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Why projects need managers

Photo by Horia Varlan via Flickr

Mix Master. Photo by Horia Varlan via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

I often get asked what a project manager actually does, and clients often ask why there is a project management budget included in our proposal. A lot of times I hear that a project manager is the puppeteer, pulling the strings of the marionette to make it dance across the stage. I think it’s more than that. The project manager is the chemist – grabbing all the elements and mixing them in just the right order to create the perfect finished product. Not everyone is suited to being a project manager. I think a good PM is one part listener, one part planner, one part communicator, one part “roll with it”, and one part sense of humour.

Here’s the thing: I believe every project needs a manager, no matter how big or how small, and whether it is a specific person designated to handle it (like me) or whether it is a task the consultant incorporates into the work they perform for the client.

So, why do I think every project needs a manager? Five reasons:

1. ) A project manager keeps things on time and in order.

Most of the work we do is on deadline. A client has a need, a client has a budget, and a client has an expectation about when that work should be completed. The project manager works to ensure that all of the moving parts of a larger project happen in the right order and on time. When you are cooking a meal, it isn’t just about being able to do the work of cooking – sauté the mushrooms, bake the potatoes, grill the steak – it is also about being able to do them in the right order so that a full delicious plate lands on the table on time. A project manager makes sure dinner is served on time, and all together.

2.) A project manager keeps things on budget.

Generally every project will have a budget allocated to it, and it is important to stick to that budget for financial planning. Of course, change happens. For example, we might uncover something in our research we hadn’t planned for when we developed the work plan, and if there is an impact on the budget, the Project Manager makes sure the client understands and approves the work. The budget helps allocate time and resources to a project – contractors, hard costs, and other expenses. A PM should be watching the progress on the budget, and ensuring that there are no unapproved overages.

3.) A project manager tries to predict roadblocks, and addresses them before they become problems.

This isn’t foolproof and you can’t see everything coming, but you can make informed predictions about what might be a roadblock that calls for all-out braking, versus what might just be a tiny bump in the road to absorb or what requires a controlled swerve to avoid damage. For example, if one of our writers has had a hard time tracking down an interviewee, I need to consider how that might impact the website developer, researcher, graphic designer, or other members of the team. Making smooth strategic tweaks to the work plan means the client remains happy and the work gets done.

4.) A project manager finds efficiencies, and adapts the projects accordingly.

I love cooking, and sometimes when I try a new recipe, I find a way to do two things efficiently, like grating the cheese while the potatoes boil. Other times, I might realize that it is easier if I wrangle my husband into chopping the onion while I chop the green beans – this way we will be done faster. A project manager continually seeks more efficient ways to perform the work and finish the project. This might mean delegating two tasks to one contractor or at other times, the exact opposite – dividing the work to get it done. A project manager sees ways to make the work be completed more efficiently, which ultimately improves the quality of the work done.

5.) A project manager makes sure the team, which includes the client, is happy.

We really want our clients to feel like integral members of our team because that’s how we see them!  They might not have the skills to do some of what we do, but they know their subject matter, and without them we can’t do a good job. A project manager needs to work to make sure all the moving parts in the project – such as the client, the consultants, the contractors, etc – are happy with the project and feel heard and respected. A project manager isn’t always necessarily the account manager  (it depends on the scope of the project) but the project manager needs to communicate how things are going. Everyone wants to feel like the project is going according to plan, and everyone needs to feel well-informed.


About Jen Arbo

Jen has more than a decade of experience managing projects and coordinating teams to stay on-task and on-budget. She is an experienced event coordinator, an adept copywriter and social media community manager. You can find her on Twitter at @jenarbo