What is a project manager?

I was having dinner with my family a few years back and there were multiple conversations going on. My brother starts talking about a project to his son and says “talk to Uncle Brian about that. He’s a project manager.” To which my 12 year old nephew looks at me and asks “What’s a project manager?” I thought about it for a second and the only response I could come up with was “…Exactly”.

So what is a project manager and why do I hate them so much? The thing about project managers… most people have the wrong idea about what makes a successful project manager. Most of the people I have talked to are looking for someone who is overly organized and process driven with great date keeping and note taking skills. These are all great and important skills to have and definitely skills to fall back on, but they do not replace problem solving, understanding, a strategic mindset, the ability to foster relationships, drive and flexibility. I can categorize most of the project managers that I have worked with in one of two categories; those focusing on standard PMP practices managing in an unyielding manner and those who don’t really know what they are doing they just run around and follow up on people and tasks and try and force a project to the finish line.

You can manage a project with a strict PMP process but you have to understand the project to know when you need to apply specific tools. From what I have seen, project management process only lives completely in tact in two places, in theory and in projects that end up delivering something that doesn’t exactly meet the business’s needs. In contrast, it should be used to help guide a project and map out all of the pitfalls so that things can be planned and accounted for but retain some flexibility when things don’t go according to plan or complications come up. Now to clarify, strict process can work when you have regimented projects that don’t change much, but when you are implementing a strategic, custom project, you need to have flexibility and know that there are going to be things that aren’t planned for. You have to weigh the overhead of how heavy the process is with how flexible and nimble the business needs the project to be.

The second type of project manager runs projects without understanding the principles of project management so they are almost always over budget and delayed in launch. These PMs are usually good problem solvers but after the project kickoff, they are usually reactionary to everything because nothing is planned or documented. The other thing with a lot of these project managers is they do tend tend to deliver what the business asked for, but it often doesn’t align back to the main business goals and objectives, or it is so customized that maintenance will be an issue throughout the life of the product.

The ideal project manager for web projects has a balance of the two, but also has a vast understanding of the high-level business goals and objectives and a working understanding of marketing strategy. When you mix these elements together in the right amounts you end up with a project manager that can plan a project, remain flexible to problem solve when a project gets a curveball and can also help manage the business team keeping them in check with their requirements to make sure they all align with the goals and objects of the reason the project was kicked off in the first place. I often say that I would rather be a successful project manager than a good project manager. They do exist, you just need to know what to look for.

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