27 November, 2023

Project Manager Role: A Comprehensive Guide to the Keys for Success


The role of the project manager is a big one. There are lots of things you need to do. So, do you fully understand the scope of your role and its responsibilities?

Unless your answer is a full-throated ‘YES!’, then this is the article for you. We’ll look at three things:

  1. Why it matters
  2. How various different organizations approach the Project Manager role
  3. What the components are

How We’ll Explore the Role of the Project Manager

Those three things turn into seven sections, when we take account of five major Project Management organizations: PMI, APM, IAPM, IPMA, and the PRINCE2 approach of Axelos. You can jump to a section that interests you here:

We also have a companion article to this one, that takes a more formal look at the Project Manager’s Job Description: ‘What You Need to Know about the Project Manager Job Description’.

Want a Quick Intro?

Here’s a compressed video version of this article.

Project Manager Role - A Comprehensive Guide to the Keys for Success

Why Talk about the Role of the Project Manager?

Can’t we just get on with the job? Well, yes you can. And often that’s all that matters. But there are good reasons why you may want to think about your role. And I’ll list the ones I think matter:

  1. Qualification Exams.
    This is my least important reason. But then, if you are studying for a major PM exam, and this is on your syllabus, it’ll seem pretty important to you. And two things will matter:
    • You need to have a rounded understanding of the topic
    • Also, you’ll need to appreciate the perspective that the examination body has on the topic. I’ll cover the main players below.
  2. Defining your project’s Governance and the Terms of Reference of key roles.
    As regular readers will know, here at OnlinePMCourses, I’m a big advocate of robust project governance. And setting terms of reference for key players is a vital part of this. And who is more key than the Project Manager?
  3. Understand what you’re signing up for.
    For many professionals, Project Management is a long-term career commitment. So, if you are to take it on, you need to know what exactly to are committing to.
  4. Set a measure of how well you perform your job.
    We all want to do our jobs well. But without a clear role description, how can you assess your performance? You cannot. Understanding the Project Manager role will allow you to work with your boss to define the role you will have – and be measured against.

So, if I’ve persuaded you that this is all worth your while, let’s look at what the various big players in the profession have to say about your role. We’ll start with the biggest, globally: the Project Management Institute (PMI).

Defining the Role of the Project Manager according to different PM Organizations

The PMI’s PMBOK Guide on the Role of the Project Manager

Every four years or so, the PMI sets out its thinking on Project Management in its Project Management Body of Knowledge, the PMBOK Guide. This contains both the United States standard for Project Management from ANSI* and PMI’s assessment of the knowledge you need.
* ANSI: American National Standards Institute

The current (7th) edition of PMI’s Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (the PMBOK Guide) no longer has a section on ‘The Role of the Project Manager’, which appeared in the previous, 6th, edition. But PMI retains this information in its online repository, PMIstandards+.

However, what the 7th edition does have are:

  1. In the standards section, an articulation of 12 Principles
    We can see the Project Manager’s role as being to uphold these principles and put them to work.
  2. In the Guide to the Body of Knowledge, details of 8 Project Performance Domains
    Clearly, a Project Manager’s role is to deliver performance in these eight domains.

If you want more details on any of this, we have detailed articles on:

What follows is my interpretation of the PMI’s ideas.

The Structure of the PMBOK Guide’s Assessment of the Project Manager Role

  1. Overview
    PMI adopts the analogy of a Project Manager as the conductor of an Orchestra. It think it’s a strong and helpful metaphor, for anyone familiar with how orchestras work. In passing, I’ll note that this is the risk of analogies: if readers don’t know the source, then the analogy is not helpful.
  2. Definition
    This amounts to one sentence – a clunky one at that. I’ll quote it below.
  3. Project Manager’s Sphere of Influence
    Here PMI uses the metaphor of nested circles. Not only does this work well as a way of explaining the Project Manager role. I also think this section is the real meat of PMI’s approach, in terms of answering the question it poses.
  4. Project Manager Competencies
    PMI uses its Talent Triangle to articulate the competencies we need. While I don’t disagree with the three corners of the triangle, competencies and a role are different things. More on this later.
  5. Performing Integration
    While this section does seem to speak about role, it focuses on the integration role. I think this is a valuable section, which reads to me like an afterthought. Some of the statements suggest work to be done.
  6. PMI’s 12 Project Management Principles
    The Principles of PMBOK 7 set out 12 responsibilities that, to my mind, go a long way to defining the role of the Project Manager.

Overview

The PMBOK Guide pursues the Orchestra Conductor analogy through three domains:

  1. Membership (of the team) and roles
  2. Responsibility for the team
  3. Knowledge and Skills

Definition

At the end of one short paragraph is the one sentence that matters:

‘The project manager is the person assigned by the performing organization to lead the team that is responsible for achieving the project objectives.’

PMI Project Management Body of Knowledge, Sixth Edition, Chapter 3, section 3.2

In passing, I’ll note that what I particularly like about this definition is that it explicitly makes the team responsible for achieving the project objectives. That’s not you, the Project Manager. Nor is it the Project Sponsor, Executive, or Senior Responsible Owner (SRO) – as in PRINCE2. I like that!

Project Manager’s Sphere of Influence

To properly understand the PMI’s perspective on the role of a Project Manager, this is key. PMI uses a graphical metaphor of nested circles to represent spheres of influence:

  • Themselves
  • Their project team and peer group
  • The governance tiers around their project
  • Various stakeholder groups that interact with their project

But, strangely, the text takes a different perspective. It classifies project management roles under:

  • Project
  • Organization
  • Industry
  • Professional discipline
  • Across disciplines (towards other professions)

Project Manager Competencies

I said earlier that I see competencies and roles as two different things. For me:

Project Management competencies set out what you need to be able to do, to fulfill your Project Manager role properly via @OnlinePMCourses Click To Tweet

The PMBOK uses the PMI’s excellent Talent Triangle framework to outline the competencies of a Project Manager. This is far from a detailed assessment, and for more on this, you may like to look at our feature article on the PMI Talent Triangle. The three sides of the Talent Triangle are:

  1. Ways of Working (the technical skills of Project Management)
  2. Power Skills (formerly Leadership – these are soft skills like communication and collaboration)
  3. Business Acumen (an understanding of the wider business environment)

Performing Integration

PMI also identifies a key role in integrating:

  • Different aspects of the project with one another: ‘Project Integration’
  • The project with wider activities of the organization at program, portfolio, and operational levels: ‘Strategic Integration’

The section looks at three different levels, but principally directs us to the Project Integration Knowledge Area. Those levels are:

  • Process Level:
    linking together the different project processes that need to work together
  • Cognitive Level:
    mentally understanding how all the aspects of a project and of project management fit together
  • Context Level:
    the wider environment of the project, its domain, and the social, regulatory, technological, and commercial contexts in which it sits.

The section (and chapter) ends with some interesting thoughts about your role with respect to the complexity of your project.

Project Management Principles

All I need to do is share the PMI’s 12 Project Management Principles:

  1. Be a diligent, respectful, and caring steward 
    This is about social, environmental, and financial responsibility, and your integrity and ethics.
  2. Create a collaborative project team environment
    This is about harnessing the diversity of your team for effective and efficient working.
  3. Effectively engage with stakeholders
    This is about positive engagement with your stakeholders, to deliver outcomes they will value.
  4. Focus on value
    This is about meeting business objectives and delivering benefits that exceed the costs of delivering your project.
  5. Recognize, evaluate, and respond to system interactions
    This is about systems thinking, and seeing the interdependence of components, to integrate your approach.
  6. Demonstrate leadership behaviors
    This is about Project Leadership and adapting to the needs of different groups of followers in your team and among stakeholders.
  7. Tailor based on context
    This is about adapting our approach to the environment, scale, complexity, team capability, risk level, priority, and other factors.
  8. Build quality into processes and deliverables
    This is about knowing the needs of your stakeholders and creating procedures to ensure you meet them.
  9. Navigate complexity
    The system interactions in Principle 5 create complexity – as does human behavior and the uncertainty and changeability of the situations in which we operate.
  10. Optimize risk responses
    This means understanding the levels and types of risks and working to both mitigate negative impacts and optimize opportunities.
  11. Embrace adaptability and resiliency
    This is about recognizing the need and developing the ability of respond positively to change in general and setbacks in particular.
  12. Enable change to achieve the envisioned future state
    This principle creates the link from Project Management to Change Management. 

How the APM Body of Knowledge Tackles the Role of the Project Manager

In the UK and some Commonwealth countries, it is the Association for Project Management (APM) that is the pre-eminent professional body. The APM takes a very different approach to the PMI in setting out the APM Body of Knowledge, the APMBoK.

The 7th edition of the APMBoK has nothing explicit to say about the role of the Project Manager. It does say a lot implicitly, though, through its contents. It merely defines a Project Professional, thus:

‘The term used to describe those people in roles associated with the management of projects, programmes or portfolios’

APM Body of Knowledge, 7th Edition, Glossary

The APM Competence Framework

However, the APM does produce a very thorough Competence Framework, which you can download from their site, for the cost of a valid email address. Alongside it, you’ll also find a short guide to how to use it and a helpful self-assessment scoresheet.

The current (3rd edition) Competence Framework itself is excellent. It covers 29 competence areas, setting up three factors for each:

  1. The Knowledge you need, to fulfill each competence (between 3 and 8 items)
  2. The Applications of that knowledge
  3. Things to consider

I would say that the set of applications forms a pretty strong project management role description. The document also has a six-level rating scale from ‘Unaware’ to ‘Expert’.

The IAPM Project Manager Map

The International Association of Project Managers (IAPM) publishes an excellent short guide to Project Management that is an ideal starting place for beginners. It’s called: ‘The Project Managers’ Guide’. And you can access this, too, from IAPM’s website.

In the Guide, there are two Project Manager Map, which illustrates components of Project Management work in technical and people domains. Rather than set out competencies or detailed role descriptions, the Guide offers resources and short, useful gobbets of knowledge, to help you with the role.

The 19 components of the technical aspects of the role are:

  1. Project Check
  2. Project File
  3. Project Environment
  4. Stakeholders
  5. Project Charter
  6. Steering Committee and Core Team
  7. Communication
  8. Specification
  9. Creation of a Phase Model as a Team
  10. Creation of a WBS as a Team
  11. Work Package Sheet
  12. Cost Breakdown and Budget
  13. Process and Time Schedule
  14. Risk Analysis
  15. Sub-Project Managers and Work Package Owners: SPM, WPO
  16. Functional, Matrix, Autonomous Organizations
  17. Project Start-up
  18. Project Review
  19. Project Close-out and Project Evaluation

The 8 components of the ‘people in projects’ aspect of the role are:

  1. Team Building
  2. Leadership
  3. Motivation
  4. Working in the Project Team
  5. Conflict Management
  6. Time Management
  7. Personal Success
  8. Stress Management

How the IPMA Defines the Role

The International Project Management Association (IPMA) takes a very similar approach to the APM. This is, perhaps, not surprising, The APM is a member association of the IPMA.

In a 432-page document (yes, I checked), IPMA sets out competencies for individuals working in:

  • Project Management (122pp)
  • Program Management (124pp)
  • Portfolio Management (112pp)

For each, they set out:

  • People Competences – personal and interpersonal skills
  • Practice Competences – technical PM methods, tools, and techniques
  • Perspective Competences – the more context and business-oriented methods, tools, and techniques

This is an incredibly thorough document that you can download and inspect for yourself, from the IPMA’s website. Sadly, while it used to be free… No more.

The PRINCE2 Approach to the Project Manager Role

Recently, PeopleCert has taken ownership of the PRINCE2 methodology and has just issued a newly revised 7th edition of the guidebook, now called PRINCE2® 7 Managing Successful Projects.

I don’t yet have my new edition, but although there will be some substantial changes, I am not expecting much change to the guidance around the role of a Project Manager in a PRINCE2 context. Because PRINCE2 represents a robust approach to traditional plan-driven project management, this is a hugely valuable resource.

PRINCE2 is a high-end certification that you should certainly consider as a possible qualification. In the manual, we learn about the Project Manager role under each of its seven themes.

PRINCE2 Methodology

The manual then collates these individual Theme-based roles in Appendix C. This sets out the roles and responsibilities of all the key players in a PRINCE2 project… And, indeed, for any project. The project management role descriptions are pretty generic.

To give a flavor, there is a simple illustration near the start of the manual. This sets out ‘The many facets of the Project Manager role’, as:

  • Line management
  • Cost management
  • Communication
  • Quality
  • Product status
  • Product versus project needs
  • Changes
  • User needs
  • Monitoring
  • Planning
  • Teamwork
  • Strategy

What are the Components of the Role of a Project Manager

So, with all of this review of formal documentation under your belt, what do I consider to be the role of a Project Manager? This is an exercise I often set during live project management training workshops.

The guidance I give is to start by stepping through the different stages of the project life cycle.

Project Lifecycle - OnlinePMCourses Model - Definition, Planning, Delivery, Closure
Project Lifecycle – OnlinePMCourses Model

At each stage, ask: ‘What do I need to do, as a Project Manager?’

Then think about the things that sit over the top of this, such as:

  • Governance
  • Monitoring and control
  • Team management and leadership
  • Benefits (or value) management
  • Cost, procurement, and contract management
  • Stakeholder engagement and communication
  • Active risk management
  • Recording, reporting, and documentation

Together, these approaches will give you a detailed description of the role of the Project Manager.

From Our Project Checklists Kit…

One of over 60 checklists in our Project Management Checklists Kit is a checklist of Project Management Role descriptions. This covers the project:

  • Board
  • Sponsor
  • Manager
  • Team/Workstream Leader

I have reproduced the Project Manager role description below.

The Project Manager Role-description

  1. Understand and document the goal, objectives, and scope of the project, and then define the precise scope and specific deliverables required.
  2. Deliver key project documentation such as the Project Definition Document, Project Plan, Business Case, and issue and risks logs.
  3. Manage stakeholders, listening to their concerns and influencing their actions.
  4. Design and develop Project Plans, Stage Plans, Contingency Plans and, where necessary, Exception Plans to deal with exceptional circumstances.
  5. Identify the key people needed for the delivery of the project and bring these people together to form a project team.
  6. Allocate tasks to team members and ensure they are completed within the required timeframe and to the required quality
  7. Provide leadership, guidance, support, and motivation to your project team.
  8. Run regular project team meetings that define the project, plan its delivery, and then review progress and identify required action.
  9. Take responsibility for risk and issue management at a strategic and tactical level.
  10. Manage the day-to-day running of the project, monitoring and controlling performance, taking corrective action when necessary, within delegated authority.
  11. Manage the project budget.
  12. Produce regular progress reports that show progress against the current plan along with the key project issues, risks, and dependencies, and maintain a complete, auditable record of decisions.
  13. Liaise with related projects to ensure that work is not overlooked or duplicated, and that resource or schedule inter-dependencies are managed.
  14. Attend Project Board meetings, providing progress updates.
  15. Agree on the technical and quality aspects of the project with the appropriate Project Board members.
  16. Manage a change control process to handle requested or required changes to the scope or specification of project deliverables.
  17. Complete all actions set out in the Project Closure Checklist.
  18. Ensure that lessons learned are identified and recorded.

What are Your Thoughts about the Role of the Project Manager?

As always, we’d love to hear your thoughts. What are your perspectives on the role, and what questions do you have for me and for other experienced practitioners who may be looking at this article?

Companion Article

We also have a companion article to this one, that takes a more formal look at the Project Manager’s Job Description: ‘What You Need to Know about the Project Manager Job Description’.

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Mike Clayton

About the Author...

Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 14 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to ProjectManager.com and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.
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