It’s a question I have frequently been asked in my career. The answer may seem obvious. A project manager manages a project; but what does this really mean? Is a project manager sitting in an office, walking around, out on site, checking a plan, undertaking tasks? Perhaps all of these and more.
When I was at DMR Consulting we had a useful aide memoire called the Four Ares. These were four basic questions that neatly summarised what a project manager should be focussing on: Are we doing the right things? Are we doing them well? Are we getting them done? Are we deriving the benefit?
The first of these (Are we doing the right things?) looks at how well the stakeholder requirements have been set, agreed and translated, via the Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) into the project plan. It’s an important up-front activity in a project, but it has to be right.
It’s no good having doubts about requirements when a project is well underway. Of course, there’s always change control after the plan is frozen, but it’s not something you want to routinely activate.
In my experience most stakeholders don’t like change control anyway and will always try to circumvent it by getting you to squeeze a few more things into the plan, stretch the budget or compress the timelines. It’s as if they think of you as some kind of magician.
Now there’s a thought: the project manager as magician! Well we do seem to be regularly pulling things out of a hat!
The second of the Ares (Are we doing them well?) is very much about quality. It’s also where things like Earned Value have a part to play. Is the plan being managed efficiently and effectively with the resources and budget allocated?
It’s certainly where a project manager could make savings in terms of time and cost. Perhaps this is where the magic comes in!
It certainly demands time and attention with careful analysis, rather than trusting to luck. Of course, there should always be a quality plan, even for a project with soft deliverables. Regular dialogue with stakeholders will ensure that their expectations of quality are being met.
The third Are (Are we getting them done?) is about progress. Checking progress against a project plan is a basic project manager role, but it is only a step in a process that includes the next Are (Are we deriving the benefit?) and links to the previous Are (Are we doing them well?).
This holistic view is needed to prevent a tick-in-the-box process of merely recording progress. The completion of a task, however well executed, does not necessarily mean that the end result will meet stakeholder expectations.
It would certainly be a bit of a shock if it didn’t, which is why expectation management has to be an ongoing activity. Benefits, however, is a debateable subject in project management. How many project managers feel they need to manage benefits?
Doesn’t their job end with the handover of the final deliverables? In reality, benefits can only be seen some time after project completion, when users are utilising the deliverables from day to day.
In a programme environment there is an expectation that benefits will be managed within the programme, since the programme sees many projects come and go and remains until the strategy in fulfilled.
A programme strategy is only complete when benefits can be demonstrated. Most project managers though must be content to ensure that the capability to achieve the benefits stated in the Project Business Case can be provided, and this can only be done through good quality and stakeholder management.
So, given the four Ares there is plenty for a project manager to do all day. Wrapped around all of these are processes such as risk and issue management, resources management and project governance, so perhaps a project manager needs to be a magician after all!