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Balance of Power


  1. Project managers are guardians and advocates for a project. If a functional manager assigned a development role to the same person who acts as the project manager, the project will no longer have a project manager.
  2. To avoid this situation, the proposed project manager can negotiate a split of the role's duties with the functional manager and act as project lead rather than project manager.
  3. A natural division of work is for the functional manager to manage the phases for project initiation and for monitoring and controlling the project. The project lead is responsible for executing and closing the project. Planning the project is performed jointly.
  4. A functional manager who takes on these responsibilities may eventually realize that projects require an individual who only acts as project manager and is an arm's length from the project work.

Clowns to the Left of Me, Jokers to the Right

Being “stuck in the middle” is a feeling that any project manager has experienced when their boss, a functional manager, directs him or her act as both a project manager and as a development resource (or any other role that significantly contributes towards the production of project deliverables).

The schizophrenic project manager is just a really bad idea, though it sounds like a good idea when an organization is tight on resources. It also appeals to the lazy functional manager who desires to dump the work on somebody, is not sure how to manage the project, does not support the project, or does not like to work with the sponsor. If this path is followed, it ultimately leads to an unsuccessful project and it makes both the functional manager and project manager look bad.

Why Schizophrenic Project Managers Fail

Taking on a dual role when the job tasks are not complimentary leads to a breakdown. Imagine a restaurant where the waiter is also the chef.  As new orders or change requests come in, the waiter-chef either ignores the customers who grows angry, or ends up burning whatever's on the front burner.

The project manager orchestrates project events. The needs of the sponsor, stakeholders, and project team conflict.

·         Sponsors want their deliverables as soon as possible.

·         Project team members typically work within a functional group and are temporarily assigned to the project. They value quality the highest, even if it means budget and schedule overruns.

·         Who knows what the stakeholders want?  Each one is different, and if the project manager is not careful to monitor and anticipate stakeholder needs, their projects can suffer late requirements, loss of resources, and political muscle.

The Project Manager and sponsor negotiate project scope and a plan that will achieve the desired results while minimizing dissatisfaction for the involved parties. The natural conflict of positions amongst sponsors, stakeholders and project team members ensures that you will not make everybody happy. The project manager's job is to achieve an outcome that satisfies the sponsor's business needs while balancing schedule, cost and quality so that the outcome does not harm the company as a whole.

Once the project begins, the project manager serves as a judge of project health. They address problems when schedule, cost and quality are out of balance or there are risks that threaten to damage the final outcome. If the project manager also has to act as a developer or contributor, this judgment is lost. Communications with sponsor and stakeholders will suffer, impacting satisfaction. The project will likely be late and over budget because the change management process will break down.

Avoiding the Dual Role Conflict

Assuming that you work in a Functional, Weak Matrix, or Balanced Matrix project organization, the functional manager holds the formal power and can direct you to act as the project manager and as a developer. What can you do in these cases when another party has a significantly stronger position?

Actually, this is the time for another negotiation, and you have a few tools at your disposal. First, the project sponsor may have sufficient clout to empower you to just act as project manager. Regular sponsor involvement and discussions with the functional manager can help make the case for a resource dedicated specifically to project management duties.

It will also help to discuss your concerns with your boss, the functional manager.  Point out the problems of conflicting dual roles, and that human nature will mean one or the other is favored.  Likely results will be a never-ending project, either because you spend your time as project manager and that development efforts suffer due to having fewer resources, or you spend your time as a developer, and that control and manage functions rarely occur.

The discussion may lead to the conclusion “I agree but we don't have enough people.”  So what can you propose as an alternative?

Sharing the Load

The Project Management Institute (PMI) provides a model for the project management process that divides projects into five process groups: Initiating, Planning, Executing, Monitoring & Controlling, and Closing.

I would like to suggest a compromise where the functional manager performs the duties for the Initiating, Planning and Monitoring & Controlling project phases. This has certain logic to it because the functional manager already has relationship and some power to influence the project initiation and to manage stakeholders and the sponsor. The functional manager likely understands the organization's processes for managing costs and budgets, and overarching organization. This person can also enforce stricter scope boundaries in order to prevent scope creep.

Because the functional manager will need regular status information and will be responsible for reporting that information up the line, it makes sense for the Monitoring and Controlling functions to be performed by the functional manager rather than the project lead. Otherwise, what will happen is that the project lead is taken away from project execution activities. The reports will be late, and furthermore the functional manager will become detached from the project and will not understand the report information enough to communicate it to superiors.

Under this split of duties, the project lead will also participate in project planning. This is to help ensure that scope is well defined, that all mandatory activities are identified, sequenced and estimated. In most cases, the project lead will also have technical power and will command the respect of the project team. This makes the project lead a natural for conducting the project execution processes and for closing the project.

Transitioning from Project Lead to Project Manager

I have no proof of this, but my gut tells me that when a functional manager says “We don't have enough resources for you to just act as project manager,” what is really being said is “I don't believe that project management is entirely valuable, and I am more interested in running my department. However, I have a problem that needs to go away and this work has to be performed. I also need status information so since you're going to perform development work, you can do all my project reporting for me as well.”

Negotiations are an important skill for Project Managers, and the first step in transitioning from Project Lead to Project Manager is to make the case for the importance of and respect for project management work. By negotiating the division of labor as outlined earlier, I hope that this will help functional managers see first-hand what has to be done and that the work both has value and needs a person's full attention. An appreciation for the demands of the work through direct experience can also make it more obvious that having a waiter-chef is no way to run your business. A successful negotiator will help connect the dots to help make the justification clear to the functional manager as the project progresses. If successful, this leads to changes that firmly places you in the role of project manager without other development responsibilities.

Thomas Swider, PMP

Tom has been with Computer Aid, Inc. since 2004, and is a consultant for its Virtual Project Office service offering.

About Thomas Swider

Author and PMP certified project manager, currently consulting for CAI’s Project Office Plus+ service offering.

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