As practice shows, the question of what exactly the activity and value of a Project Manager are is asked only by those who have never been responsible for the successful implementation of anything. And the Project Manager is the very person responsible - even if they don’t give orders in the literal sense of the word but help the team members and try to make their work as comfortable as possible. In this article, we will see what else the PM is doing on a project and why this role is so important.
Any project is a complex of interrelated activities aimed at creating a unique product or service within time and budget limits. When we start discussing a new project with our customers, the first thing that they always talk about is the need to involve a development team that will implement it. During the discovery phase, we prepare a Vision & Scope Document to understand what our efforts will be going towards. Or, we create a Software Requirements Specification to record what specifically we will work on. We draw Wireframes in order to visually mock up what our product will look like. We form an Architecture Design Document and indicate a stack of technologies that we will use to implement our idea.
It seems that we have taken everything into account, gathered professionals in their fields, given them an idea and the freedom to implement it. But still, a strange thing happens usually - it emerges. Mess.
Because when hiring developers, designers, analysts, testers - and especially when a lot of them are required - we believe that they are all keeping in mind the essence of the project. And the words 'interconnected', 'timely', 'restrictions', and many other terms from the project definition go hand in hand with the team members through their lives.
But this is far from true, and this fact is revealed quite quickly - after the first problem that needs to be solved. Or, to be more precise, after the first time they need to identify, analyze, work out possible solutions, choose the optimal way, plan the implementation, implement, and evaluate the result. And in most cases, when something goes wrong - which it always does - a leader appears.
All types of leaders in one
According to the classification developed by the English sociologist M. Hermann, the following types of leaders are distinguished depending on their behavior:
- Pied pipers are idea initiators. Such a leader is independent, critical in assessing reality, knows how to remedy the situation; clearly defines the purpose of their activities; able to captivate the team along the way to the goal.
- Puppets primarily seek to ensure the interests of the group that has chosen them. This leader strives to properly serve their adherents while remembering to meet the wishes of the workers.
- Salesmen surround themselves with competent professional assistants who determine the most effective development paths. This leader knows how to brilliantly present and profitably “sell” their ideas and plans, attracting supporters.
- Firefighters show their worth best in crisis situations. They act effectively according to the circumstances and quickly solve the most pressing problems.
In the modern IT world, the above types are transformed into various roles that can be represented on a project, such as:
- Team Lead,
- Product Owner,
- Scrum Master,
- Project Coordinator,
- Delivery Manager.
However, in most cases, the variety of issues and problems on a project requires the leader to have the qualities of each of the types. At the same time, the project budget doesn’t allow involving executors of all the necessary roles so that these activities are distributed. That’s why there is a PM position on every project that we implement.
Where the PM’s work starts
It all starts with the fact that the implementation of any idea has limitations, described in the classic project triangle - Time, Scope, Cost. Although the interdependence of these metrics is obvious, not a single customer has come to us and said that they’re ready to compromise on any of this. Therefore, the development team needs someone to assist them in implementing and controlling the project requirements.
This assistance transforms into four basic management functions:
At the beginning of the article, I already mentioned that, before starting a project, we carry out quite a large set of activities for preparing documentation, layouts, and architectural solutions. In other words, we do everything to plan the implementation of our project: what resources are needed, what the planned budget is, how long it will take.
The task of a PM is to organize the following:
- choose qualified specialists,
- formulate goals,
- set up communication with the customer,
- define areas of responsibility,
- discuss with the customer and record the criteria that will determine the quality and success of this phase.
The result of these activities for the customer, along with what was mentioned earlier, is usually a roadmap and a description of the project implementation processes, from the start to the final delivery of the product.
When we have decided on the project basis, formed a team, and started the project, the number of arising issues begins to grow exponentially. We need to onboard people to the project, set up the infrastructure, prepare quality control tools, choose a framework for development, and launch a huge number of various mandatory activities. And the task of the PM is to be the orchestrator of these processes.
This concept is used in the IT environment increasingly often. According to Wiki, orchestration is the automated configuration, coordination, and management of computer systems and software. And while the keyword in the world of soulless machines is ‘automatic’, in our world, it is ‘a manually controlled process’ - although people and the interactions between them are equally complex. That’s why, on the surface, the PM's activity on the project is comparable to that of a conductor of a symphony orchestra.
There is more in common in the perception of these roles than you might imagine. Teams led by a PM or a conductor are made up of highly qualified professionals who are well-versed in their part of the functionality. Looking at both, you can confidently say that "I could do that too." There are parallels even in the historical perception of these roles: orchestras didn’t have conductors until the 19th century. Of course, there was a leading person, but this person was either the first violinist or the musician playing the harpsichord - often it was a composer conducting their music.
However, looking a little more closely at the movements of the PM's baton, you can see a long line of tasks awaiting them:
- creating a project map,
- creating a matrix of communications,
- preparing a resource plan,
- working with contracts and documents,
- describing processes,
- conveying processes to the team,
- organizing measures for continuity of supply, quality control, and safety,
- optimizing the tracking system, and so on, and so forth.
When talking about the processes on the project, I can’t help returning to the idea that the project is, first of all, the people who implement it. This means that, like any team, we go through the following stages of the project:
Having set up the basic processes and faced the first difficulties, we are finally reaching a normal pace. In such a situation, the PM's task is to help the project team do their job comfortably and give the customer the opportunity to enjoy the process. Personnel management, facilitation of routines, systematic 1-on-1 meetings, motivation and risk management, demos, preparation of reports, collection of feedback, change management - even in the normal operation of the project, the PM is unlikely to get bored. After all, the PM is the main entry point for the resolution of issues and problems arising within the team, as well as interaction and communication between the customer and the team.
However, when performing daily routine duties, we must not forget that we are still personally responsible for the successful implementation of the project. And this can be done only if we constantly monitor the project budget, team productivity, adherence to deadlines and release schedules, check the quality of the code, and so on down the list.
Defining a set of metrics that are important to the customer and the company is also the domain of the PM. To do this, the PM prepares the appropriate reports, creates automated dashboards, uses corporate control tools, and iteratively analyzes the results. After all, without supervision, project planning is absolutely useless. And we have already spent so much effort on it!
As a result, it turns out that, for our customers, the results of the PM's activities in the product development process are even more important. Only thanks to them, the customer can promptly receive the necessary information about the status of the project, strengths and weaknesses, their impact on the productivity of the team, and therefore on the resources spent.
Specializing in software product development, we know for sure that the cost of fixing an error found at the beginning is much less than one found at the end of development. Therefore, our task is to convey this idea to our clients and show the value of the PM. After all, the cost of this role on the project is incomparable with the cost of the consequences of those problems that we can safely prevent.
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