In this article I have re-worked some old themes that people who have heard me speak may have heard before. I want to go through them again for several reasons: firstly because they are still worth saying again; secondly, because my thinking on this issue evolves; and finally, as I’ve just written a new project management book, it seems a good time to reinforce this central message. We have gone through difficult economic times. As project managers we sit in the middle of this turmoil and as a result often face threats to permanent or contract jobs. When jobs are threatened, it is always useful to be able to define why the role you are performing is critical to the business you work for. But even when roles are not threatened, it is important to be able to define clearly and succinctly why your role is required.

As project managers we spend a lot of time thinking about the best ways to go about managing projects. There are books, bodies of knowledge, training courses and tools and templates. But all of these are built on one assumption that is rarely questioned:  we need project managers.

You may not be surprised to learn that I endorse this assumption. But endorsement is hardly enough. A better answer is to explain why we need project managers. My original thinking on this was triggered by a client who told me that she felt she only needed project managers because of a failure of her staff. If she had good people she would not need project managers as everyone would get on and do their jobs. I am simplifying, as her argument was more sophisticated than this, but that was the heart of it. Of course, her statements made me challenge her, but when asked precisely why we need project managers my counter arguments were clumsy. So I have spent some more time thinking about this. In this article I am going to give four real, but poor, reasons for needing project managers – and what I think is the core right reason.

Poor Reason 1: People are lazy

A common reason for thinking we need project managers is the belief that people are lazy. If no-one chases them, they won’t do their work. This is what Goldratt calls “student syndrome”: I’ll only do what I need to do because there is a deadline approaching and someone else is chasing me to get the work done. I think this is a very weak justification for project management. It would be naive to say that project managers never end up doing this. We have all met members of staff who are lazy and who won’t do what is required unless someone chases them hard, but they are a minority. And if this is the reason for project management then my client was right – get the right people and you won’t need project managers any more.

Poor Reason 2: Project members have too many things

A more sophisticated version of the previous argument, is not that people are lazy, but that staff allocated to project teams have too much to do. I think this is very common – and is generally a failure of organisations to prioritise properly and load staff appropriately.

The normal scenario in organisations is that many project team members are only part time on the project. The project work has to contend with everything else they need to do. Human nature is such that we tend to focus on the activities which we are chased for – we do the work of the person who shouts loudest. In this scenario, the project manager has to be one of the people shouting loudly! By chasing people, the work on the project gets prioritised above other activities they have also been asked to do, and the project progresses. This is a real feature of modern organisations, and a role that most project managers find themselves having to do on a regular basis. I still think this is a poor reason for needing project managers – but I do accept it is a valid reason given the failures to explicitly prioritise and load staff appropriately in most organisations.

A variant on this reason is when organisational processes impede the execution of certain non-typical activities. A project manager is brought on to run a project “outside” of normal operational processes. Again common, again this can work – but I don’t think this alone should be a primary justification for project managers. Fix the process and the project manager is again not required.

Poor Reason 3: Expert helper

Another common reason for allocating a project manager to an activity is because the project team does not have enough expertise in the subject matter of the project and they need an expert guide. This happens often, and it can work – so it is not an awful reason for allocating someone to lead a project. But being the central expert in the subject matter of a project is, in my mind at least, something different from being a project manager.

If you need an expert, hire an expert. If you need a project manager, hire a project manager. These are two separate roles. My words need careful interpretation. I do not believe in generic project managers.

I do think the best project managers have deep experience in the subject matter and context of the project they are running. But this should be so they can apply project management in the best way, not so they can be the central expert on the project. Additionally, for some smaller projects an individual can act as both the project manager and the main subject expert, but these are different roles and as the projects get larger and larger it becomes difficult for a single individual to combine both.

My analogy is with the orchestra conductor. All conductors can play instruments. Some can play brilliantly. But few try to conduct a large orchestra whilst playing their instrument.

Poor reason 4: Someone to track and report

Now some may be surprised that I include this as a poor reason, for surely it is a core part of a project manager’s role to track and report on progress. To which the answer is clearly – yes it is. But we need to differentiate between things we have to do to get our job done (means) and the goals of our job (ends). And it’s not only our customers who sometimes get these things confused, there are many project managers who seem to do this too!

Our goal is to deliver projects, and to deliver projects we may have to track and report on progress – but we don’t track and report progress as an end in itself. If all your client needs is someone to track and report progress, then all they need a good administrative function, not a project manager.

The admin function may need some new specific skills to track projects, but it does not need the full range of project management capabilities.  If all you are doing is tracking and reporting, you are not fulfilling the role of a project manager.

The right reason: Risk and complexity

The reasons I have given for project management so far position project managers as people who get things done by overcoming failures in organisations or weaknesses in the staff the organisations employ. Many projects I have been involved in have required project managers for these reasons – but these are negative justifications for project managers. Even in perfect organisations with perfect staff you still need project managers. The positive justification for project management is that it is inherent within project tasks that there is a level risk and a level of complexity. There is a need for a dedicated role to manage this risk and this complexity. Even perfect staff need alignment and coordination of their tasks. Someone needs to think about the logical ordering of tasks, and find the resources to do the work.  Even perfect organisations face risks and need someone thinking about what the risks are and how they should be mitigated. No other role does this management of complexity and risk. This management tasks will always need performing on project.  This is the right and best justification for project managers.