The Essential Functions of a Project Manager A project manager (PM) is a facilitator. The ideal project manager does whatever it takes to ensure that the members of the project team can do their work. This means working with management to ensure they provide the resources and support required as well as dealing with team issues that are negatively impacting a team’s productivity. The project manager must possess a combination of skills including the ability to ask penetrating questions, identify unstated assumptions, and resolve personnel conflicts along with more systematic management skills.
This person is responsible for initiating, planning, executing, controlling and closing a project. The actions of a project manager should be almost unnoticeable and when a project is moving along smoothly people are sometimes tempted to question the need for a project manager. However, when you take the skilled project manager out of the mix, the project is much more likely to miss deadlines and exceed budgets. The project manager is the one who is responsible for making decisions in such a way that risk is controlled and uncertainty minimized.
Every decision made by the project manager should ideally be directly benefit the project. A successful PM must simultaneously manage the four basic elements of a project: resources (people, equipment, material), time (task duration, dependencies, critical path), money (costs, contingencies, profits), and most importantly, scope (project size, goals, profit). All these elements are interrelated. Each must be managed effectively. All must be managed together if the project, and the project manager, is to be a success.
The Scope element of a project is the most important and it is the first and last task for a successful project manager. First and foremost you have to manage the project scope. The project scope is the definition of what the project is supposed to accomplish and the budget (of time and money) that has been created to achieve these objectives. It is absolutely imperative that any change to the scope of the project have a matching change in budget, either time or resources. If the project scope is to build a building to house three widgets with a budget of $100,000 the project manager is expected to do that.
However, if the scope is changed to a building for four widgets, the project manager must obtain an appropriate change in budgeted resources. If the budget is not adjusted, the smart project manager will avoid the change in scope. Usually, scope changes occur in the form of “scope creep”. Scope creep is the piling up of small changes that by themselves are manageable, but in aggregate are significant. It is necessary to make sure any requested change, no matter how small, is accompanied by approval for a change in budget or schedule or both.
A PM cannot effectively manage the resources, time and money in a project unless you actively manage the project scope. When the project scope is clearly identified and associated to the timeline and budget, the PM can begin to manage the project resources. These include the people, equipment, and material needed to complete the project. A successful PM must effectively manage the Resources assigned to the project. This includes the labor hours of the designers, the builders, the testers and the inspectors on the project team.
It also includes managing any labor subcontracts. However, managing project resources frequently involves more than people management. The project manager must also manage the equipment used for the project and the material needed by the people and equipment assigned to the project. Managing the people resources means having the right people, with the right skills and the proper tools, in the right quantity at the right time. It also means ensuring that they know what needs to be done, when, and how. And it means motivating them to take ownership in the project too.
Managing direct employees normally means managing the senior person in each group of employees assigned to your project. These employees also have a line manager to whom they report and from whom the usually take technical direction. In a matrix management situation, like a project team, the PM’s job is to provide project direction to them. Managing labor subcontracts usually means managing the team lead for the subcontracted workers, who in turn manages the workers. The equipment a PM has to manage as part of the project depends on the nature of the project.
A project to construct a frozen food warehouse would need earth moving equipment, cranes, and cement trucks. For a project to release a new version of a computer game, the equipment would include computers, test equipment, and duplication and packaging machinery. The project management key for equipment is much like for people resources. They have to make sure workers have the right equipment in the right place at the right time and that it has the supplies it needs to operate properly. Most projects involve the purchase of material. For a frozen food arehouse, this would be freezers, the building HVAC machinery and the material handling equipment. For a project to release a music CD by a hot new artist, it would include the CD blanks, artwork for the jewel case, and press releases to be sent to deejays. The project management issue with supplies is to make sure the right supplies arrive at the right time. All the skill in managing resources won’t help, however, unless the PM can stick to the project schedule. Time management is critical in successful project management. Time management is a critically important skill for any successful project manager.
Project managers who succeed in meeting their project schedule have a good chance of staying within their project budget. The most common cause of blown project budgets is lack of schedule management. Fortunately there is a lot of software on the market today to help manage project schedule or timeline. Any project can be broken down into a number of tasks that have to be performed. To prepare the project schedule, the project manager has to figure out what the tasks are, how long they will take, what resources they require, and in what order they should be done.
Each of these elements has a direct bearing on the schedule. If a task is omitted, the project won’t be completed. If the length of time or the amount of resources required for the task is underestimated, the schedule will be missed. The schedule can also be blown if a mistake in the sequencing of the tasks is made. The PM needs to build the project schedule by listing, in order, all the tasks that need to be completed. Assign duration to each task. Allocate the required resources. Determine predecessors (what tasks must be completed before) and successors (tasks that can’t start until after) each task.
The difficulty in managing a project schedule is that there are seldom enough resources and enough time to complete the tasks sequentially. Therefore, tasks have to be overlapped so several happen at the same time. Project management software greatly simplifies the task of creating and managing the project schedule by handling the iterations in the schedule logic. When all tasks have been listed, resourced, and sequenced, it is noticeable that some tasks have a little flexibility in their required start and finish date. This is called float.
A line through all the tasks with zero float is called the critical path. All tasks on this path, and there can be multiple, parallel paths, must be completed on time if the project is to be completed on time. The Project Manager’s key time management task is to manage the critical path. Be aware, that items can be added to or removed from the critical path as circumstances change during the execution of the project. Installation of security cameras may not be on the critical path, but if the shipment is delayed, it may become part of the critical path.
Conversely, pouring the concrete foundation may be on the critical path, but if the project manager obtains an addition crew and the pour is completed early it could come off the critical path (or reduce the length of the critical path). Regardless of how well you manage the schedule and the resources, there is one more critical element called managing the budget. Often a PM is evaluated on his or her ability to complete a project within Budget. If the project resources and project schedule is managed effectively, this should not be a problem.
It is, however, a task that requires the project manager’s careful attention. Each project task will have a cost whether it is the cost of the labor hours of a computer programmer or the purchase price of a cubic yard of concrete. In preparing the project budget, each of these costs is estimated and then totaled. Some of these estimates will be more accurate than others. A company knows what it will charge each of its projects for different classifications of labor. Commodities like concrete are priced in a very competitive market so prices are fairly predictable.
Other estimates are less accurate. For instance, the cost of a conveyor system with higher performance specifications that normal can be estimated to be more expensive, but it is hard to determine whether it will be 10% more or 15% more. For an expensive item, that can be a significant amount. When the estimated cost of an item is uncertain, the project budget often includes a design allowance. This is money that is set-aside in the budget “just in case” the actual cost of the item is wildly different than the estimate.
Unusual weather or problems with suppliers are always a possibility on large projects. Companies usually include a contingency amount in the project budget to cover these kinds of things. So a project budget is composed of the estimated cost, plus the contingency and design allowance, plus any profit. The project manager’s job is to keep the actual cost at or below the estimated cost, to use as little of the design allowance and contingency as possible, and to maximize the profit the company earns on the project. To maximize the chances of meeting the project udget, the PM must meet the project schedule.
The most common cause of blown budgets is blown schedules. Meeting the project schedule won’t guarantee the project budget is met, but it significantly increases the chances. And above all, management of the project scope is detrimental. PM should not allow the project scope to “creep” upward without getting budget and/or schedule adjustments to match. Successful project management is an art and a science that takes practice. The ideas presented above can give a basic understanding of project management, but consider it is only the beginning. In order to have a successful career in project managements, it is necessary to talk to successful project managers, read, and practice to acquired experience and confidence.