What does it mean to be a project manager?

Published on 17/02/2020 by Sonia Mokrani and Sonia Navarrete

what is project management

“What do you do for a living?”

“I’m a project manager”

That’s a common answer these days. The project leader or project manager is a figure present in many sectors. From real estate to the medical sector, from SMEs to large groups: every type of business and market needs project management experts.

What is project management?

According to Gartner, project management is the application of knowledge, skills, tools and techniques to meet the needs of a project.

This definition is broad enough to be applied to any type of industry. In industrial engineering, for example, a project manager may be responsible for setting up industrial facilities for a client. In a translation agency, he or she will have to carry out the correct translation and delivery of a set of documents. And in IT, he or she may manage the proper development of new software, the design of a website or the implementation of security measures in a company, for example.

Why manage a project?

Whatever the field, managing a project is facing many challenges. Time management, the definition of project stages, communication with the client, budget management, planning, progress monitoring, change management or managing the unexpected… Sometimes a juggler, sometimes a conductor, the project manager has definitely a lot on his or her plate.

But what are the specific challenges?

 According to expert Alain Fernandez, “leading a project is above all about building a fully operational team. […] More often than not, the people assigned to the project have never worked together before.” 

The project manager must know how to manage the human components of his team, link and coordinate the various activities in order to successfully complete the project. 

Another challenge is the restrictions applied to the specific project. Fernandez states that it’s necessary “to ensure ultra-specialised steering to maintain the progress within the narrow limits of deadlines and budgets allocated. No deviation is acceptable.” 

Finally, a project manager must be able to innovate and adapt. “Most projects in a company are original, it’s not just a question of reproducing what you’ve already done identically,” says Fernandez. So there’s no question of perpetuating the same pattern with each new project. You first have to analyse the situation and define the specifics of the project in order to better understand it.

The project manager is not an expert in every field

Obviously, each sector presents its own specific challenges: an IT project does not have the same characteristics as a project in the insurance world. Every project manager must also know his field and know what he is talking about, as he will often act as an expert point of contact for his clients. The project manager will be responsible for translating and transmitting the client’s requests to his team of specialists, understand the project’s issues at the technical level and evaluate its feasibility. 

According to Fernandez, “a project manager is more of a coach than a leader. He does not necessarily have authority over the team members.” He or she does not necessarily have to be a specialist in each of the project’s application areas but should have sufficient knowledge to guide the team. It’s not an easy balance to strike!

For this reason, especially in SMEs, it happens that the best member of a team is promoted to project manager. “We need a project manager for this new product. Stephanie is an outstanding developer, she’ll do the job!” But you don’t become a project manager. If Stephanie will be able to understand the technical issues involved in developing new software, will she be able to manage time, budget, resources and the life cycle of a project? Will she be able to read or make a PERT chart? Project management has now become a real discipline, and if Stephanie’s managers want her to do her job well, she will probably have to learn the basics of project management.

New challenges for the project manager

And this training will be all the more necessary as many things have changed in the world of work in recent years. As jobs evolve and companies go digital, project managers face new challenges. 

Alain Fernandez says: “The last few years have been marked by a fairly significant increase in complexity. The majority of company projects involve more and more technological innovations that require the integration of increasingly rare expertise within teams”. A project manager must, therefore, be up to date in terms of technology, and he must know how to choose his teammates well. Moreover, customers and principals are increasingly demanding, especially “on the question of return on investment,” says Fernandez. 

“The deadlines, as well as the budget and the requirements for integration into the company’s existing system, are much stricter than in the past. This means that the risk management phase and the integration phase, especially change management, which is a facet of the project that is rarely budgeted for, must be taken into account,” he says.

Which solutions are currently available for project management?

Project management techniques have evolved in recent years. Since the creation in 1969 of the Project Management Institute (which contributed to the development of standards and certifications related to project management) and old methods such as the PERT method, new methodologies have emerged: cascade management, lean management (used mainly in industry), the Kanban method or more recently the Agile approach, notably the Scrum method. 

New disciplines have emerged, such as PPM or project portfolio management, from the decision-making order, which aims to select the “right” projects. Some companies are equipped with PMOs (Project Management Offices), services that serve to centralise, guide and monitor the various projects of the company. 

However, according to Alain Fernandez, “a project manager worthy of the name necessarily masters the main methods, but above all he knows how to adapt them to the specific context of the project in progress”. If you are a project manager, you will need to apply these methods objectively.

In addition, technologies in general (even those illustrated in science fiction) invite themselves into the project manager’s world. Processes are being modernised. According to a Gartner study, in 2030, artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things (IoT) will play a major role in project management: data collection, analysis or reporting. These technologies will facilitate the work of the project manager in the future.

But in terms of practical tools, what about them? Collaborative tools and cloud software are numerous, and in the age of all-computing, project managers have a large number of project management software at their disposal. From simple task management tools with Gantt chart software, Kanban software or more advanced applications, the options are varied! How to do the right one choice? 

For Alain Fernandez, “each project manager or rather each company [must] define its own criteria according to the type of management (project portfolio or unit project), types of projects, collaboration needs, number and size of teams, communication requirements, documentation management, dashboard needs, reporting, tool durability, etc.”. It’s therefore a real selection process: no question of opting for the first tool that comes along! “The tool of the moment, which has been acclaimed by the specialist press, may not be the best choice for a given company or specific project management,” he says. So we will have to compare, test and sift through different software before making a choice. Software comparison sites such as Capterra are an excellent way to make an initial filter.

Being a good project manager: the keys to success

So, with the right tool and the right method applied to the specific project and sufficient knowledge of the sector, anyone can manage projects, you might say. Well, it’s not that simple. 

For Alain Fernandez, communication is essential, and there are a few pitfalls to avoid. “The most common, and systematically fatal mistake is to lock yourself in your ivory tower to avoid exchanges with people outside the project,” he says. 

“You have to communicate, both to collect information and to market the project. That’s how you prepare for integration and set your project on the road to success. This combined action of information gathering and promotion starts from the very beginning of the project”. Another key term is collaboration. “Running a project today is above all a question of extensive collaboration,” continues Alain Fernandez.

In summary, according to Alain Fernandez, the mission of a project manager is on the one hand to boost communication between team members, and on the other with the main stakeholders. And he adds that the project manager “strives to bring out the best in every member of his team.”

So, do you feel ready to manage projects?

About the expert

Alain Fernandez is an independent consultant with over thirty years of experience. He has managed and overseen a large number of corporate projects in France and abroad. Teacher and trainer, he is the author of several books on project management and webmaster of the website piloter.org dedicated to management and entrepreneurship. The 6th edition of his guide Le chef de projet efficace, 12 bonnes pratiques pour un management humain (Eyrolles editions) is available since mid-May.

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