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What a Project Manager Does: A Multi-Faceted Role

Whether you select and manage project managers or you are one, you need to know what everyone thinks the PM role is. Without a mutually accepted role definition, there is a high risk that the wrong person will be chosen to play the role; there is likely to be disappointment and conflict.

On the surface, a project manager’s role seems easy to define. PMI says, “Project managers are change agents: they make project goals their own and use their skills and expertise to inspire a sense of shared purpose within the project team. They enjoy the organized adrenaline of new challenges and the responsibility of driving business results.”i Change the word project to program and the same can be said for program managers.

As they say, “The Devil is in the details.” Go beneath the surface and you can see that the project manager role changes from situation to situation. Sometimes the project manager is leading the project by setting direction, motivating the stakeholders, making architectural and strategy decisions, resolving conflict, and exercising authority. In other situations, the project manager may be coordinating and administrating while an architect, strategist or leadership team makes the key decisions that drive the project.

Related Article: The PM and BA Role: A Deeper Dive

When you are staffing your project, be aware of the role you want the PM to play and why you want them to play that role. Then get the right people with the right skills and personality.

The Project Manager Roles

When we take the PM role apart, we have these facets. Each is a role in and of itself. A project manager need not play each of them, though they all must be played:

  • Direction
  • Administration
  • Facilitation
  • Communication

In addition to these roles, project managers may play others. They may act as performers of any kind – business analysts, technical writers, etc. – depending on the needs of the situation.

Direction and Authority

Direction is associated with thought leadership and authority. Every project needs a clearly defined direction and a clearly defined director.

In some projects or programs, the PM acts as chief architect and strategist with the power to make decisions regarding compliance, quality, and technical direction. On a surgical team, the lead surgeon decides whether and when to operate, where to cut, how to proceed, etc. They direct the rest of the participants.

In other situations, an individual or a small (two or three person) team may play that role. That was the case in the Manhattan project where the scientist, Oppenheimer, and the Project/Program Manager, Leslie Groves, shared the role.

Some project managers may have authority to make spending decisions within a budget, and others may have to go through multiple levels of approval for each expense.

Plans, objectives, quality criteria, standards, methods, designs, and process, are subject to approval or may be developed by the director. For example, the director would have the authority to take an agile as opposed to a waterfall approach to the project.

While the director may not have the ultimate authority, there must be some. Major decisions, where major is defined for each situation, are escalated to executive sponsors or higher-level authority, everything else is under the authority of the director. Clearly defining this authority at the earliest stages of the project avoids conflict later. Everyone knows whom to go to for what decisions and what decisions they can make on their own.


Administration is the application of tools and techniques to plan, monitor and control the project or program. The project manager is responsible for making sure that there is a plan and that the plan is kept up to date so that at any point in time it is an accurate prediction of the outcome.

The administrator must have strong knowledge of the nuts and bolts of project and program management – creating a charter, assessing and describing roles and responsibilities, establishing a communications plan, using the tools, task analysis, scheduling, budget creation and management, resource planning, data collection, reporting, and change, issues and risk management.

The administrator may be responsible for creating the project management process or following an existing one, with more or less flexibility.

Administration is where project managers spend most of their time. Overall administration can take around 10% of total project effort. That’s about half a work-day per person per week.

The administrative role, particularly in large complex programs, may be performed by more than one person. For example, a person from a finance group, with budgeting, accounting, and financial reporting may be responsible for budget management. The project manager, in that case, would be responsible for integrating budget data collection, reporting and analysis into the big picture of the project as a whole – providing estimates, authorizing and making expenditures, and comparing how much has been spent to what has been accomplished. While two people may be contributing to the task of administering the budget, they must be unified in playing that role.

Content management is another part of administration. It is to make sure that documents are stored and managed in a way that enables easy access and effective collaboration. In a large program, a librarian, reporting to the PM would take on that work.

PM administrators are not the only ones involved in project administration. Each performer is responsible for reporting their time spent on tasks, accomplishments and issues. This often involves attending status meetings, preparing status reports and posting issues and change requests.

Part of the administrator’s job is to make life as easy as possible for the project performers while providing all interested parties with a clear and accurate picture of what is going on and what they might expect going forward. The effective performance of the administrative role will leave an audit trail – a history of the project.

Making life easy for the performers means establishing processes that take minimal time and effort to submit time and progress information, address risks and issues and to prepare reports. Without this information, the PM administrator cannot do their job.


Facilitation literally means to make things easy, or at least as easy as they can be. The facilitator is a guide; a neutral party, who works to help people come to a common understanding of their objectives, plan the way to achieve them and execute the plan.

For example, a project manager playing the facilitator role will help a performer, team or team leader come up with a realistic schedule, considering task dependencies, estimates, risk assessments and resource availability. The facilitator does not do the planning or execution. That is the job of the performer or team lead. Though, the facilitator may also be playing other roles and be a team member or performer.

The facilitator together with the administrator provides systems and procedures that make administrative and direct content work productive.

A project management process that uses toolset that enables a single entry of time, cost and task data and generates status reports at multiple levels of detail would facilitate administration. It removes the need for each performer to write a status report while enabling a clear picture of what was supposed to happen, what really happened, how much it cost, etc. Of course, no tool is yet able to say the cause of whatever occurred. The system would facilitate easy recording of the causes of slippage. The facilitator makes sure the data is used in performance analysis and future planning.


Communication is a foundation for the other three aspects of the project manager role. It is through communication that direction, administration, and facilitation are carried out. It is the connective tissue. It involves reporting, building and maintaining relationships, transferring knowledge, diplomatically and objectively navigating accountability and quality assurance, and more.

Any PM must be able to communicate well. At the same time, part of the communication role can be performed by a designated spokesperson.


Know the nature of your PM role to make sure you have the right people with the right skills in place to play that role.

Be creative. Adapt the role to the people available and the needs of the project. For example, if you have a great administrator who doesn’t have the capacity to direct, craft your team to make the best of the situation. Define roles and assign performers, so all of the facets of the PM role are covered to accommodate project needs and consider individual capabilities


George Pitagorsky

George Pitagorsky, integrates core disciplines and applies people centric systems and process thinking to achieve sustainable optimal performance. He is a coach, teacher and consultant. George authored The Zen Approach to Project Management, Managing Conflict and Managing Expectations and IIL’s PM Fundamentals™. He taught meditation at NY Insight Meditation Center for twenty-plus years and created the Conscious Living/Conscious Working and Wisdom in Relationships courses. Until recently, he worked as a CIO at the NYC Department of Education.

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