How many balls can a PM juggle?

For the uneducated or the unbelievers in the value of project management, it is hard to imagine how a project manager can fill the working hours of a day.  In organizations that are replete with such beliefs, a project manager has to be able to walk the fine line between being perceived as merely a “paper pusher” or from straying too far outside the boundaries of their role.

This risk is often realized when a project is faced with a skills capacity shortfall which cannot be easily resolved.  With scope and schedule remaining fixed, in lower maturity organizations, if the project manager has past experience or has demonstrated other evidence that they can perform the under-resourced function they may come under significant pressure (if not from without then from within!) to do so.

There are risks with the PM’s acquiescing to this decision without some formality to the assessment process:

  1. Past experience is not representative of future performance.  Even if the role is identical to one the PM has held in the past, they have likely not kept current with practices and standards within that field and this will likely translate into quality or productivity impacts.
  2. It dilutes the PM’s focus.  Zero-cost multitasking is an illusion, and even if the PM is playing two roles on the same project, context-switching will still be required when they shift from their PM duties to their subject matter expert duties.  This impacts productivity, and worse, could cause them to ignore or procrastinate on critical (though subtle) PM activities such as stakeholder or risk management.
  3. It will cause overwork and increases the potential for burnout for the PM, and may impact the “soft” benefits that a PM can provide to their team.  On successful projects, the PM acts as a stress relief valve and hurdle-remover for the team – this is hard to do if the PM is doing the work of two people.  Faced with a stressed-out PM, team members and stakeholders might feel they are not getting the attention they need which will impact their productivity and morale.
  4. The down side of “Jack of all trades” is “Master of none”.  When evaluation time comes, the PM might find themselves in trouble as being a team player and “pitching in” does not carry the same tangible weight as delivering the project’s scope within established constraints.
  5. Just because you CAN, doesn’t mean you SHOULD.  Frequently taking on roles that are understaffed hides the visibility of the shortfall from the organization’s resource capacity decision makers.

You may think that I am staunchly against a PM wearing more than one hat on a project – this is not the case.  Resource constraints and real world deadlines often force such necessities, but what I am advocating is the need for careful evaluation of such decisions and formal communication of the risks associated with them.

The PM should work with appropriate governance bodies to set expectations for their dual role to ensure that they are being evaluated appropriately.  This could also include an evaluation of PM practices to right-size project administration to help them better handle the heavier workload.

If a project’s sponsor and key stakeholders are aware of the compromises being made (and have signed on the “dotted line”!), they can be better engaged to support the PM to help reduce the impact of these risks.

Categories: Project Management | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

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