PMI estimates that there are 16.5 million project managers in the world. 16.5 million daredevils, because project management is not the easiest game to play in the job market. There are so many factors that can influence your work and so many hats a project manager should wear.
At the same time, the reasons why you may want to enter this domain outweigh the challenges you face in the end. Being a project manager involves constant learning, interaction with all sorts of people, and increased responsibility. Many truly inspiring things.
In this article, we’ll reveal why one enjoys being a project manager and open the Pandora’s box of why you might hate the project management profession.
- What is a project manager?
- What does a project manager do?
- The best parts of being a project manager
- The worst parts of being a project manager
- Other upsides and downsides of project management
- What makes a good project manager
What is a project manager?
Before jumping to the pros and cons of being a project manager right away, you might want a short introduction to the project manager role in general. So what exactly is a project manager? A project manager is someone who is in charge of the planning and execution of a particular project. The Project Management Institute defines project managers as “change agents” who work towards project goals as if they were their own and apply their expertise to organize the project team around the shared purpose.
There are as many definitions of the project manager as you can find, as the job involves a broad set of skills and knowledge that’s difficult to fit into one book. But the highlight of the project management profession is people and communications know-how. Managing projects is half art, half science, but the key element is being able to develop trust with other people and nudge them to meet the project goal.
What does a project manager do?
What do project managers do on a daily basis? If you look at some job descriptions, you’ll certainly spot that the main responsibility of a project manager is to manage projects, people, and expectations. Project managers are looped in the process even before the project starts - to create the initial plan and estimate the cost of the project. All-in-all, they’re responsible for initiating, planning, executing, monitoring, controlling, and closing the project, providing end-to-end support and facilitating communication between clients and teams.
90% of project management is about communicating with the team members, project sponsors, clients, and everyone involved in the project. Throughout the course of any project, they need to stay on top of the project budget as well. Good project managers complete projects on time and on budget, delivering beyond client expectations. For more information, check our earlier piece on what a project manager does (challenges included).
Because project management is a key business function, the need for project experts has been growing ever since and is expected to rise in the coming years.
Like any role, project management cuts both ways. There are aspects you may like or dislike.
The best parts of being a project manager
There are plenty of benefits to being a project manager. The most satisfying part for many is cooperation and knowledge-sharing with people from all walks of life. Another upside is constant involvement in creating something new, as there are rarely two similar projects. Many project managers we’ve interviewed also see their touch in empowering people to do their jobs better throughout the project lifecycle. Let’s take a look at each benefit separately.
Interacting with people from diverse backgrounds
It makes no difference what team you’re going to manage – a global remote team dispersed around the world, or the other way around, you’ll still work tightly with someone sharing the same goals, but contributing different experiences. Most likely, you'll collaborate with people who have miscellaneous backgrounds and a common enthusiasm to get the job done. They’ll bring different perspectives and a range of vision to the project you run and unlock all hidden values. If working with others is what brings you delight then project management is probably for you.
According to Abigail M. Posey, an Organizational Change Leader, the absolute best part is being able to see into the fantastic work that everyone does. “Project teams are made up of a diverse group of individuals in order to cover all skill sets,” says Abigail. “That brings a lot of differences and can be challenging, but it’s very rewarding to see their individual and collective outputs.”
Seeing a plan you developed come together
To see the team plan work out is a luxury for project managers. The sense of realization that everything goes as initially planned gives a good bounce and an increase in motivation. Remember that feeling when all the puzzles come together?
“The best part of the job is the self-satisfaction at the end of the project when looking back at the final product of your hard work and giving yourself and the team a pat on the back for a job well done,” says Shaun Prashant Tharmarajan, Facilities Project Manager at BAE Systems in Australia.
Creating something from nothing
Building a house. Developing a program. Constructing a ship. Or simply creating a website. Project managers are always part of growing a new product. There’s no standard day. In fact, some projects even become million-dollar startups. What actually makes project management romantic is constantly traversing new grounds.
Many project managers see the best part of their job in making teams stronger and more autonomous. Michael Alcarde, Program Manager at Teradyne believes that the best part is when he sees the whole team is aligned and marching towards a common goal. “Every member is engaged, proactive, and going the extra mile,” explains Michael.
In turn, according to Jim Landon, Project Manager at Cayzen Technologies, there’s nothing better than observing your team become functional and deliver per project management plan from project inception through execution.
Supporting and enabling the team to exceed their potential is one of the obvious benefits of being a project manager.
You have the opportunity to empower your team to aim high and the ability to remove hurdles along the way for them to accomplish interim milestones, celebrate small victories as a team, boost their confidence when they need that nudge, recognize their contributions, and help make a difference. – Anupama Kinatukara, CEO & President at ZNDKIN Solns
Expanding on her role, Lori Nevin, Senior Program Manager at Triumph Aerospace shared with us that what makes her particularly happy is seeing the relationships develop and being the glue that holds them together. As a project manager, one should regularly interact with all levels in the company – C-level management, teams, stakeholders. External communication is also important for building solid business relationships. The positive part about the job is that eventually, you’ll have a huge list of connections and strong bonds with them.
Delivering business value
Hiring a project manager is paramount to the growth of any business. Executing projects, one’s final goal is to deliver business value. In project management, it embraces all the factors that influence the well-being and health of a business. Project managers are people in charge to create a sensible balance between small details and the big picture. In other words, they create a bridge between corporate functions. That’s why a project manager’s role is crucial to eliminate the obstacles and boost value.
When asked what’s the favorite aspect of being a project manager, many answer that project management depends more on delegation than the actual work done. There’s nothing bad about being a hands-on manager, and there are experts who like it. It’s just that this profession is in need to manage work, people, and projects.
The worst parts of being a project manager
Given that there is a good deal of benefits, is being a project manager hard? It’s not without its downfalls, of course. Being a project manager is pretty much like riding a bike. There are lots of flat areas, but you’ll need to overcome many bumps on the road and even mountains.
The top stressors of being a project manager also include dealing with uncertainty, managing stakeholders, not always being in control, to name a few. Tesh Desai, Global Head of Programs and Transformation at Nomis Solutions, says that the worst part is occasionally feeling the weight of the world on your shoulders. Overall, experts mostly complain about the following parts of their job:
Being fully accountable without the proper level of authority
Lack of authority, while still being responsible, is the most nagging project management pain. “Some bosses hold PMs accountable for cost and schedule without delegating resource authority or approving project baselines,” reflects one project manager. “Not having authority in a hierarchical environment to reward or provide an assessment of team members,” says another. “Knowing what you need to do for your team to be successful and rewarded for its efforts but not having the authority to make it happen,” adds one more.
Stakeholders are people who hold interest and stake in your project's outcome. Usually, they are project sponsors, executives, customers, users, or members of the project team. It’s one of project managers’ main responsibilities (and stress factors) to communicate with them and keep them on the same page. Managing stakeholder expectations is a never-ending process.
The usual scenario, according to Kiron Bondale, trainer and trusted advisor in project management, is having decision-makers make the wrong decision with their eyes open, even when you and the team have done your utmost to convince them of the wisdom of choosing a different path.
According to Taoufik Samaka, Doctorate Researcher at Toulouse Business School, the most difficult thing is to make stakeholders collaborate.
A project manager's primary role is to connect the dots and enable collaboration between project stakeholders. That is the most challenging mission, especially if stakeholders are not sharing the same interest in the project, have conflictual relationships, or have different agendas or even hidden agendas. The good thing is that the project manager if given the right mandate to make decisions and is empowered enough, and gets the necessary funds, can then embark on a journey where he will bring his skills, experience, and knowledge to drive his project team in the right direction (if he is a competent and surrounds himself by competent people) and deliver the project within the set timelines, budget, and quality. – Taoufik Samaka, Toulouse Business School
Being a professional cat herder
According to PMI, in project management, herding cats is an issue most project managers are familiar with, as it is often experienced when people are running in different directions with different drivers or intentions, becoming uncontrollable. A project manager’s role is to make them look in one direction and follow the same goal. One should develop a certain level of authority and influence to make it happen.
Dealing with uncertainty
Among the challenges project managers face, uncertainty holds a notable position. It’s difficult to predict the end of the project and many still feel anxious about the project accomplishment. Unfortunately, under the pressure of changing requirements, project leaders are not always able to control the outcome. Executing a project, one should learn how to handle uncertainty gracefully and benefit from it.
Before starting to work on a project, you’ll have to estimate it – tell the customer how long and how much it will take your team to complete the project. This is where all the guesswork begins that eventually results in a poorly defined scope and entails other chronic management pains, like missed deadlines and budget overruns. To learn more about project estimation techniques, continue reading here or download our ebook:
Other upsides and downsides of project management
Project management communities regularly express their opinion on the best and worst parts of being project managers. Here are some thoughts from people who practice the art of project management every day:
I've said that for years. Nothing that a project manager actually does remains in production after the project ends. We just get our teams what they need to do the real work. We do expend energy, though. Lots of it! If you carry a rock up the stairs and bring it back down to the original spot, you have done no work, but you have expended the energy. – Terry Sward, Infrastructure Project Manager
I would say the best part is the feeling of satisfaction once the project is done. It's an amazing feeling to look back on what your team was able to accomplish given the usually limited resources at hand. – Alexander Stodola, Healthcare Project Manager
The worst part of the job is probably the pressure of deadlines, lack of resources, and getting bogged down trying to solve day-to-day issues that can really take a toll on yourself. But at the end of the day, it is part and parcel of the job. Embrace the challenge! – Shaun Prashant Tharmarajan
Now the question remains, how do project managers melt this snowball of challenges and resolve annoying problems like above? Sharing experience is key. For project managers that don't know where to start, membership services exist that provide support and deep information about translating what they know into practice. Markus Kopko, a creator of such service and a trusted advisor in project management circles, who has heard a lot of horror stories about project management, believes that work and life as a project manager can become easier, more efficient, and more productive than you ever imagined with the support of the community and the right tools.
What makes a good project manager
Given the above, who are they - successful project managers? Where do you find the breed? Highly effective project managers are strategic thinkers and doers who not only possess a set of specific technical project management skills, but have leadership qualities. Their success depends on the contributions of others, so good project managers always share credit for work well done and motivate team members to push the envelope.
Well-rounded project managers create a culture of psychological safety, where people aren’t afraid to voice their opinions, commit mistakes, and accept vulnerability. In the end, it affects the quality of services businesses produce and ensures people are result-oriented. In addition, what makes the best project managers is the ability to influence stakeholders and negotiate key project decisions by finding an approach to everyone.
Another common trait of good project managers consists in learning from their mistakes. Projects rarely go as planned, and various roadblocks will appear, sometimes followed by decisions that hurt the project. Best project managers have a solid integrity base and are not scared away by failure. On the contrary, they know how to translate it into a better future for their projects.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise, but successful project managers arm themselves with future-thinking and progressive project management tools that reflect their environment and project complexity. Jo Reid who’s the Head of Project Management at Sagittarius has some great thoughts about what it takes to find the system that will contribute to the success of your role as a project manager.
Primarily, every project manager needs to have an understanding of what ‘good’ looks like for them, says Joanne. Asking questions like “what do we want out of the system” or “what works currently and what doesn’t work” is a good starting point. Then you can blueprint your requirements. For Sagittarius, the following points were crucial, as Joanne writes in her Journey of Discovery:
- Project plans to be in real-time and accessible within the same system
- Scoping to be based on sold work as well as the ability to forecast overage within a project or scope well ahead of time
- RAG reports being automated
- Pipeline projects being visible against existing resources and utilisation figures
- Automated budget reporting instead of more spreadsheets.
Project management is overcoming digital transformation as any other domain, and technology already optimizes many project management processes and has its say in schedule automation, resource allocation, estimation, and stakeholder management.
Project management profession definitely has its pros and cons. While there are many benefits, there are still lots of areas to upskill in, especially when it comes to project health. At some point, you might think that project management is overly complex and challenging, and there’s a grain of truth in it, but it’s extremely rewarding too when everything you’ve put together clicks.