Have you ever found yourself in a meeting where someone is quietly sitting in the corner taking notes, and you find yourself asking, “Who even are you?” Have no fear, you’re not alone! It’s either a person who wandered into the room, noticed too late they were in the wrong meeting, and then got too nervous to leave, or more likely, it’s your project manager.
So now that we have that taken care of, you may be thinking to yourself, “Cool! Other than take notes, what does that person do?” Glad you asked. The role of the project manager is one that changes from project to project. There are some standard activities that a PM will always be responsible for, such as creating timelines, tracking budgets, and communicating with both the client and project teams, but largely it can be a role that can be hard to define. A lot of the tasks that your PM will own are generally background tasks, which may not always be apparent to you. At the end of the day, the responsibilities of the PM are going to depend entirely on the type of project that needs to be managed.
The best way to sum up the PM role is the jack of all trades, but master of none. In other words, your PM should have a wide breadth of knowledge of project activities and deliverables but doesn’t need to know the exact details of how a specific implementation is done. Why is that? Because the most important task for a PM is communication. Communication with the project team to ensure they understand what needs to be done and when, and communication with the client team to ensure they understand the steps that need to be taken, and the order in which they need to be done to complete the solution.
This sounds simple in practice but is generally where a majority of project issues stem from. I think everyone can probably think of at least one instance where a problem could have been avoided if only a potential issue had been brought to you earlier, if a risky feature had been discussed in more detail up front, or if the project team better understood a client process that needed to occur prior to going too far down any given path. This is where your PM comes in. It’s important for them to have the breadth of knowledge in order to be able to explain and discuss the various parts of a project or deliverable, without having to play telephone with the various parties involved.
There’s also a handful of agency-side tasks that PMs are responsible for: tracking budgets and submitting revenue forecasts, managing resource assignments and PTO, and ensuring the team is following proper processes. While these are technically tasks that a senior resource on the delivery team can handle (and do handle in the instance of smaller projects), a project almost always runs more smoothly when there is a person that is fully dedicated to these types of tasks so the delivery team can focus wholly on delivery.
The rest of the PM responsibilities are hard to define because they are so specific to the individual project. Ultimately the PM is there to ensure the project runs smoothly, which often means filling in gaps wherever they may be. For example, I’ve worked on projects where I’ve had to be more involved in requirement gathering, or where I’ve had to conduct user testing interviews, which aren’t always typical tasks for a PM. On the other hand, I’ve also been on projects where I pretty much just stuck to the basics and let the delivery team focus on creating a great solution. Being flexible and finding the right approach to any project is the key.
- The PM is responsible for making sure the project runs smoothly, regardless of what their standard tasks and responsibilities are. PMs should find ways to add value wherever they can.
- Leadership should be looked at as a skill, and not a role. PMs should know when to step in and take charge and know when to let the team do their thing.
- Communication is key. Everyone (client or delivery team) should feel like they understand what is happening, when it needs to happen, and why it’s happening at any given stage of the project.
- PMs should be flexible; not all projects will have the same approach, and while it’s good to have a standard project structure, they should also be open and willing to reduce or enhance that structure to keep the project running smoothly.
- If a project is running smoothly, your PM is doing their job effectively, even if it isn’t always apparent what tasks they’ve been handling.
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