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When I Grow Up, I Want to Be a Project Manager

I was sitting on a bench in the mall the other day bouncing my one-year-old daughter on my knee when a mother next to me asked her six-year-old daughter,

“what do you want to be when you grow up, sweetie?”

I remember thinking that this girl would most certainly rather play dolls and dress up than be presented with a question that many adults in professional careers may still be asking themselves. Perhaps the mother was looking for a few tips, I chuckled. I continued bouncing, awaiting the little girl’s answer. “A teacher,” the little girl returned along with a smile fit for a cereal box.

As a boy, I believe my favorite answer was Superman. My mom even made me a cape with a big “S” on it. Many of my childhood classmates wanted to be firefighters, policemen/women, and various other superheroes. I do not remember hearing “project manager.”

I decided to ask a group of sixth graders what they wanted to be when they grew up, and I received similar answers: firefighter, doctor, policewoman, construction worker, surgeon, etc. I then posed the following question: “What if you had to be ALL of these things every day? What would that be like?”

“Messy” was one boy’s answer. “I’d be all sweaty from running around putting out fires and then I’d have to get dirty building houses and all bloody cutting people up,” he said. “It would just be weird” was another girl’s response, “doing all of those things would get really confusing, and I’d probably kill somebody if I had to do surgery.” “I’d just try new stuff,” replied another boy, “because it might be cool to find out what it was like.” “That’s impossible” was the last boy’s answer. “How could you really be all of those things?”

Any of these humorous scenarios sound familiar? As project managers, we are expected to function in a myriad of capacities, including but not limited to firefighting, being the team/organizational policeman/woman, the contract and legal expert, teacher, coach, technical subject-matter expert (SME) . . . and the list goes on and on. We plan, schedule, obsess, coordinate, orchestrate, integrate, and see opportunity and possibility when others are calling for the project to be canceled. Super hero or not, however, we must resist the urge to “be” all things. A good project manager continues to develop professionally while allowing others on the project team to do the same. Delegation, empowerment and creative integration are instrumental in team development and, ultimately, project success.

The Project Manager as Firefighter, Law Enforcer and Doctor

Project managers own any and all firefighting that takes place within the “walls” of our respective project. It could also be argued that we must transcend these “walls” and extend our firefighting influence into fires that have the potential to spread into our “house.” In this respect, we are firefighters, risk managers, and problem-resolution experts. Risk management is an all too often neglected area that, when properly facilitated and integrated, can provide significant insight, context, and accountability.

Every call and meeting can provide an opportunity for anarchy. Rules, guidelines and “laws” must be placed within projects to keep traffic flowing in the proper direction. In terms of status and record keeping, it’s also necessary to closely monitor resource allocation percentages against limits (baseline). Just as traffic merges onto a busy highway, the project manager must police the integration of all project components.

Key project decisions are sometimes like prescribing medication or performing minor surgery. Decisions about what’s best for the overall health of the project are often times in the hands of the project “doctor” . . . and yes, patients die on the table. Good thing most project managers do not have to account for project malpractice insurance, or we’d all be singing the blues from time to time!

The Project Manager as Lawyer, Contract Administrator, Negotiator and Interpreter

Here’s where it starts to get really confusing. Depending on your propensity for legalese, contracts, statements of work, working agreements, service level arrangements and other business process-related documents may be on your project manager plate. Many times, the business arm of organizations frame and scope out efforts long before a project manager is engaged. This places the project manager “behind the eight ball” in terms of homework and diligence required to get up to speed on the contract and applicable deliverables, in order to appropriately validate the project scope and plan the integration of what’s to be delivered. The contract may be saying one thing, and the project may be headed in a direction to deliver something completely different. In this respect, we are the project’s lawyer, contract administrator and head negotiator.

The project manager needs to be able to take in information from all stakeholders (SMEs, vendors, multi-source providers, etc.), contextualize and prioritize it, and re-frame it for senior managers and other stakeholders — each of whom speak a different figurative (as well as often times, literal) language. The project manager also needs to understand how the cultures represented as stakeholders respond and react to information, how they’re motivated and more.

Information flowing down from top management needs to be cared for as well. Senior management’s communication vehicle to the project team is the “interpreter.” The interpreter also needs to internalize, translate, consolidate and subsequently communicate key stakeholders’ respective interpretations of project success.

The function of the project manager is to be adept at the multiple roles required to be project manager — not to be a SME on a specific task or, as is more often the case, the product or technology the project is delivering. We must be a translator, law enforcer, firefighter, lawyer, politician, superhero, doctor and, yes, “seer of the future.” Organizational SMEs may be well equipped to complete specific project tasks, but not to manage the integration of all project components.

Project managers must fill many roles, every day and it does get weird, messy, dirty, confusing and, if you’re having a really bad day, seemingly impossible. But, it’s really “cool” when you realize that it is possible for one person to manage the integration of “all of those things.”

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