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Do You Understand the Role of the Project Manager?

Do You Understand the Role of the Project Manager?

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?

If your answer is not 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.

Do You Understand the Role of the Project Manager?

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 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:
    1. You need to have a rounded understanding of the topic
    2. Also, you’ll need to appreciate the perspective that the examination body has on the topic
  2. Defining your project’s Governance and the Terms of Reference of key roles. As regular readers will know, here at OnlinePMCourses, we’re big advocates 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. 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).

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

The PMI sets out its thinking on the role of the Project Manager in its Project Management Body of Knowledge, the PMBOK Guide. The first three chapters are broadly introductory, followed by ten that each explore one of the PMBOK Guide’s 10 Knowledge Areas.

Chapter 3 is titled ‘The Role of the Project Manager’. It has a couple of short, introductory sections, and three main sections that carry the burden of the PMI’s ideas.

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

  1. Overview. This section 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 the PMBOK Guide 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 the chapter, in terms of answering the question it poses.
  4. Project Manager Competencies. In this section, the PMBOK uses the PMI’s Talent Triangle to articulate the competencies we need. Arguably, the PMBOK Guide is the full articulation of this! While I don’t disagree with this section; competencies and role are two 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.


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

If I say much more, I’d simply be repeating what’s in the PMBOK Guide.


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 do 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 role of a Project manager, this is the section to prioritize. It 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 fulfil 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.

It is strongest, by far, on the leadership side of the triangle. But it does note that the PMBOK Guide’s 10 Knowledge Areas are the competencies of Technical Project Management.

Performing Integration

The final section 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 differnet levels, but principally directs readers to the Project Integration Knowledge Area. Those levels are:

  • Process Level: linking together the different project process 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.

The Role of the Project Manager according to different PM Organizations

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 APMBoK has nothing to say about the role of the Project Manager, except implicitly, though 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 Competence Framework itself is excellent. It covers 27 competence areas, setting up two columns for each:

  1. The Applications (between 4 and 8) you need to meet
  2. The Knowledge you need, to fulfill them (between 3 and 8 items)

I would say that the first column forms a pretty strong project management role-description. The document also a five-level rating scale from ‘Aware’ 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 PM Guide 2.0: The IAPM’s Traditional Project Management Baseline’. And you can download this, too, from IAPM’s website, for the cost of a valid email.

In the Guide, is a Project Manager Map, which illustrates eight Project Management roles. Rather than set out competences or detailed role descriptions, the Guide offers resources and short, useful gobbets of knowledge, to help you with the role.

The eight roles are not about the technical aspects of the role. Rather, they focus on what PMI would describe as leadership roles. They are all people-related:

  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 competences 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, for the cost of a valid email.

The PRINCE2 Approach to the Project Manager Role

Axelos, the current guardians of the PRINCE2 methodology, produce detailed methodology guides. Managing Successful Projects with PRINCE2 (US|UK) has a lot of guidance around the role of a Project Manager in a PRINCE2 context. And, 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 he different stages of the project lifeycle.

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
  • Stakeholder engagement and communication
  • Active risk management
  • Recording, reporting, and documentation

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

From Our Project Checklists Kit…

One of over 60 checklists in our Project Management Checklists Kit is 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, risk and dependencies, and maintaining 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 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’.

About the Author Mike Clayton

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 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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