Are Project Managers Really Admins?

Paul Dandurand

The world of project management was obsessed with metrics: in 2013, 62% of businesses felt they couldn’t properly track time and costs for their projects. This blew the door wide open for the development of project management software that would facilitate this kind of tracking. With KPIs now so easily accessible, PMs could easily communicate real-time reports to their stakeholders, and stakeholders could demand more frequent reporting, knowing that the information was at the tips of our fingers.

The thought process was: with better data and better tracking, surely there will also be better project success! Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Since 2013, there are in fact fewer successful projects every year. The 2015 success rate for IT projects was only 29%, according to Standish Group survey. This is hard on other projects areas like new product development projects and professional services client engagements.

Time and cost tracking added more stress on project managers to spend most of their time gathering the data to populate the project management tools or to manually create spreadsheet and PowerPoint reports. This is what I call project “administration” work.

So what’s going on here?

I believe the problem is too much project administrating and not enough managing and leading. Part of the blame could be from executives and sponsors demanding more detailed cost and schedule data without balancing it with project facilitation, execution, people engagement, and process improvement, which could lead to better business value success.

The three project management hats

Let’s take a minute to imagine this scenario in a different light: a restaurant. There are three main areas of management in a restaurant: the business, the food, and the service. These are usually divided among the general manager, executive chef, and maitre d’, respectively. Responsibilities are divided between all three roles and are specific to each without any overlap. If an executive chef starts managing servers and training them, the chef won’t have time to manage the sous chefs, as well. While the service may greatly increase in quality (or not), the food preparation will suffer. Bottom line: it takes a balanced effort across all three areas to successfully run a restaurant.

The same parallel can be drawn to project management: The success of a project requires three different types of tasks: administering, managing, and leading.

Some organizations have the resources, especially for very large projects, to have a separate person responsible for admin, managing, and leading. However, I certainly know that is not the case for most of us who need to survive with one person wearing all hats. The problem is that one of the hats (administration) gets worn much more than the other two—to our detriment.

Let’s look at the three hats.

1) Project administration hat (maitre d’ thinking):

The administrative portion of project management consists of tracking costs, time and resources, creating status reports, documenting, and setting things up.

2) Project management hat (executive chef thinking):

The managerial portion of a project is mostly about proper communication and facilitation. The goal here is to ensure proper communication within the team members, stakeholders, sponsors, and the end project customers. Management also takes the form of facilitation, where processes become streamlined and barriers or obstacles are removed. Managing is also about executing the process and solving problems. This includes motivating people to ask for help and to help others when needed. The manager should foster lessons-learned discussions and innovation to improve the process.

3) Project-leading hat (general manager thinking):

Leading entails identifying or understanding the project’s goals and communicating the vision and strategy to the team and stakeholders. Leaders see the bigger picture, challenge the status quo, and look to innovate. They also engage the team, but do so with executive management’s support.

In our past blog about why projects fail (Source: Standish Group), Lawrence Dillon, former ARAMARK Healthcare CIO and current COO at ENKI, LLC, found that none of the top five reasons for project failure had anything to do with the project administrator side of our project world. Here are the top five reasons for failure:

  1. Lack of executive support.
  2. Missing emotional maturity.
  3. Poor user involvement.
  4. No optimization.
  5. Not enough skilled staff.

The meat of these points relates to the duties of the project manager and project leader hats.

Project manager’s secret sauce: three hats on one head

Let’s assume we have no choice but to have one project manager for our project. How do we do so much with one head? Think of a small cafe or specialty restaurant where the owner is playing the role of general manager, executive chef, and maitre d’. This owner knows the business will not last long if strategy, innovation, and administrating is not done in balance.

How can one person manage a project with the three hats? Here are some ideas on how to not get over-consumed by project admin tasks:

  • Define project success: Establish a new definition of your project’s success with executives and leadership. In other words, what business value are you striving to achieve for them?
  • Prioritize metrics: Obtain agreement with leadership on what critical and minimal metrics are needed to best manage the success of meeting business value. Prioritize metrics between must-have and nice-to-have, and obtain and ensure that you have the power to choose to drop the nice-to-haves in favor of other leadership duties when there are time constraints.
  • Implement best project process: Choose the right project process recipes and ingredients needed for best project success. The process should have enough of the secret sauce to ensure that junior team members have the how-too information at their fingertips.
  • Streamline process: Mold your chosen process for any custom needs and ensure that the added information also has the steps on how things get them done for best end results.
  • Facilitate and execute: Fire up the oven and execute the process while solving problems.
  • Engage people: Engage team members to be accountable, ask for help, help others, and chime in on how to improve the process from lessons learned and new ideas.
  • Improve and repeat: Scale the process for future repeatability with flexibility in mind to forever increase business value.

If some of us are finding that we’re project admins due to time limitations, let’s see what we can do to lower the admin time and increase management and leadership time.

What about project software tools? As mentioned above, most tools focus their features for the project administrator hat: scheduling, resource allocation, progress percent, and financial data. I believe that future project tools will become more balanced with a focus on project manager and project leader hats. This will be about driving process with flexibility, engaging people to solve issues together, and improving the future process from lessons learned and new ideas.

For information about project management software for driving processes, please visit SAP App Center.

This article originally appeared on the Pie blog and is republished by permission.


Paul Dandurand

About Paul Dandurand

Paul Dandurand is the founder and CEO of PieMatrix, a visual project management application company. Paul has a background in starting and growing companies. Prior to PieMatrix, he was co-founder of FocusFrame, where he wore multiple hats, including those of co-president and director. He helped position FocusFrame as the market leader with process methodology differentiation. FocusFrame was sold to Hexaware in 2006. Previously, he was a management consulting manager at Ernst & Young (now Capgemini) in San Francisco and Siebel Systems in Amsterdam. Paul enjoys photography, skiing, and watching independent films. He earned a B.A. degree in Economics from the University of California at Berkeley.