What Is a Good Project Manager?

The definition of a "good project manager" varies depending on what skills you value most of this person. In this week's column, Payson Hall explores the root of the definition, highlighting the key characteristic he believes is the true hallmark of a good project manager.

When recently asked to provide a reference for a project manager I had worked with, I felt a frustrating disconnect. The person seeking the reference asked if the project had finished on time and on budget. I tried to explain that, no, the project had finished neither on time nor on budget, but the project manager was not responsible for the changing user requirements that had caused the schedule and resource expansion. In fact, I thought the project manager had been proactive about identifying the issues and communicating them to management and had done a good job overall.

As I hung up the phone, reasonably sure that the project manager had an unhappy face scribbled on his resume, it reminded me that many people have a poor understanding of what constitutes good project management. My goal here is to present the definition I prefer and, perhaps, provoke a discussion with people who have different views.

The holy PMBOK Guide defines project management as "... application of knowledge, skills, tools, and techniques to project activities to meet project requirements." People often infer from this that the measure of a good project manager is the degree to which project requirements (schedule, scope, and resources) are met. To be blunt, this is stupid. Projects are not academic or theoretical exercises that occur in a vacuum-projects are endeavors undertaken by organizations to accomplish a result that the organization perceives as valuable. Identification, prioritization, selection, and performance of projects occur in the context of the sponsoring organization's situation and goals. This means that project requirements are rarely static; they evolve with the passage of time, better understanding of the project boundaries, changes in the environment, and changes in the sponsoring organization.

Managing requirements is a key project management skill, but what does that mean? I think it means:

    • Getting requirements written down and agreed upon to establish a baseline for project schedule, scope, and resources
    • Avoiding optional or capricious requirements changes that are inconsistent with the sponsoring organizations goals
    • Assuring that requirement changes that are not optional or that the organization finds valuable are accepted as a conscious choice by the sponsoring organization, cognizant of the schedule and cost implications of the change

It would be easy to read that prior paragraph and say, "OK, definition and change control are important," but I think the core of project management is actually hiding in a subtlety of change control-the bit about "conscious choice."

We probably would agree that an important component of being a good project manager is having a working knowledge of the techniques, tools, and processes of the project manager, but those are intended to help project managers accomplish their most important job: supporting informed sponsor decision making.

A project's sponsors are the executive representatives of the project's sponsoring organization. Only a project's sponsors can determine:

    • That a project is worth doing
    • That a project is "worth the risk"
    • That a proposed change and its consequences are acceptable
    • That, given what is known about project status, it is in the organization's best interests to continue the project

The project manager's primary role is to use project management practices to support these sponsor decisions. Therefore a "good project manager" is someone who has sufficient knowledge, experience, and skill to define, plan, and manage the project and has sufficient integrity, tact, and communication skill to assure that sponsors have timely and accurate information to support their decision making.

A good friend captured the role of a good project manager in an interaction with his sponsor several years ago: "I didn't invent reality. You pay me to explain it to you."

What do you think? Is there something more important than supporting good sponsor decisions? Would you think this if you were the project's sponsor?

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