Should Project Managers Lead or Guide on Complex Projects?You always think of the project manager as the go-to person on the project. And for the most part – at least as a figure head – I think that’s true. But on big, complex, technical projects, is it the project manager leading or is he really just steering the project toward a successful (hopefully) conclusion?

What are the alternatives?

In some organizations, overbearing PMO Directors want ultimate control over the portfolio of projects – even to the point of participating in all visible, critical projects on at least the status meeting level. I’m not of the opinion that PMO Directors should actually be leading many, if any, projects themselves – they should be concerned with the PMO, the overall portfolio of projects and the processes that make the PMO and the organization successful. But clearly the PMO Director who insists on participating in every visible project’s status meeting and kickoff sessions just needs more to do…they must have too much time on their hands or their responsibilities have not been clearly defined to them.

In other organizations, I’ve seen other managers have major control over a project. This most often happens on software projects where the software development manager – or possibly the tech lead – ends up with ultimate control of the project. This can happen for two reasons:

  • Company policy or general practices dictate this
  • Because the project manager lacks the authority, confidence or leadership ability to maintain control of his/her own project

The Project Manager really has to be in charge. Obviously, I’m of the opinion that the project manager is the straw that stirs the drink. The customer expects there to be one central leader on the delivery team side and customer confidence is usually much higher if that leader – that central point-of-contact – is the same individual who produces the status report, manages the budget, leads the status meeting, kicks off the project, handles the scope management, and leads the delivery resources. That person needs to be the project manager. It’s what the customer expects and it’s what they should be allowed to expect.

Many of the projects I’ve been called in to fix, or re-set customer expectations on, or take over because customer confidence has been lost, have been projects that were being led either by a business analyst acting in a dual role, a developer acting in a dual role or a project manager with little to no customer handling experience.

BAs and developers have enough on their plate without asking them to also be the organization’s main face to the customer and lead meetings and handle the normal daily project management communication and deliverables that every customer should expect. They have critical jobs to do and usually excel when they’re not interfered with and expected to lead the project.

Summary / call for input

The customer expects a strong leader on the delivery side and in order to maintain customer confidence and satisfaction, it is critical – especially on highly visible projects and projects with tight schedules and budgets. On these projects, the role of the project manager and the tasks that they perform are even more critical and should not be passed on to another manager or a talented resource on the team who is also expected to develop requirements and the ultimate solution. The project manager needs to be that straw that stirs the drink. They must be the one driving.

Readers – have you had experiences in your own organizations where you were doing more steering than leading? Have you seen instances where other colleagues were perhaps less capable and were forced into the steering role? Please share your experiences and discuss.