The Ultimate Guide to the Project Manager’s Role
A detailed guide to help ‘occasional project managers’ succeed when managing a project for their organization.
Project Management is traditionally a specialized role.
In recent years there’s been a rise in the number of Occasional Project Managers [OPMs] to meet the growing demand across the world.
Occasional Project Managers, are now found in thousands of organizations, working on a variety of projects, with minimal guidance.
Many of these are ‘accidental’ project managers and have no interest in a project management career. Which is why they need an adaptive framework that can be applied to their work and will guide them through the process.
So we’ve written it.
In this guide to the project manager’s role, we’re going to show you everything you need to know about the responsibilities and techniques project managers use to successfully complete projects.
It’s easier than it sounds, so let’s take a look!
Occasional Project Managers are no different
Today, the lines between project managers and general managers of teams and divisions are no longer as clear as they used to be:
- They motivate their teams to do their best work
- They monitor progress with a combination of skills and historical data
- And in addition to managing tasks and tracking progress, project managers also have to be diplomats capable of resolving a variety of conflicts; from internal team conflicts to conflicts with other stakeholders.
If you’ve ever had to manage your team and get things done for your company or external clients, congratulations!
You’re also an project manager!
However, if you’re an occasional project manager, you may not be aware of some project management techniques that could make your life a lot easier.
Read on, as we’ll explain how to handle all the project manager role responsibilities, without getting a headache.
Planning and Defining Project Scope
The first responsibility that you have as a project manager is planning and defining the scope of the project you will be working on.
You can do this with a project scope statement.
The project scope statement summarizes:
- The expected outcomes
- Project and product descriptions
- Necessary resources
- Timing and budget estimates
- Project exclusions and constraints (e.g. “We won’t produce a purple elephant because that’s really not possible,” or “We don’t have enough people to increase the scale of the project by 50 %.”)
- Metrics that you’ll use to track progress.
Why use a project scope statement?
A project scope statement is always a good idea. It clearly lays out and defines what success looks like and is agreed by you and the other stakeholders (such as a client or your boss).
With a project scope statement, there can be no confusion as to whether a project is successful or not.
Additionally, clearly defining the project scope can help you avoid unnecessary setbacks later on.
The best way to create an accurate project scope statement is by creating a a work breakdown structure (WBS).
This document will help you define all the activities that need to be completed to successfully complete the project, as well as the necessary resources and time.
For example, if you know you need two team members and ten hours to finish an activity related to the project, you can easily factor that into your project scope statement.
Activity/Task Planning and Sequencing
Next up in the project planning stage, we need to determine what tasks and activities are needed to be able to get this project completed.
One of the key responsibilities of the project manager’s role is defining and setting up tasks.
By breaking down the entire project into a detailed task list, you’ll be able to visualize what needs to get done in order to bring this project over the line.
A project manager’s role here involves:
- Listing tasks
- Arranging the order / priority of them
- Delegating tasks to suitable team members
- Managing tasks
- Tracking progress.
In addition to that, you also have to understand task dependencies.
What are Task Dependencies?
Task dependencies help you sequence activities in a way that gets the project done in time and without going over budget.
You can do this by understanding the dependencies between tasks, and by mapping out the clearest, most logical path towards project completion.
In project management, this is called the the critical path method.
For example, if Tim needs Mary’s wireframes to finish the code for an app, then you have to make sure that Mary stays on track and creates the wireframes in time.
Now, you could manually check in with every team member, or you could use a task management tool. Something that’s highly visual and has shared access with to all team members.
This way, you’re improving the transparency so there can be no confusion about performance or task responsibilities.
Once you’ve determined what the project’s goals / scope are, and the tasks you need to complete in order to reach them, the next step is to identify the resources you’ll need.
Every project needs resources of some kind; be that human resources and time, or physical resources like items and money.
A successful project manager has to be capable of managing all the different types of resources.
However, resource needs change, so resource planning is a must in every phase of the project.
Resource planning is especially important when you don’t have dedicated team members.
If your team members are working on other projects or tasks, you have to make sure they’re available when you need them for your project.
This brings us back to our work breakdown structure (WBS) which helps with initial resource planning.
You can even use historical data to gauge the performance of team members you’re planning to bring on board.
And if you’ve worked on similar projects in the past, historical data helps to identify any alternatives (especially when it comes to scheduling and budget).
The easiest way to plan out the resources you’ll need for your project is by creating a resource plan:
- List the resource(s) you need: You can get them from your WBS
- Estimate the quantity of resources you need: If you have historical data, use it to form accurate estimates
- Make a resource schedule: Identify when you’ll need which resource, and determine its availability.
And as always: don’t forget to keep your budget in mind.
As the master organizer, a project manager has to develop all kinds of schedules:
- Resource schedules
- Activity and task schedules
- Entire project schedules.
Time management skills are extremely helpful with this responsibility.
If you can accurately schedule the entirety of your project (as well as its different aspects), you’ll be more likely to reach the deadline without hassle.
Typically, project managers use project schedules to understand time constraints and make sure the project is progressing as planned.
Three key questions you should ask yourself when developing schedules are:
- What needs to be done?
- Who needs to do it?
- How much time will it take to get it done? or When should it be done?
At this phase, you’ll also have to further determine the dependencies between tasks.
Since projects are dynamic, you can’t expect your schedules to stay the same they were at the initiation phase.
One of the best ways to manage project scheduling throughout the project is by using a project management tool.
It’ll help you and your team manage different activities, handle issues, and still get the project done in time.
Numerous teams use Gantt charts or tools incorporating them to add and drag & drop tasks, monitor performance and collaborate.
If you want to schedule anything, you need to know how much time it’ll take to complete an activity.
And the more accurate you can be with your estimates, the better.
Otherwise, your team could burn out and you may not even finish the project in time. Or you’ll go over budget, which is a different type of nuisance.
You can use the following project management techniques to avoid it:
- Bottom-up estimating: Create an estimate for the project as whole.
- Break the work down into tasks, and estimate the time you’ll need to complete each one.
- It’s always helpful if you have historical data you can reference to improve the accuracy of your estimates
- Top-down estimating: If you have experience with similar projects, you can create a timeline based on that data first
- Parametric estimating: If the deliverables are similar, you can calculate the time it will take to produce one deliverable and then multiply it by the total number of deliverables
- Three-point estimating: If you want to make sure you give yourself enough leeway in case something goes wrong, you can form three estimates: the best case scenario, the worst case scenario, and the most likely scenario.
A project manager also has to keep in mind the quality of their resources and factor that into their estimates.
For example, Tim gets a task done in ten hours. Mary is more experienced so she needs only five hours. Which one is on your team?
If you asked an average (occasional) project manager what they thought of cost estimating, they’d likely quote old maps and say: “Beware, there be dragons!”
However, accurate cost estimating is the best way to avoid going over budget.
The things that have to be factored into cost estimates are:
- Labor and time
- Equipment and materials
- Vendors and contractors (if working with them)
Now, accurately estimating costs and revisiting them periodically is crucial to project success. Especially if something has changed.
If a single team member needs more time than originally planned, it will influence costs.
Similarly, if the scope of the work changed, the previous cost estimates will no longer be accurate.
You can use the following cost estimating techniques:
- Top-down estimating: Estimating costs based on historical data.
- Make sure to adjust the costs for complexity and inflation
- Bottom-up estimating: Your work breakdown structure will come in handy for this method.
- Estimate the cost of completing each activity and then sum them up to form overall cost estimates
- Parametric estimating: If the activities are similar in nature and require the same resources, you can estimate the costs for one activity and then multiply by the total number of activities
- Three-point cost estimating: This method is similar to three-point time estimating.
- Prepare the best, worst and the most realistic case scenarios.
Developing and Managing the Budget
Once you’ve estimated the costs for your project, the next step is to determine the budget you’ll need.
While you may be developing (or working with a pre-determined) budget in the initiation phase of the project, you have to manage it during the project, as well.
Depending on who you are working with, you may have to assess whether the budget is realistic, or actively co-create a budget that would make the project profitable for your organization.
You can develop the budget by estimating the labor and material costs.
These are the baseline costs, although many project managers like adding an additional 5% to 10% to the budget for contingency.
As the project progresses, you also have to make sure that the performance and requirements won’t make you go over budget.
Don’t forget to track project performance and recalculate the costs whenever you need to make changes. For example, spending more time on a task or acquiring additional resources is going to make those costs spike if you haven’t planned for them.
You can also use historical data to understand your past performance, and apply the knowledge to your current project.
Communicate with your stakeholders and get their opinion on the accuracy of your budget. Consult with them on alternatives to going over budget in case unforeseen things take place.
While it’d be ideal if you could just say: “Let’s get this project done!” and everyone snapped into line, did everything perfectly, and finished the project with time left to spare, that rarely happens.
It’s why everyone in the project manager role has to document activities, constraints, changes, and so much more.
With the right project management documentation processes, you can:
- Monitor productivity and progress
- Analyze data to make better decisions
- Track project-related tasks and activities.
Some of the most important documents you’ll create are:
- Project business cases: This document explains why the stakeholders want to invest time and money into the project.
- It can be an email from your client, or a ten page proposal from the top management.
- Typically, it outlines the expectations
- Project charters: This document sets the wheels in motion.
- It describes the scope, the requirements, the timeline, necessary resources, and the budget.
- Most importantly, the project charter defines the standards that make the project successful
- Work breakdown structures: We’ve been talking a lot about WBS in this guide, and for a good reason.
- Since it can help you break down the entirety of your project into manageable activities, it’s a great way to determine costs and schedule accordingly
- Risk, changes and issues logs: Jotting down problems you’ve encountered can help you learn from them in the future.
- And a good risk analysis is the prerequisite for a successful project
- Project communications plans: If you have a lot of stakeholders, you’re going to have to manage them.
- A project communications plan is an outline to reference for things such as milestones, updates, and meetings
- Project schedules: Finally, the project schedule is your baseline.
- You can reference your progress, make sure that everyone stays on track and the project gets done in time.
Creating Charts and Schedules
While you have to be hands-on when managing project management processes, you should also prepare all the relevant materials.
Similarly to documentation, a project manager is responsible for the creation of physical documents such as (Gantt) charts and schedules.
This makes a lot of sense when you consider the fact that project managers are essentially information bottlenecks.
Stakeholders turn to you, your team turns to you, and you’re in charge of managing everything.
Who’d be better equipped to create schedules and charts than you?
These days, you can use technology to help you. Various project management tools offer real-time updates, collaboration features, and much more.
And once you’ve created all the documents, charts and schedules, you can make them available to stakeholders and/or team members.
You may not have time for margaritas in Mexico, but less people will come to you for information if they can easily get it themselves.
A project may not run you over, but there are still risks that could set you back.
As a project manager, you’ll have to identify all the risks that have the power of making you veer off course. The main goal of risk analysis is, of course, to avoid nasty surprises.
Risks commonly come in the following groups:
- Technical risks (e.g. Quality, equipment, technology, requirements, etc.)
- External risks (Customers, suppliers, the market)
- Organizational risks (Task and project dependencies, logistics, resources, budget, etc.)
- Project management risks (Planning, controlling, scheduling, etc.).
For example, if you have a lot of interdependent tasks, a risk could set the project back if one team member doesn’t finish their task in time for the second team member to start their task.
When it comes to risk analysis, you can categorize them according to probability.
Then, you can analyze the risk impact.
How would the risk affect your project? Would you have to adjust the schedule to give your team more time, or would you need to go over budget?
Of course, risks don’t have to break your project completely. But you have to see them to know how to mitigate them.
Managing Risks and Issues
It’s extremely important for anyone in the project manager role to plan their risk response.
Some risks can be eliminated or avoided, while others have to be mitigated.
For example, if you know you’re at risk of extending your project deadline should the supplier fail to deliver the materials, you can simply adjust your schedule and focus on a different task in the meantime.
You should also look for risk/issue triggers.
It’s good information to have for future projects, as well. It will help you can predict the causes and consequences of certain recurring risks.
And while you do have a lot of other things to manage, nothing is quite as important as managing risks and issues.
If you can identify them in time, you can make plans on how you’ll stop them from completely wrecking your project.
Risk management process:
Fortunately, there is a 5-step risk management process you can use:
- Identify risks: Get your team and your experts together in one room, and ask them: “What’s the worst thing that could happen?”
- Measure the likelihood and the impact of risks: AKA ask your people: “How likely is it that this will happen? What’s going to happen if it does?”
- Make a decision: Decide whether you’ll eliminate that risk, reduce its impact, or come up with an alternative solution. Again, your team and a few experts are great to have at this point
- Come up with a risk management plan
- Monitor the risks.
You don’t have to be afraid of risks, but you have to keep a close eye on them.
Only then can you stop them from disrupting your project.
Monitoring and Reporting Progress
Projects are all about moving parts. You may even wonder how you’re going to get the project done when you have to juggle everything from team collaboration to task completion.
And therein lies the importance of monitoring your project. If you don’t know what’s happening, you can’t improve.
In particular, you should monitor the following factors:
- Time and schedule
Fortunately, these days even simple project management software for Office 365 lets you do this easily.
It’s best to monitor projects in real-time.
However, things may not always be clear immediately. This is why you should plan reporting at regular intervals. It’ll give you the chance to sit down and truly analyze what’s been going on.
How to choose the best metrics to track for your project?
The metrics you’ll track should come from the project charter or other documentation you’ve assembled prior to starting the work.
Some of the commonly used monitoring and reporting metrics are:
- Milestones completed
- Number of time and budget changes
- On-time completion and planned hours vs actual time spent
- (Un)billable hours
- Return on investment
- Project cancellation and change rate
- Resource conflict.
If you’re using an Office 365 project management integration like Project Central, you can also just take a look at the project status, project health charts, as well as the status of each and every task.
Should you notice that things aren’t going according to the original plan, don’t panic.
Simply analyze what went wrong and course correct.
Team leadership is one of the most important things a project manager is tasked with.
If your team is all over the place, the project won’t get done. Even if you create the best project charter this world has ever seen.
The key skills you need to have to lead your team are communication and negotiation skills:
- Convey information clearly to all the stakeholders (including your team)
- Focus on feedback and encourage honest, respectful discussions
- Get buy-in from team members
- Discuss issues with your team, your clients, and top management
- Provide all the stakeholders with regular updates.
As a project manager, you’re also responsible for helping your team resolve issues.
Or to put it simply: you need to remove the obstacles that are stopping them from doing their jobs.
Sometimes this means they don’t have the right tools. In other cases, it’s a conflict with team members.
As a leader, you have to be patient enough to hear everyone out and encourage them to collaborate effectively.
You can do this by:
- Using the tools that make project collaboration more transparent
- Encouraging discussions and feedback
- Including your team in project planning
And a happy hour where your team members can get to know each other doesn’t hurt either!
Every project comes with its unique set of stakeholders.
Let’s say you’re a team lead at a bank. Top management just told you to create a new app.
As a project manager, you have to keep your bosses happy and create the product they wanted.
You also have to keep your team happy and make sure they don’t burn out.
And finally, you have to make the clients of the bank happy with the new app.
Top management, your team, and clients are all stakeholders. They’re all affected by the project in one way or another.
However, what varies is the degree of their influence over the project.
Top management can stop the project completely. Your team can disrupt it and make you go over budget.
As a project manager, it’s your duty to communicate with different stakeholders, understand their expectations, and manage their engagement.
Typically, this means you should keep everyone updated.
However, a good project scope statement also goes a long way toward making sure that no one has unrealistic expectations.
There are a few approaches to influencing that you can use as a project manager:
- Hard influence tactics: Information control, appeal to higher authority, pressure and so on
- Soft influence tactics: Image management, friendliness, networking, etc.
- Logical reasoning.
You can use your understanding of the stakeholders you’re trying to influence, as well as past experiences, to decide which approach you’ll use.