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A PM’s got to know their limitations!

While I wrote in “Today, my (PM) jurisdiction ends here!” that a project manager who focuses purely on the triple constraint without considering the organizational outcomes of their project is adding limited value, I’ve also worked with some that willingly operate at the opposite extreme.

This might be the behavior of a project manager who believes that the full accountability for the project’s success falls on their shoulders and that the best way to avoid being blamed is to take over all critical activities. This can also occur with junior project managers who are assigned projects that are within the domain of their past experience – it is too tempting for them to backslide into their “past lives”.
Another rationale could be if it is the reaction to an organization that suffers from low project management maturity. If sponsors, functional managers or team members abdicate their duties, a project manager might be faced with the choice of picking up the slack or letting the project suffer. What’s challenging is that even if the situation improves, the project manager might be very reluctant to let go.

It’s hard to define exactly when a project manager crosses this invisible line, so what are some of the warning signs that their manager could monitor?

  1. Frequent negative or positive feedback on the project manager’s performance from project participants. You might be surprised by my inclusion of the positive, but in the case of a low maturity organization, excessively positive praise of a project manager’s “ownership” could be an indication of too much involvement!
  2. Significant, sustained overtime on the part of the PM while other team members are able to complete their work within normal working hours.
  3. Neglect for project administration or other “low value” duties – logs are not maintained, schedules are out-of-date, minutes from key meetings don’t get published.
  4. As 80+% of a project manager’s role is communication, if they are spending too much time wearing other hats, communication consistency and quality is likely to suffer.
  5. Excessive use of the pronouns “I” and “Me” instead of “We” when referring to the project. This might seem minor, but it can be indicative of the latent problem.
  6. Premature departures of previously high performing team members. If a good worker feels that someone else is doing the job that they were assigned to do, they’ll likely prefer to move to a project where they will be able to shine.

While sponsors and team members may appreciate someone who is willing to roll up their sleeves when the situation demands it, if this behavior becomes the norm, the project manager will get blamed regardless of whether the project succeeds or fails. To avoid this, it’s best to ignore Clint Eastwood’s other quote “Now you know why they call me Dirty Harry: every dirty job that comes along.”

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