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For the past 8 years, I have taught an introductory project management course at a local university in Southwestern Ontario.

In the first class of every semester, I usually ask students two questions:

  1. Do you have any project management experience?
  2. What do you think a project manager does?

As the average demographic for my class is usually 20-23 years of age, it is expected that the majority of students have no ‘official’ project management experience, but may have done aspects of project management such as putting together a roster schedule for a part-time job at a fast-food restaurant or planned a fundraiser event for a not-for-profit organization.

The responses I get for question #2 often sound a lot like, “they manage projects” or “manage ‘things’ to get projects done’”. Sometimes students are honest and respond with, “I don’t really know what a project manager does, but hope to learn that in this class”. 

The fact that my students often do not know what role a project manager has on a project is not surprising given where many of my students are in their academic and professional lives. 

What is somewhat surprising is the occasional lack of awareness among stakeholders (including sometimes sponsors and customers) on the role of the project manager and the skills that project managers contribute to a project. And this is from professionals who are most likely more experienced in these environments than my undergraduate university students.

As a project manager, you may not have a 12-week semester to coach your stakeholders on what skills a project manager should have and what their role is. You may need to take a more tactical approach. 

In this article, I will explore some of the skills project managers should have (and those people assume PMs have) and why it’s important to share with stakeholders the value of these skills. 

Communication Is Key (Mind Reading Not So Much)

Project management is not an activity that is done independently in a silo. In fact, according to Adrienne Watt, “It turns out that 90% of a project manager’s job is spent on communication(s)”. 

Communication on a project can take many forms. Apart from sending out formal status updates and listening to project team members, project managers may also need to ask questions. These questions may at times be difficult or awkward to answer, but in most instances, it is to obtain information to help the project team move forward.

It is interesting that stakeholders may not always identify with this. They may view a project manager’s questions as intrusive or annoying. They may also think, “how come the project manager doesn’t know this?” 

Well, unfortunately project managers are not mind readers. Sometimes the project manager will have to communicate with stakeholders and initiate a conversation to obtain required information.

Asking questions and engaging in conversation not only helps with obtaining information for the team, it also helps build relationships among project stakeholders.

What Should You Do

As much as project managers may want to have the ability to look into a crystal ball and read stakeholders’ minds, unfortunately this is a skill project managers (or anyone else!) simply don’t have.

However, developing both oral and written communication skills and practicing active listening will help project managers and teams to work through any challenges or impediments.

illustration of a project manager wearing a cape and looking at a brain, which has a lock symbol over it
Project managers are not mind readers.
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Money Doesn’t Exactly Grow On Trees

When I was a young child, my parents used to tell me, “Money doesn’t grow on trees”. That tidbit of advice helped me develop good money management skills at a young age.

Even though I probably didn’t understand the concept of a budget as a 5-year-old, I understood that money was not some infinite, unlimited resource that magically appears.

Flash forward to adulthood. I’m walking through a local supermarket, and they have a bunch of assorted potted flowers and plants, and to my surprise (and delight), they had a small plant called a ‘money tree’!

I was so amused that I took a picture of the magical ‘money tree’, and sent it to my parents with the message “I think you owe me an apology; apparently money does grow on trees!”

three comic panels showing a project manager investigating whether money is growing on a tree
Money generally does not grow on trees!

It made me think that this is where stakeholders may have the impression that when a project’s budget is at risk and finances are tight, a project manager can just magically ‘grow’ more money.

If a project’s budget is at risk and trade-offs to the scope and schedule are not options, maybe the project manager can go to their ‘money tree’ and harvest some?

What You Should Do

As much as we all would probably like to have a money tree (or a forest of them), this is obviously not reality. Project managers need to be able to accurately estimate costs, develop a budget, and track those costs while a team is executing on a project.

If it is trending that a project’s budget will go over the approved amount, project managers must be able to look at ways to address this without negatively impacting the project's scope, quality, or schedule. Options could include:

  • Using lower cost equipment, materials, and/or resources
  • Looking to see if costs could be shared with other projects within a program or portfolio.

So in the end, my parents were right…. money doesn't grow on trees and much like with your personal finances, money must be well managed on a project. 

Sorry, No Time Manipulating Spaceships Here

illustration of a project manager adjusting the space-time continuum using a complicated dashboard of controls
If only we could adjust the space-time continuum to fit our needs.

I’m not a huge science-fiction genre fan, but I have to admit I am a fan of the British sci-fi series Dr. Who. “The Doctor”, as the main character is known, can manipulate time and can travel back in time. That’s an amazing skill to have. 

Imagine if you are working on a project and you are behind schedule. Wouldn’t it be great to be able to hit the ‘pause’ button to allow the team to catch up and still meet the project deadline?

Instead of going into a Zoom meeting to review the schedule, wouldn’t it be great to just jump into our spaceship to create more time?

What Should You Do

Sadly, we humans do not have the ability to pause time, go back in time, or ‘create’ more time if our projects are behind schedule. 

If our projects are at risk of not meeting the scheduled completion date, project managers should consider using schedule compression techniques and ways to optimize the schedule.

Options such as crashing or resource leveling are tools that a project manager can use without having to request more time from a sponsor or customer (which may not be possible). 

In the end, time is a precious resource that we cannot afford to mismanage. Unlike a physical resource such as computer hardware, we simply cannot create additional time. However, that does not mean a project manager cannot be creative and innovative to manage the time they have. 

It’s always good to set realistic expectations with project stakeholders during an initiation and planning phase of a project. If a project’s schedule is not realistic, a project manager should communicate this early. 

No Round Resources In Square Project Holes 

three comic panels showing a project manager investigating whether the same tree from the previous comic also grants wishes
Have you ever found yourself wondering whether trees might grant wishes? Just me?

Knowing who and what you need to deliver your project is an activity that is usually done early in the project. Whether you are using a waterfall or agile delivery framework, resource planning for the people you will need on your project is very important to ensure that you have a team with the right skills and knowledge. 

As best as we try to plan, there may be occasions during a project where you discover that you do not have enough resources or the right type of resources to meet the project’s goals.

Many projects ago, I ran into a situation where we determined later in an agile project that we needed a UX designer on the team. Based on some feedback we received during a demo with the customer, a redesign of a feature was required. Okay—no problem right? Let’s just get our UX designer involved and move forward.

One small problem—we didn’t have a UX designer on the project team at this point in time. They were only on contract for a few sprints earlier in the project when we anticipated design work and we were collaborating with the customer on the user experience. 

To incorporate the customer’s feedback, we would have to ‘borrow’ a UX designer from another project in the organization or try to re-engage our contract designer. When presented with these options, the customer asked “You have people on the team right? Can’t one of them do it?” 

When I explained that the current team was composed of software developers and QA testers, the customer asked again “Well, can’t one of them do it? It’s all technical right”? 

How should you respond to that type of question?

What You Should Do

The response should be along the lines of “actually no, unfortunately a project manager cannot transform or shapeshift a software developer into a UX designer.”

Likewise, a project manager cannot shapeshift and instantly transform a technical writer into a social media content strategist or any other person that may be missing from a project team. 

You cannot make a square peg fit into a round hole. If there are gaps in the skills within a project team, the project manager could:

  • Look to see if others within the organization have the skills or knowledge needed, and can assist temporarily on the project
  • Look to see if there is money within the project budget and time in the schedule to hire someone externally to fill the gap

One additional option a project manager has, (this will need to be carefully analyzed against the project’s schedule and quality plan) is training a team member to take on a task.

Depending on what the task is, the timeline, and if this is a realistic option, it is always great to give people an opportunity to learn and develop while working on a project.

Project Leadership Is An Awesome Superpower Too 

Project management is complex and project managers bring a variety of skills to a project team. Fundamental to these skills are communication, budget, time, and resource management

Through collaboration and setting realistic expectations with stakeholders on the role the project manager will play, misconceptions may be avoided. While it would be great to have super-power skills like the ability to read minds and grow money, being able to lead a project team to deliver a project that exceeds customer expectations is also a pretty awesome superpower too.

Read our study about the most desirable project management skills here.

If you would like to share any tips, stories, or life lessons that apply to project management, feel free to connect with me via LinkedIn or Twitter.

Don’t forget to subscribe to The Digital Project Manager newsletter for more on what project managers need to know (and don’t need to know!).

By Christina Sookram

With over 15 years of corporate experience as a project manager, Christina Sookram is an experienced project leader and educator. She has provided project leadership experience at some of Canada's largest technology companies. She has subject matter expertise in both waterfall and agile project delivery and product management functions with a focus on Scrum, Kanban, and SAFe® agile methodologies. A successful entrepreneur, Christina founded CNS Project Consulting Inc in 2020 to help clients in the IT, education and Web3 industries. Christina is also an instructor at Wilfrid Laurier University and OCAD University where she enjoys sharing her love of all things project management with students.