Answering the age-old question: What does a Project Manager do?

After years of working in project management, I still get asked the question: “So what does a Project Manager do?” There is an innate value judgement in the question, but I never mind answering it. That’s because the role is different in every organisation, which can lead to confusion and misconceptions.

The basics of scoping, planning and reporting on a project are widely understood, and as there are physical documents produced it’s easy to see this as the ‘do’ of Project Management. However, while these documents are invaluable, they don’t evidence a good or great Project Manager. The key differentiator between a Project Manager and a good Project Manager is in leadership, professionalism, desire, proactivity and a problem-solving mindset.

I like to compare Project Managers to Football Managers, as it’s a medium that most people engage with and understand. These managers might have star players on the field who you’d expect, on paper, to win the game. But arguably it’s always the manager who is ultimately accountable for the end result.

The manager is the person who decides which tactics and approaches to the game, and it requires strong leadership and coaching skills to create the right environment for success. When something goes wrong on the pitch, no matter which players or how many of them were involved, it’s down to the manager to identify the problem and rectify it. Tactical nous on its own isn’t enough; Managers need to be leaders, and be passionate about what they do.

Living in Newcastle, a city that lives and breathes football, we’ve arguably seen many examples of good and poor ‘Project Managers’ in the dugout; Alan Pardew was a manager widely criticised for his inability to identify and rectify errors, and never held himself accountable for shortfallings on the pitch. Rafa Benitez, while in his infancy at Newcastle United, is an infinitely more attentive manager who can take accountability and change ineffective tactics. The same is true of a good Project Manager.

The project management methodology we employ at TSG helps to structure the delivery of a project (no matter how big or small), setting clear expectations for customers and colleagues. Our methodology effectively creates a map which signposts the way ahead, a route plan that turns ideas and concepts into reality. The delivery plan and structure underpin the project as a whole, but the real value of the Project Manager is seen in their ability to problem solve when issues arise.  

Plans, schedules and highlight reports are the main tools we use to manage and evaluate projects. but when I am asked what does a Project Manager do, the simple answer is whatever it takes to achieve the projects goals. You must listen to your customer’s needs and concerns and take those into account. It’s also imperative to create realistic timescales and expectations. There’s no point telling the customer you’ll deliver a brand new ERP system in a week – that’s just not feasible. But even once your expectations are set, there’s nothing stopping you from exceeding them. That’s what we strive to do at TSG.