Understanding the World of Project Management – The Project Manager

The world of Project Management

Welcome to our monthly blog series where we aim to better understand the world of Project Management. Each month we look at a different role connected with the Project Management Office (PMO), exploring what it typically involves and how to get into the field. We also speak with someone who has actually done the job; we find out how they got into it and ask for their take on what skills are needed to succeed in the role. This month we discuss what it’s like to be a Project Manager.  

Project Manager

The term project manager has become commonplace in most organisations in recent years; but while it’s now a familiar term, there still remains a lot of misunderstanding about what a project manager actually does, and their role in an organisation. Project management isn’t just about using fancy software to create Gantt charts (although that is a common aspect); it’s a diverse role that incorporates a huge number of different aspects. The exact responsibilities will vary depending on the specific organisation, but below we discuss some of the typical tasks a PM will be responsible for, and explore how to get into the field.

What does a Project Manager actually do?

In essence a Project Manager is responsible for making sure that any project they are managing is completed on time, on budget and to a high standard. But to achieve this, there are a number of distinct tasks that will have to be carried out. A Project Manager’s input will be required before, during and after completion of a project:

Before

Prior to the commencement of a project, the PM will have to meet with the relevant people to discuss and agree the project’s objectives, set the budget and agree a timeline. They will have to prepare a schedule and do a comprehensive risk analysis to anticipate and mitigate as many potential risks as possible. They are often also responsible for resource management, which may include selecting and briefing the direct project team (i.e. those responsible for completing the project). In addition to this, it is not uncommon for project managers to create the process and procedure documents associated with a specific project, which they will need to get approved and distributed to the relevant individuals.

During

When the project is underway, the PM is responsible for progress measurement and reporting. This will usually involve meeting with project teams to see whether it is being completed according to the objectives and within the timeframe and budget specified. If this is not the case, the PM will have to assess what corrective action to take and update plans and the schedule to ensure successful project completion. The PM also needs to ensure that there is effective configuration control, quality assurance and supplier management.

After

Once a project has been completed, the PM will typically have to deliver a complete report on the project’s overall status. This will include looking at whether it was completed according to the planned objectives, and if it adhered to the expected budget and timescale. If the project is part of a wider programme, the PM will likely have to report on how the results of the project may impact the wider programme, and comment on the feasibility of completion. If the project is expected to produce further benefits after completion, plans to measure these will need to be put in place.

While all of the above is happening, a PM will also be responsible for managing their direct team, tracking project progress, and managing finances for their projects (including Purchase Orders and Invoicing). Depending on the organisation, PMO set-up and size of the project, a PM may be working on numerous projects at the same time, or may be managing one very large project independently.

Where do they work?

Due to the huge growth within the field, Project Managers can be found in virtually every industry, but they remain prominent in sectors such as construction, IT, engineering, and manufacturing. They work in public, private and third sector organisations and depending on their experience and preference may work full time, part time, or in freelance or consultant roles. Experts are predicting a huge spike in demand for PMs in the coming years, and more and more industries are coming to recognise the benefits of having a dedicated PM available to support the delivery of important projects.

What do they need to know?

Despite what many believe, you don’t have to have a formal qualification to become a Project Manager. Some people elect to get qualifications to help develop their skills, but this isn’t necessary, some PMs will learn the trade through direct experience. Additionally, there is no requirement to attend an accredited PM course (e.g. PRINCE2, APM) in order to gain qualifications, and many people choose to attend non-accredited courses as they still provide individuals with the necessary information, but are typically cheaper. The most important thing that a PM needs to know is how to work effectively with people, how to communicate well and how to plan things in the most efficient way. However, knowledge of relevant software (e.g. Microsoft Project) and Project Management methodologies is also useful to have, and will help when seeking employment as a PM.

How do they fit into the PMO?

Depending on the set up a Project Manager may be the most senior person within a PMO, or they may simply be a contributing member managed by someone else. However, regardless of their level of seniority, Project Managers are essential members of a PMO, and will be closely linked and will work with virtually all other members of the team in some capacity, whether directly managing them or simply in a collaborative context.

PMO Profile

Ian_Foster_Photo

Name

Ian Foster

Job Title

Programme Manager

Company

Cranfield Aerospace Limited

How long have you worked there?

One Year

Describe a typical day

I wouldn’t say there is typical day, but there are definitely a few regular things that need doing. These include various reviews and the monthly reporting cycle. Each month I have to report on the status of the project to relevant stakeholders, let them know how the project is progressing and discuss what is going right or wrong with it. So throughout the month I’d be collecting data on the project so I can report about it. Most days I do a lot of planning, problem solving and whatever else is necessary to keep the projects on track! It’s even harder to describe a typical day as it’s actually a dual role within the company. In one capacity I act as a Project Manager and am responsible for specific projects, working with project teams that report directly to me; but in tandem with this is the Programme Manager role in which I manage the entire portfolio of projects. As a programme manager I’m responsible for managing the other project managers and providing support, guidance and advice, and ensuring we all adhere to the relevant governance processes.

How did you get into it?

I’ve been a project manager for 20 years, but originally graduated with a Maths and Computing degree and used that to get my first role as a software engineer. From here I was able to progress to team leader and then technical lead roles, which allowed me to make the transition into project management. My first PM role was working for a defence and aerospace company managing a project to develop computer based training software for pilots. Using this as a starting point I continued to work in aerospace and defence organisations, managing increasingly complex projects, which eventually led to my role with Cranfield Aerospace.

What’s your favourite thing about your job?

There are two things I like most; first is the achievement you feel when a project is completed, especially when you’re creating something tangible-it’s really satisfying when it goes right. The second thing I love is the variety of the role – no two projects are ever the same; I’ve worked on small projects, big projects, in consultancy roles, research projects and transformation programmes. It never gets boring.

Most important skills

I think two of the most important ones are a logical mind and the ability to problem solve – these are key to understand the fundamentals of project management. But you also really need to have good people skills – it doesn’t matter how well you can plan and problem solve; if you can’t engage and motivate people, then it won’t matter. Related to this is the ability to read people and be ready to ask awkward questions, because people won’t always want to tell you when there’s a problem, you have to use your ability to read people to decipher the truth sometimes. To help avoid this, establishing a culture of openness and a blame-free environment is important. This relates to another key skill which is leadership. You need to lead by example in project management, and use your enthusiasm and energy to inspire those around you.

Ian’s Top Skills

  • Logical mind
  • Problem solving
  • Leadership
  • People skills and relationship building

Ian is a member of the Association for Project Management (APM). He has passed the APM Professional and Practitioner Qualification and is taking his PRINCE2 Foundation and Practitioner Exams shortly.

Being a Project Manager is a diverse and dynamic role, and it offers virtually limitless possibilities in terms of where an individual can work and what type of projects they can become involved in.  We hope this blog has given you a brief insight into what it’s like to be a Project Manager; next month we explore the role of a Planner and their input in a PMO.

As ever, if you have any questions or comments about our blogs, please feel free to get in touch, we’d love to hear from you!