What do project managers do?
Project management has been around since the dawn of civilization. And yet, to most laymen, the role of project management — and by extension, project managers — is not always the clearest.
The biggest contributor to this confusion could be the job’s vague requirements. Project management job descriptions saying: “Bring a level of business-focused pragmatism to technical problems”, or “Promote good business relations and communication between all parties involved”, give the impression that managing projects is something anyone can do.
The lack of understanding of what it takes to properly manage a project often leads to one of two things:
- Underqualified people filling the project manager role, or
- Qualified professionals being left unappreciated.
These two things eventually cause stress and frustration to pile on, projects to fail, and people to change careers.
This article strives to clear some of the misunderstandings, and, hopefully, help in giving project managers the recognition they deserve.
Read on to learn what project managers do, what their key qualities and responsibilities are, and what a day in the life of a project manager looks like.
Who are project managers?
Project managers are highly-organized and goal-oriented people who:
- Lead projects in ways that align with the business goals and strategies of their organization (or their client’s), and
- Try to deliver on set promises within an agreed timeframe and project budget.
It’s best to imagine them as ship captains whose purpose is to thoroughly understand both the project and the route it needs to take to reach its final destination.
The job of project managers is to steer the project in the right direction, recognize when a storm is coming and avoid it, and continuously readjust the project’s course as external factors toss it about in odd directions.
However, to properly explain how a project manager achieves all that, it’s first important to see just how much responsibility one project entails.
Project manager vs product manager
The roles of project manager and product manager often get confused due to some of their similar titles and overlapping skill sets — but it’s important to make a distinction between the two.
A product manager’s responsibility is to decide on which product is worth pursuing, understand the product, gather requirements, define its main features, and prioritize the work needed to complete the product.
A project manager’s responsibility is to organize the work that will need to be done to create that product, and make sure it gets delivered on time, within budget, and within scope.
In other words, a product manager creates a vision for the product. A project manager makes that vision come to life.
Due to a lack of skilled professionals, these two roles may sometimes be performed by the same person. But, ideally, a project has both a project manager and product manager on board.
What is a project in project management?
To better understand the roles and responsibilities of project managers, it’s best we also explain what is a project.
According to the Association for Project Management (APM), a project is “a unique, transient endeavor undertaken to achieve planned objectives, which could be defined in terms of outputs, outcomes or benefits.”
Projects have a definite beginning and end, and they consist of a string of smaller tasks that need to be completed in order to finalize the product or service.
They are normally undertaken for the purpose of supporting or furthering an organization’s business objectives and strategies.
A normal project life cycle consists of the following five project phases:
- Initiation — establishing the need for a project, establishing the project’s objectives, and getting kickoff approval from key stakeholders.
- Planning — creating a detailed guide for execution that includes the project scope, constraints, work breakdown structure (WBS), schedule, and risk analysis.
- Execution — creating deliverables.
- Monitoring and controlling — tracking the project’s progress, keeping an eye out for signs of scope creep, and course-correcting when necessary.
- Closing — getting final approvals from key stakeholders, reviewing the project, and archiving it for future reference.
Project manager key responsibilities
Seeing as project managers are in charge of managing projects, they are responsible for the projects from beginning to end; from their initiation to the end of the closing phase.
During the above-listed five project phases, the project manager must do the following:
- Define scope,
- Plan and organize tasks,
- Manage resources,
- Negotiate with contractors and suppliers,
- Assess & manage risks,
- Communicate with stakeholders,
- Manage changes,
- Document progress,
- Collect signatures, and
- Motivate people.
Let’s see what each of these responsibilities entail, in more detail.
One of the first things a project manager should do after getting a project approved is define the project scope.
The scope is the direct result of the project manager’s understanding of the project, as well as a detailed layout for all the work that needs to be done in the future. This makes definition scope a vital step in project planning. If done incorrectly, it will doom a project to failure from the very beginning.
To avoid failure caused by poor scope definition, it’s vital to prepare a detailed scope statement and get it approved by all key stakeholders.
Plan and organize tasks
Although it sounds like a one-time commitment, planning is something that has to be done continuously, throughout the entire project. It includes processes such as:
- Creating a project plan,
- Creating a project management plan,
- Creating a scope management plan,
- Creating a risk management plan,
- Creating a work breakdown structure (WBS),
- Planning report meetings, and so much more.
Planning allows project managers to:
- Form a clear idea of what needs to be done,
- How it needs to be done,
- By whom it needs to be done,
- By when it needs to be done, and
- Within what constraints.
Planning also serves to create clear guidelines for how risk, scope, change, budget, and schedules will be handled from start to finish.
Moreover, it includes allocating and prioritizing tasks, forming teams, and establishing a hierarchy so that everyone has a clear understanding of whom they should be reporting to or asking for help at any given moment.
In project management, resources refer to the bare necessities for completing a project or task, i.e.:
- Money, and
Seeing as a project manager’s resources are often limited, the ability to effectively manage them is critical.
This responsibility includes:
- Estimating and negotiating the time and cost needed to complete a project,
- Choosing the team,
- Scheduling, rearranging, and allocating resources as necessary throughout the project, so that they never run out.
Negotiate with contractors and suppliers
Many think that the job of project managers comes down to being neck-deep in paperwork, and to some extent, that’s true — but a lot of it has to do with people as well.
Negotiating contracts and rates is one of the crucial responsibilities a project manager has, and it directly correlates with the managing resources point we mentioned before.
To be good at negotiating, a project manager must have three things:
- Be good at handling people,
- Have excellent communication skills,
- And always keep in mind that negotiation is not a competition.
In other words, the goal is not to out-negotiate the other person, but to reach a mutually beneficial deal.
If a project manager is capable of securing a good deal with a reliable contractor and/or supplier, it will have wide-reaching consequences throughout the rest of the project.
Assess and manage risks
Risk assessment and management is, once again, a process, rather than a step in project management. It’s done regularly throughout the project in order to identify potential threats to its development, and either eliminate or contain them. Problems such as software bugs, supplier issues, equipment malfunction, etc. can arise at any moment, so it’s vital to stay alert.
Periodic risk assessments allow project managers to anticipate potential risks before they happen and work to prevent them ahead of time — thus reducing the possibility of scope creep, budget creep, or some of the tasks losing focus and getting sidetracked.
Communicate with stakeholders
A major responsibility project managers have is to maintain constant communication with all key stakeholders, for the duration of the project.
The point of this communication is to:
- Keep the stakeholders informed about the project’s progress,
- Gain feedback and approval regarding changes or finished deliverables, and
- Avoid major changes near the end of the project.
In theory, this sounds entirely logical, straightforward, and easy to do.
In practice, not so much.
A common occurrence in project management are stakeholders who:
- Think they know what they want,
- Think they have communicated what they want clearly at the first meeting, and
- Think that their remaining involvement in the project consists of waiting for the final product to be delivered to them.
In cases like these, project managers must be bold, assertive, and insistent. This often includes “chasing” stakeholders around in order to “drag them to a meeting” and reminding them to review and sign off on deliverables.
Failing to do this often leads to clients receiving a completely different result than they imagined — because neither side pushed hard enough to reach common ground.
Changes are an inevitable part of any project. But, just because they’re unavoidable doesn’t mean they cannot be properly managed.
In order to not let alterations wreak havoc on your schedules, it’s important to first establish a change control procedure. The goal of this procedure is to:
- Discourage people from suggesting unnecessary changes,
- Avoid scope creep, and
- Make sure only the relevant and vital changes are approved.
The change control procedure will often include a filled-out change request form. This is where the person suggesting changes is meant to justify the reasons for the change and explain the impact it will have on the project as a whole.
The form is then:
- Discussed with relevant stakeholders, and
- Either accepted or rejected.
Managing changes based on the pre-established change control plan is a process that should be continuously performed all throughout the project.
It’s not uncommon to hear project managers complaining about having to waste time on mountains of paperwork. In fact, RGPM’s survey asked their respondents about the one thing they would like to take off their to-do list, and “writing stupid reports that nobody reads” was one of the answers word-for-word.
However, though it may appear like a colossal waste of time, documenting all changes, approvals, and progress is an important part of a project manager’s job.
Some of the most important documents project managers need to write are:
- Business case,
- Project charter,
- Work breakdown structure (WBS),
- Scope statement,
- Scope management plan,
- Change request management,
- Progress reports, etc.
Even if most of them end up forgotten in some file drawer who-knows-where, each of these documents has a specific purpose. It’s always better to have them than not have them in case of emergencies, or potential legal issues.
Detailed documentation, when properly reviewed and archived, can also serve as a point of reference for similar future projects, and help prevent the issues that plagued their predecessors.
If you think you’re finished with a proposal, scope statement, an important deliverable, or even the entire project, and you don’t have all the signatures to prove it — it’s time to pay another visit to the stakeholders.
A signature at the bottom of any project management document is the sign that the document has been reviewed and approved. It serves as a formal affirmation that both you and the client agree that the work that was agreed upon is finished and that everyone is satisfied with the results.
Official sign-off prevents stakeholders from conveniently forgetting that they had approved of a certain deliverable and asking for subsequent changes. And, it can even serve as evidence in case of a legal dispute.
Project managers are not only in charge of the project and documents, they are also in charge of the people involved in the project.
So, besides a variety of hard skills needed to lead a project to completion, project managers also need a solid set of soft skills like communication and leadership, to help them connect with the teams and establish a trusting relationship.
🎓 Plaky Pro Tip
A good manager needs to master a blend of both hard and soft skills in order to properly manage a project. To learn more about what these skills are, take a look at our detailed guide on the subject.
A team of people who don’t work well together is a low-performing team. To prevent a low performance, a project manager should be skilled enough to:
- Choose compatible people to man the teams, but also
- Foster a collaborative work environment to improve employee relationships and morale.
Work on improving employee engagement
Boosting employee engagement is an important part of project management. According to research, 69% of disengaged employees would leave their job for one that offers only a 5% pay increase. Additionally, a Gallup report shows that an organization with engaged employees has a lower turnover rate and a 21% higher profit rate.
Risking employee disengagement could end up causing a slew of problems down the line, especially in long-running projects.
For example, team building exercises and workshops are one way of boosting engagement. But, if strapped for time, simply being tactful, and treating employees as human beings — rather than mere worker bees — is a good start in making the workplace more engaged and productive.
What do project managers do in different industries?
Regardless of the industry, project managers are leaders and coordinators whose main responsibility is to keep the project from going off the rails and help it reach its final destination.
However, there are slight differences in being a project manager in different industries — say, IT and HR — and this is exactly what we’ll be discussing next.
What do project managers do in IT?
Information technology is a rapidly changing field that emphasizes quick-wittedness and agility. This is why a project manager in IT must be someone who can adjust to the currents of the industry.
Much like any other project manager, a PM in the software industry is required to:
- Map out the project,
- Allocate tasks and resources,
- Schedule tasks,
- Organize workflow, and
- Communicate with stakeholders.
But, they must also be able to rapidly change direction at any moment, should the situation require it. This is why the IT sector prioritizes the agile methodology that does away with trying to contain changes. In fact, it embraces them.
This kind of framework puts PMs in a position where they have to constantly go through the planning, execution, and evaluation cycle, instead of trying to avoid scope change at every corner, as is the case with PMs in most other industries.
What do project managers do in HR?
Hiring new employees is often the first thing people think of when they think of HR. While this is an important part of an HR professional’s job, it’s only a small part of the job description. In most organizations, lead HR specialists function as project managers.
HR project managers’ jobs are more people-oriented than product-oriented. Just like with any other project manager, their responsibilities also include planning, scheduling, and executing a string of smaller tasks that eventually get the project done — but most of the time, the end result of a project is intangible.
For example, HR project managers are responsible for:
- Turning business objectives into a series of actionable plans for future projects,
- Facilitating meetings,
- Motivating and coaching team members and other team leaders,
- Writing up progress reports,
- Communicating with third parties,
- Implementing communication policies within an organization, and
- Ensure consistency and fairness regarding recruitment, termination, salary, and benefits, and their strict adherence to the law.
In the end, HR project managers are less project managers who work in HR, and more HR professionals with excellent project management skills.
What software do project managers use?
In this day and age, it would be silly to pass up on the help and opportunities that digital project management tools offer. This is why, in the 2020 Pulse of the Profession report, 44% of project leaders named digitalization, and 49% named technology advancement as the two most important areas to invest in by 2025.
Project management requires flawless organizational skills, the ability to pivot and re-synchronize tasks throughout the project’s life cycle, and keep track of the team’s progress and schedules along the way. Thanks to digital, collaborative, PM tools, this can be made faster and easier in the blink of an eye.
The simplest of these tools are some that most people are probably already familiar with:
Google Docs is an effective collaboration tool for brainstorming, creating project proposals and reports. As it allows collaboration in real-time, it’s an excellent tool for remote teams.
Google Sheets is often used in project management for planning and scheduling as it’s convenient for making Gantt charts. It’s only a visual representation of the plan and doesn’t offer any advanced features such as alerts or notifications, but team members can access the plan and update their progress at any time.
Google Slides is a convenient tool for creating presentations for meetings and rundowns, summaries, and easy-to-digest reports for busy stakeholders.
Google Drive is used as a shared digital warehouse, it’s an easy and secure way to store and share documents, plans, images, and other important files that need to be accessible to all members of the team. Dropbox is a commonly used alternative to this tool.
Clockify is a free and intuitive time-tracking tool that helps project managers organize and manage their time and that of their team in order to get through the project without missing deadlines.
Pumble is a free and modern alternative to Slack. It serves as a team communication platform that promotes collaboration and fosters an open and organized flow of information.
This helps both the team and project managers easily communicate, make arrangements, and answer questions, eliminating the need for impromptu meetings, thus saving time and boosting productivity rates.
And then, of course, there are actual project management apps, like Plaky, that boast a myriad of invaluable features such as:
- Organizing teams,
- Managing clients,
- Keeping track of progress,
- Assigning tasks,
- Creating schedules,
- Monitoring team activity,
- Creating reports,
- Easily detecting possible risks or bottlenecks,
- Collaborating and sharing documents,
- Assigning priorities,
- Monitoring changes,
- Automatically updating schedules to match changes, etc.
A good project management software enables project managers to visually organize their projects, and group all the essential information in one place. This massively simplifies and quickens the technical aspects of the job.
How to become a project manager?
If you’re thinking about becoming a project manager, you’ve chosen the right time to do so.
According to PMI’s 2021 Talent Gap Report, the world will need 25 million new project managers by the year 2030, confirming that it is indeed — as the Financial Times called it — a “virtually recession-proof” profession.
But, what exactly does it take to become a project manager?
Can anyone do it, or is it reserved for the select few with a project management degree?
These are the questions we’ll cover in the following section.
Who can become a project manager?
Just as it is with most other professions, one might end up doing exactly what they studied for, or life might throw them in a completely different direction. The same goes for project management.
While it’s incorrect to say that anyone can become a project manager, it’s safe to say that everyone has a chance to become one. All it takes is the determination to gain some experience.
Experience in project management can be gained from internships and apprenticeships. Bt it can also come from a variety of other experiences, such as volunteering, or filling in for a colleague on sick leave.
One thing an aspiring project manager should never expect, however, is to immediately land a job as a project manager.
The most common way to become a project manager is through career evolution. But it’s possible to land an internship or a junior role after learning everything you possibly can about project management and acquiring some type of a project management certification.
Project management certifications
Acquiring a project management certification is not necessary — but it certainly helps when it comes to landing a job in the field of project management if you don’t have any prior qualifications.
There is a whole slew of internationally recognized project management certifications — some of the most popular ones for people with limited experience are:
- Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM),
- Certified Project Management Practitioner (CPMP),
- Project Management Professional (PMP),
- Certified Scrum Master (CSM), and
- Agile Certified Practitioner (ACM).
Which of these is the best one for you depends entirely on your time, budget, the industry you’re aiming for, and your previous experience.
They might require a bit of initial investment — but they are entirely worth it, especially for fresh talent looking to establish some footing in this demanding profession.
While it may seem intimidating at first, qualifying, or re-qualifying to become a project manager is not impossible.
Conclusion: PMs expertly navigate projects towards success
Project managers are the unsung heroes behind every new project, behind every new building, bridge, gadget, or piece of software. It is their job to coordinate teams and act as mediators between the teams and the client to ensure everything goes smoothly — and that the project is finished within the set temporal and budgetary constraints.
Being a project manager is not something anyone can do. It takes unparalleled organizational skills, excellent communication skills, a strong and authoritative voice, and a certain kind of mental fortitude few are blessed with. However, for those who find project management to be their true calling, the job can also be extremely rewarding.
The good news is that the road to project management is open to anyone. So, if at any point in life, you decide that you are suited for this “ virtually recession-proof” position, all it takes is a little effort and the right certification to get you going.
- Businesswire. (2013, February 11). Dale Carnegie Training Uncovers Major Drivers of Employee Engagement in US Workforce.https://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20130211005999/en/Dale-Carnegie-Training-Uncovers-Major-Drivers-Employee#.VChQd2eSwuu
- Cane, A. (2011, November 3). Project managers – why they are underrated and in short supply. Financial Times. https://www.ft.com/content/0827adba-fa72-11e0-8fe7-00144feab49a
- Harrin, E. (2021). The 2021 Project Management Report. RGPM. https://rebelsguidetopm.com/project-management-statistics/
- Harter, J. (2018, August 26). Employee Engagement on the Rise in the U.S. Gallup. https://news.gallup.com/poll/241649/employee-engagement-rise.aspx
- Project Management Institute. (2017). A guide to the project management body of knowledge (6th ed.). Project Management Institute.
- Project Management Insititute. (2020). Ahead of the Curve: Forging a Future-Focused Culture. PMI. Retrieved December 28, 2021, from https://www.pmi.org/-/media/pmi/documents/public/pdf/learning/thought-leadership/pulse/pmi-pulse-2020-final.pdf?v=2a5fedd3-671a-44e1-9582-c31001b37b61&sc_lang_temp=en
- Project Management Insititute. (2021).Talent Gap: Ten-Year Employment Trends, Costs, and Global Implications. PMI. Retrieved January 20, 2022, from https://www.pmi.org/-/media/pmi/documents/public/pdf/learning/career-central/talent-gap-report-2021-finalfinal.pdf?v=a7ff5855-2b86-4578-9b7f-3dbe26d0402d&sc_lang_temp=en