Back to Basics: What is the Role of a Project Manager?

There are a few reasons you may wish to understand the role of a project manager more fully. Perhaps it is because you are looking for a project management job and want to have a career in project management. Alternatively, you may be applying for the PMP or a similar project management exam.

If your reason is the former, I must warn you that project management (PM) is not for the faint hearted. It requires travel on an uncharted path and sometimes calls for a swim in the troubled waters. It will likely snatch peace and tranquility from your life. However, if you have made up your mind, consider that there is a brighter side. A project manger’s profession is one of the top paying in the world.

If your reason was the latter, then you are likely already fishing in troubled waters and well accustomed to day-to-day PM travails. That said, before applying to a PM exam, you need to have a solid understanding of the project manager’s role. You will need to describe as part of your exam application form. Your application might be rejected if you do not write it carefully.

If you are eligible for the PMP exam, you can read the PMP Exam Content Outline (ECO) to understand the role of a project manager (also abbreviated PM). ECO provides a detailed list of tasks that a project manager is supposed to perform. ECO is slightly long and hard to read but, if you want, you can give it a try. Otherwise, read on to understand the role of a project manager in simpler terms.

The Role of a Project Manager

The role of a project manager is akin to the role of a conductor of an orchestra. He/she creates a perfect symphony by coordinating numerous musicians who are playing various different musical instruments. Just like a conductor, the project manager coordinates, integrates, and harmonizes the activities of the project team to deliver a successful product.

A project manager plays a pivotal role in achieving the goals of the project. They may not be skillful and knowledgeable in all aspects of the project and might not perform technical work, but they are always accountable for delivering the finished product.

In order to achieve project goals, the PM has stay on top of all kinds of activities throughout the project putting a proverbial finger in every pie.

In some cases, the job of a project manager starts even before a project is formally initiated (he/she could be involved in business benefits analysis, proposal preparation, and/or a feasibility study, for example). In most cases, the job starts with the project’s initiation. Let us look at responsibilities of a PM from Initiation to Closing.

Initiation

  1. Assess the project based upon available information.
  2. Go through and understand the lessons learned from previous projects.
  3. Hold meetings with the relevant stakeholders to seek their support and gain commitment for the project.
  4. Identify the benefits and objectives of the project.
  5. Document key milestones and deliverables for achieving the project objectives.
  6. Identify high level risks, assumptions, and constraints.
  7. Participate in the development of the project charter.
  8. Obtain a formal approval of the project charter from the sponsor(s).
  9. Inform stakeholders about the approved project charter, in order to ensure a common understanding of the key deliverables, milestones, and roles/responsibilities.
  10. Communicate formal start date of the project to all stakeholders.

Planning

  1. Develop a stakeholder management plan by analyzing their needs, interests, and potential influence on the project, so as to effectively manage expectations and engage stakeholders in project decisions.
  2. Gather, document, assess, and review the project requirements.
  3. Define and develop the project scope.
  4. Define and develop a detailed project schedule based on the approved project scope.
  5. Define and develop a detailed project budget based on the approved project scope and schedule.
  6. Identify resources for the project tasks.
  7. Define the roles and responsibilities of the project’s team members.
  8. Provide guidance on how resources will be assigned and managed.
  9. Understand stakeholder communication requirements, in order to define and manage the flow of project information.
  10. Document a communications management plan based on the project’s organization structure and the stakeholders’ communicated requirements.
  11. Define an escalation matrix for various types of project issues.
  12. Develop a procurement management plan to sub-contract necessary pieces of work to outside organizations.
  13. Define quality standards and develop a quality management plan in order to prevent the occurrence of defects, control the cost of quality, etc.
  14. Develop a change management plan to define how changes will be identified, documented, addressed, implemented, and controlled.
  15. Develop a risk management plan for identifying, analyzing, and prioritizing project risks and for defining risk response strategies.
  16. Document and present an integrated project management plan to the relevant stakeholders for approval.
  17. Propose the plan and get approval for the project’s implementation strategy.

Execution

  1. Acquire and manage project resources by following the resource and procurement management plans, so as to meet the project requirements.
  2. Assign resources to the project tasks.
  3. Lead and develop the project team by providing them a proper environment and necessary tools to perform their work.
  4. Manage task execution and oversee creation of the project’s deliverables as defined in the project management plan.
  5. Resolve issues and improve communication between team members, as the need arises.
  6. Implement quality management plans, adhere to organizational quality standards, use appropriate quality tools and techniques, and ensure that quality control processes are followed throughout the project.
  7. Follow the change management plan to implement the approved change requests.
  8. Implement approved corrective and preventive actions to keep the project on track.
  9. Collect, aggregate, store, retrieve, disseminate, and dispose of project information as documented in the communications plan.
  10. Implement approved actions documented in the risk response plan, so that the impact of threats can be minimized and opportunities capitalized on.
  11. Engage stakeholders and manage expectations by following the outlined stakeholder management plan.

Monitoring And Controlling

  1. Regularly measure project performance using the tools and techniques defined in the project management plan.
  2. Identify and quantify variances and deviations from the project management plan.
  3. Identify and document corrective actions to bring the project back on track, as needed.
  4. Help stakeholders make decisions on documented change requests by following the change management plan.
  5. Manage inspection and testing activities to verify that project deliverables meet the project requirements and business needs.
  6. Encourage your team to use the appropriate quality tools and techniques for ensuring conformance to the quality standards that are documented in the quality management plan.
  7. Identify and document continuous quality improvement activities.
  8. Identify new risks and monitor identified risks.
  9. Implement risk response strategies and evaluate their effectiveness.
  10. Regularly review and update the issue log, so as to minimize impact on the project.
  11. Monitor procurement activities as documented in the procurement plan.
  12. Ensure that project goals remain in alignment with business needs.

Closing

  1. Hold meetings to capture, document, and analyze lessons learned during the project.
  2. Update the organisational database with lessons learned, so that these items can be considered in future projects and provide a structure for continuous improvement.
  3. Obtain feedback from relevant stakeholders and evaluate their satisfaction.
  4. Obtain final acceptance of the finished project deliverables, so as to confirm that the project scope has been completed.
  5. Handover and transition the final deliverables to the customer as documented in the project management plan.
  6. Obtain financial, legal, and administrative closure.
  7. Prepare and share the final project report according to the communications management plan in order to document and convey project performance and assist in project evaluation.
  8. Archive project documents and materials using the organisational guidelines.
  9. Conduct a final project review meeting and prepare a project closure report.
  10. Communicate formal closure of the project to all stakeholders.
  11. Release the project team members.
  12. Return material and equipment, as needed.

Conclusion

I have listed various responsibilities that come under the purview of a project manager, but the above is by no means exhaustive. To use an old expression, a project manager may have to do “anything and everything under the sun” in order to meet stakeholder expectations and deliver a quality finished product. In sum, the role of a PM is to successfully meet the project objectives within defined constraints and handover the result to the customer. On the way, the PM has to take care of stakeholders’ interests and ensure that the business benefits are achieved.

If you are already a PM, which, out of all the responsibilities mentioned in the previous section, do you find most difficult to fulfil? What other responsibilities could be added to the list?

I would love to hear from you below.

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Written by Praveen Malik
Praveen Malik, PMP, has two-plus decades of experience as a project management instructor and consultant. He regularly conducts project management workshops in India and abroad and shares his project management thinking in his blog, PM by PM.
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3 Comments
  1. Praveen, thanks. Excellent and important post!

    I want to give you my latest view on the role of the Project Manager.

    There isn’t one.

    What I mean by this is that we have the wrong job title. We aren’t really ‘managers’. Look at the many blog posts about the difference between management and leadership. You’ll see that what we do – if we’re doing it right – is leading teams, not managing them.

    So, let’s start demanding to be called what we are: Project Leaders!

    Cheers, and thanks for leading us with this post!

  2. Avatar photo

    Nice article and I agree with Richard’s comments. In the early days before Project Managers were commonly called PMs, in many companies they were called “System Analysts” and I interfaced with the clients on the new system they wanted. Eventually, I wrote the specifications for the programmers to code from and tested the system with programmers first and then the client.

  3. Great list of executables and concepts. After Planning’s #17: “…approval for the project’s implementation strategy” I would add #18: “Set the project baseline.” While this might be implied under the “develop schedule/IMS” comments, this CANNOT be forgotten.

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