Understanding project management for professionals

Lynda Bourne
July 5, 2016

Project management associations worldwide are at the forefront of the push to have project management recognised as a profession, but what does professional project management look like? To answer this question we first need to understand the project a project manager manages.

The PMBOK® Guide 5th Edition defines a project as a ‘temporary endeavour undertaken to create a unique product service or result’ and project management as ‘the application of skills, knowledge, tools and techniques to project activities to meet the project requirements’. These definitions are a good starting point but don’t dig deep enough to define professional project management.

Management is a process requiring skills, knowledge, tools and techniques to motivate and direct the work of the people the manager is managing; in the case of a project, the group of people endeavouring to create the project’s deliverables.

The first challenge in understanding the profession of project management and the difference between project and general management is recognising that the group of people involved in the project form a temporary and dynamic organisation.

The temporary organisation being managed by the project manager may include full-time and part-time people in many different configurations:

  • a traditional functional delivery team;
  • a cross-functional team;
  • a virtual team (functional or cross functional); or
  • a diverse group of people from a federation of contractors and suppliers brought together under a range of supply contracts to deliver the project.

Many projects include combinations of all of these different groupings at different stages of its life cycle. The temporary organisation for each project builds in the early stages, may change character completely in the middle (eg, as the project transitions from ‘design’ to build’) and dissipates in the later stages. Each of these temporary organisations is unique and ever changing (dynamic).

What is a project?

The concept of a project itself is also difficult to define precisely. Projects do not exist in nature; they are created by the action of people, usually executives, deciding to define the work needed to create a specific deliverable as ‘a project’.

However, the decision that creates ‘a project’ in one organisation may create several in another; for example:

  • To implement a new function, one organisation may choose to integrate organisational change within a development project, whereas another organisation may choose to appoint a technical project manager to develop the deliverable and create a separate project, run by a specialist change manager to implement the changes needed to make effective use of the deliverable across its workforce, recognising very different skill sets are needed.
  • To implement a process upgrade effecting manufacturing plants in several states, one organisation may choose to set up a single large project to manage upgrades across all of the plants, another a series of smaller projects each focused on one State, yet another may set up a program to manage the work and let the program run coordinated projects in each separate plant.

All of these options will create ‘projects’ that meet the PMBOK® Guide definition but they are very different entities to manage.

To further challenge the concept of a ‘project’ the same deliverable, such as a new facility, may be at the centre of two quite different projects! When a project is being delivered by a contracting company to a client organisation it is common to see both a delivery project manager working for the contractor to create the deliverable defined in its contract and a client side project manager running a project to acquire the deliverable.

The work of the delivery project manager is well defined in the PMBOK® Guide, to be successful, all the delivery project manager has to do is build the new facility so that it meets the specified contract scope and quality and do so within the contracted price and timeframe.

The role of the client-side project manager is quite different and not so well documented. Client side project managers should:

  • Work to ensure the delivery organisation and project are aligned to the needs of the client;
  • Have the authority to represent the client organisation;
  • Maintain the link between the project and the strategy of the client organisation;
  • Lead the relationship with the delivery organisation;
  • Create an environment for success that allows the delivery organisation the best chance of succeeding;
  • Manage the way the client organisation interfaces wit the delivery organisation and project;
  • Conduct internal reporting to the sponsor and other managers within the client organisation;
  • Respond to requests for information, change requests and other communications from the project on behalf of the client organisation and manage the resolution of each issue;
  • Maintain the commercial contract with the delivery organisation and monitor performance.

These client side functions are essential for overall project success and meet the definition of a ‘temporary endeavour undertaken to create a unique product service or result’ but represent a very different type of project manager.

Then there is the degree of authority granted to a project manager to manage his or her project, which can vary enormously: some project managers are responsible for budgets of $millions and hire the people they need for their project, others have far less authority and autonomy. And finally the various classifications of project: by size, industry, complexity and project management methodology being deployed (for example agile versus waterfall).

Despite the diversity outlined above, there are important commonalities: each of these endeavours are seen as projects by the project manager and the project stakeholders and regardless of the range of projects and degrees of autonomy and authority, every project manager aims to deliver his or her project successfully.

So where does this leave the concept of a project management profession? The concept of ‘project management’ covers a very diverse range of management positions, managing a range of equally diverse temporary organisations. However, many people actively choose to define themselves as project managers and treat the work they are managing as ‘a project’ and most people recognise a project manager when they meet one. For this to occur there has to be a common ‘core’ that defines the practice of managing projects – this common core can be used to build a profession.

If we are going to be successful in creating the ‘profession of project management’ and having it generally accepted as a profession, the elements of professional practice will need to be based on these core practices and defined in a way that covers a very broad discipline.

Author avatar
Lynda Bourne
Dr Lynda Bourne PMP, FAIM, is an international authority on stakeholder engagement and the Stakeholder Circle visualisation tool. She is the author of 'Making Projects Work' (2015), 'Advising Upwards: A Framework for Understanding and Engaging Senior Management Stakeholders' (2011), and 'Stakeholder Relationship Management' (2009) and a contributor to many others.
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