I created an obstacle course for myself: I get past all three, or none.

So I’m taking apart my piles and adjusting my expectation: I will post once a week. If I happen to have room for a few extra stones, I’ll put those down one at a time, too.

How about you? Are you creating paths or obstacle courses?

Photo by Joy Weese Moll @ 

Short and Sweet

One of my favorite blogs is Drew’s Marketing Minute,which recently had a post entitled “What’s your defining sentence?” Drew was promoting the idea that each of us should come up with a one-sentence answer defining what we do and making sure we do it in a way that piques someone’s interest. I admit I’m still working on mine.

In the meantime, I’m going to start doing this for each of my projects, and I think it can be a great exercise for any project manager. Think of it as your project’s elevator speech. During a 30-second elevator ride, you probably don’t have the time to describe the entire project, or more importanly, why you’re spending time on it. But by squeezing the what and why in between a capital letter and a period, you can educate and impress all at once!

So what’s the short and sweet description of your project(s)?

Final Frame

I recently discovered Dilbert mashups. Scott Adams (the brilliant mind behind Dilbert) posts one of his strips each day, and then invites you to replace the third frame with your own punch line.

Wouldn’t this be a great way to find creative and multiple solutions to a problem within a project or program? Post the first few frames of the problem/issue/situation, and then ask team members to fill in the last frame with a solution. Having only one frame in which to ‘solve’ the problem forces each person to focus and communicate their solution succinctly. The group can then browse each other’s strips and use them as springboards to find the best solution.

I haven’t had a chance to implement this, but I have done a few Dilbert mashups. I strongly encourage you to do the same – it’s a great way to energize your brain when you’re stuck on something or just need to reboot. Plus, who can pass up Dilbert?

Minimize the Mess

I once passed out while I was pouring myself a glass of milk. When I came to, one of the first things I noticed was that the milk carton and glass were sitting upright on the kitchen counter. But the last thing I remembered was both of them in my hands, so they should have been on the floor with me. My brain couldn’t keep me from falling flat on my face (literally), but it did somehow manage to keep me from having a huge mess to clean up when I got back on my feet.

That’s what a great team can do.

They may not be able to keep you from making the wrong decision or submitting something your boss absolutely hates. But they can, and in my opinion should, do what they can to minimize the mess you may find yourself in.

If you’re on a team that doesn’t take the carton and glass from your hands on the way down, here are a few ideas to keep things upright, for both yourself and others:

  • Send a note offering them whatever they need. If they accept, they’ll likely request something small you can help with, or something you could use too (like a 15-minute walk and coffee break). And if they don’t accept, that small gesture may motivate them to extend the offer to you when you need it.
  • Congratulate and compliment. When you fall on your face, it probably feels like everything is wrong, when in truth it’s just your face that’s hurting. Your feet are perfectly fine. In fact, they’re enjoying the break from holding up your weight. Remember that: when one thing is bad, other things are probably good. If a fellow team member’s face is hurting, congratulate and compliment how fantastic their feet have been. And if no one else is doing it for you, remember to do it for yourself.
  • Solicit laughter. Tell a joke, send a funny e-card, forward that video of the chameleon walking in unison with the rap song. Work is just work, though we often forget that when we’re in the midst of a mess. Seeing or hearing something funny brings us up out of that serious-stressed mode. And even if you’re the one most in need of a smile, finding something funny to share will take your mind off the mess and lessen the stress. (Okay, I swear I didn’t mean to rhyme, but now that I have, let’s say it out loud, like a rap. And now imagine a chameleon…)

What do you for team members, or what have they done for you, to minimize the mess?