Project Managers need to be leaders not administrators

Project management is about getting the job done, not pleasing the PMO

Lately I’m hearing more and more complaints from experienced project managers because they are being used as expensive typists and spreadsheet crunchers to keep the PMO happy.

Some companies are not seeing the difference between effective project management and administrative project management. PMOs are supposed to support and facilitate project management but more commonly I am seeing the opposite. PMOs are actually burdening projects with plenty of “non-value add” and energy sucking administration for the sake of it. This practice is sadly endorsed by an increasing number of organizations.

Recently I sat through a project steering meeting where company executives criticised a project manager for not using the correct version of the spreadsheet template for the steering update. They failed to acknowledge that the project had been performing very well in all areas, and that the PMO had updated the template only the day before the steering meeting and had expected everyone to be aware of this fact, although they informed nobody. The PMO then jumped on the band wagon about the importance if using the correct template. I find this type of experience painful.

Project management is not just project administration

There are basically two types of project managers – administrators and real PMs. Administrators are the PMs that document and report infinite detail on progress and project results (most often of failure) in project plans, status reports and other documentation. Real effective PMs, are rare. These are the people who can make the desired result happen. They deliver the news rather than document and report the news.

They are leaders first and are relentless in their pursuit of project milestones and completion. They are unafraid to speak up, stand up, and confront when needed; indeed, they are willing to raise issues quickly and get issues the attention they deserve rather than letting them silently kill the project. They accept responsibility, demand accountability, and won’t take no for an answer. They work tirelessly to go over, under, around and sometimes through obstacles. Through their own endeavours, they create teams of people with that mindset. They focus on the goal, not the process.

These PMs understand that the customer stakeholders really don’t care about how hard you work, or how perfect your administration skills are, they only really care about what you deliver. This is not to say that administration should be ignored, it just should not become the project. Many organizations are failing to point out this difference to their PMs and PMOs.

Project management way of life

Project management is a contact sport, and not for the faint hearted. Effective PMs are strong leaders by their nature. Paperwork and processes should support the project and enable communication within and outside of the project team. Every document created as part of a project should add value and serve a specific purpose. Too often in industries such as Life Sciences, a myriad of documents is created to support project delivery. Many of these are mandated by the regional regulations, many are not.

stakeholders really don’t care about how hard you work, or how perfect your administration skills are, they only really care about what you deliver

Administrator PMs blindly walk into these document mountains and never question the purpose of each document, citing the regulations as the reason. The effective PMs look at the value of document and will leverage from previous work where possible only producing a document where it has a direct or supporting part to play in the project. They ensure that only the documents required for regulatory compliance are produced.


Project management is not for everyone. Lots of administration is not for everyone. Unfortunately, PMOs in many organizations are failing to see the difference between effective administration and effective project management. I have often experienced PMOs lecturing PMs on how projects should be delivered when many of them (PMOs) have never actually been near a real project. The are rewarding PMs that are qualified in the process of project management and failing to recognize the skills of project management.


Project Management points to consider

A few things that I have learned and observed about projects over the years:

Failure on a project is a temporary state (or if you are going to fail, failing fast is much better than failing slow – so get showstoppers out in the open and under discussion fast).

Your project team will do their best to accomplish (and exceed) the goal – if they are clear on what the goal actually is. If they believe they can do it, they can do it.

People get projects done, not templates and documents.

Focus on the END goal – there is always a way.

Figure out your critical resources and ring fence them from work outside the project.

Project Documentation should serve and support the project, it is not “the project”.

Lots of people have opinions and advice on what should be done…only a few can actually get it done.

Ownership and Accountability are everything. Good people don’t have an issue with this way of thinking.

NEVER plan projects using duration – effort (and resulting output) is what matters (most projects are planned using duration).

You cannot communicate too much, within the team, to stakeholders, company leadership etc.

On a related topic read The Project Mindset

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