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If you ask an experienced project manager “what does a project manager do?”, then be prepared to have your inquiry answered with another question: “well, what doesn’t a project manager do?” Indeed, the responsibilities of a project manager are broad, and range from performing tactical and technical tasks, to carrying out strategic and executive functions – and often in the same hour!
what does a project manager do
This article sheds more light on the question of “what does a project manager do?”. This will be especially helpful for individuals who are considering a career in project management, as well as those who are not formal project managers, but are working in a project-related capacity.

What Do Project Managers Do All Day (and Sometimes All Night)?

According to the Association for Project Management (APM), which is the world’s only chartered membership organization representing the project management profession, project managers have the following core areas of responsibility:

  • Planning the work that needs to be done.
  • Deciding who is going to carry out work and when.
  • Analyzing and managing project risks.
  • Ensuring that work is completed to an acceptable standard (including meeting compliance and regulatory obligations).
  • Motivating team members.
  • Coordinating work.
  • Ensuring that work is carried out per the schedule and budget.
  • Dealing with changes as required.
  • Verifying that a project delivers expected outcomes and benefits.

Before we explore another way of answering “what does a project manager do?”, it is important to highlight that project managers are not virtuosos. They work as part of a collaborative team, which typically includes the project sponsor (which can be an internal executive or external customer), as well as colleagues in other departments. They may also work closely with the Project Management Office (PMO).

Project Lifecycle View of Project Manager Duties

Another way to answer “what does a project manager do?” is by looking at responsibilities through the lens of the project life cycle (PLC).

According to the Project Management Institute (PMI), which is the world’s leading professional association for millions of project professionals, there are five process groups that make-up the PLC. These process groups are:

  • Initiating:

    processes that are necessary to launch a new project, or a major new phase in an existing project.

  • Planning:

    processes that involve identifying, developing and planning project scope, and all of its various aspects including budget, schedule, and procurement.

  • Executing:

    processes related to carrying out scheduled project activities and all communications (internal and external), in order to achieve planned business objectives.

  • Monitoring/Controlling:

    processes that cover tracking and governance, and which seek to optimize productivity, performance and team member engagement.

  • Closing:

    processes that are required to finalize and complete a project, or a major phase of an existing project.

Again, it is important to note that project managers are not solely responsible for carrying out all of the tasks in these various process groups. Rather, it is a team effort. The size and composition of the team changes based on the task and objective.

Prophets, Gamblers, Experts and Executors

What makes a “good” project manager? In an article for Harvard Business Review, researchers Carsten Lund Pedersen and Thomas Ritter proposed that there are four basic types of project managers: Prophets, Gamblers, Experts, and Executors.

  • Prophets are project managers who pursue business opportunities beyond existing strategic boundaries, and propose a grand, bold vision that is markedly different from the status quo. Prophets need supporters and colleagues to buy into their vision and, to some extent, take a “leap of faith”.
  • Gamblers are project managers who pursue bold business opportunities within existing strategic boundaries, but lack a solid business case – not out of incompetence or laziness, but because reliable quantitative data pertaining to the likelihood of success is currently unavailable.
  • Experts are project managers who pursue business opportunities that lie beyond existing strategic boundaries. However, unlike Gamblers they have reliable qualitative data to build a strong business case.
  • Executors are project managers who pursue business opportunities within existing strategic boundaries, and which are backed by solid data and a strong business case. However, unlike Experts their aim is not visionary – there is no risk, no uncertainty, and no challenge. There is just the need for execution.

At first glance, it may seem wise to have one or two types of project managers in an organization – for example, Experts and Executors. However, Pedersen and Ritter argue that diversity of project management styles provides a competitive advantage. As such, it is smart to have each type within an organization (yes, including Gamblers!). Organizational leaders are also advised to:

  • Enable each type of project manager to work in a manner that enhances their strengths. Processes and policies that motivate and empower Prophets will trigger anxiety and frustration among Executors. Conversely, a style and system that caters to Executors will be tedious and stifling for Prophets.
  • When engaging each type of project manager – and especially when evaluating their ideas and advice – appreciate that they have different frameworks and paradigms. Expecting Gamblers to be risk averse is as counter-productive as expecting Experts to confidently forge ahead without a solid business case.
  • Realize that not all projects are best-suited to all project managers. Carrying out a mission critical project that is fundamental to organizational health is likely going to be handled better by Experts and Executors rather than Prophets and Gamblers. On the other end of the spectrum, exploring new opportunities and expanding the boundaries of existing business strategy is the domain of Prophets and Gamblers.

Qualities of a Project Manager

Regardless of the type of project manager, all women and men in the field – and those who aspire to join them – should demonstrate the following qualities and skills:

  • Competence
  • Decisiveness
  • Vision
  • Communication (including active listening)
  • Stability
  • Open-mindedness
  • Empathy
  • Resilience
  • Flexibility
  • Reliability
  • Continuous learning

Project managers also need to be organized, and have strong administrative and delegation skills. And while they do not necessarily need to be “technical wizards” (unless that is central to their function as a project manager), they should be comfortable using various technology-led tools and systems, such as cloud project and portfolio management software.

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The Final Word
Whether you are formally and officially on-track to work as a project manager – or like many people, you have become somewhat of an “accidental project manager” – the fact remains that you want to do your best; both for personal fulfilment and professional growth. This article has highlighted some of the key roles and responsibilities that will be part of your experience, and ideally serve as the foundation of your long-term satisfaction and success!


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