by Zubin Irani
As a profession, project management is amorphous by nature. Project Managers have collectively earned a reputation as the catch-all, do-all, task-masters of the IT world — the glue that keeps critical projects together. One of the most successful attributes in the PM realm is having a can-do attitude. Being able to take on any and every challenge is a great quality, and expanding the scope of your capabilities can definitely be an asset in this field, but there is such a thing as taking it too far. In fact, as a PM, limiting the scope of what you do can be the best thing for your projects, your career, and the advancement of the industry.
It’s hard to imagine professionals with a wider range of responsibilities than project managers in today’s fast-paced, highly competitive IT sphere. The stakes are high with multi-million dollar budgets, rigid timetables, and large teams to direct — it’s no wonder a “hands on” approach is easy to rationalize.
However, in most scenarios, the high order tasks — those that require education, experience and expertise — only occupy roughly 60-70% of a PM’s time. The rest is eaten up by administrative functions: updating project plans, writing up meeting minutes, compliance documentation, updating forecasts, and completing procurement requests.
Either by force of habit or by precedent, most project managers spend a third of their time on duties for which they are vastly over-qualified. The utilization of highly skilled labor for basic functions is a systemic malfunction — one that may be affecting the final outcome of projects and the state our industry as a whole.
Leveraging acquired experience
Outside of project management, reducing job scope — the cumulative sum of duties, tasks and responsibilities involved in a position — for high level employees has recently been embraced as means of maximally leveraging acquired expertise. For example, many senior sales professionals are now assisted by “lead generation” specialists. These lower level employees handle the initial legwork of identifying promising leads, allowing the more experienced staff to focus exclusively on closing deals.
In sales environments, this added focus means increased productivity in the form of more sales and higher revenues. The benefits of allowing project managers to zero in on higher order functions might be less immediately obvious, but better projects would be a likely result.
The bottom line is that under the current model, project managers are spread too thin. Imagine if instead of constantly jumping back and forth between high and low order tasks, the job scope was reduced. Senior project managers would focus exclusively on the things that demand their level of expertise — high order tasks, 90-95% of the time — and are sure to provide more management bang for the buck.
In order to realign the distribution of responsibility, an auxiliary administrator/coordinator role will have to be introduced into the project management dynamic. Relinquishing total control of a project might be a challenge for some PM’s, but transferring the low order workload to entry-level employees can actually have the added benefit of improving job satisfaction for mission critical staff.
Good “job fit”
In a dramatic example of what is known in management circles as a “poor job fit,” the United Parcel Service (UPS) used to require its delivery drivers to address both high and low order functions. The company was experiencing a crippling rate of turnover among this segment of the workforce, which represents a major operational investment in the form of training and resources. When management looked into the source of the problem, it was apparent that the drivers enjoyed driving their routes, but regarded loading their trucks at the beginning of the day as monotonous drudgery.
To remedy the situation, the company reduced the drivers’ job scope and created the supplemental job of “loader”. The position required very little training and could be covered by low-level hires, which sheltered the company from the high cost of driver turnover. With the improvement in job fit and satisfaction among drivers, the public face of the company soared, and customer satisfaction soared along with it.
Similarly, we need to question a PM’s job fit. Are we compromising the quality of our own work by asking too much of ourselves? If there’s one part of the job that’s incongruous with the inherent managerial/big picture realities of project management, it’s the administrative functions. Delegating these low order tasks may be just the thing to help project managers get more out of what they do.
A path to the future
Of course, scaling back project manager job scope isn’t just about catering to the project or making our lives easier. Creating an entry-level position within the field will also allow for the vital introduction of new talent. Just as “lead generation” and “loader” departments serve as self-selecting recruiting pools for future sales professionals and UPS delivery drivers, the best project administrators/coordinators will eventually become the outstanding project managers of tomorrow.
The advancement of any industry depends largely on the passing down of accumulated knowledge going forward. We need to establish a professional hierarchy within project management to serve as a framework for the transferal of theory, practice and professionalism. Learning through experience, aided by mentorship, the next generation will become the new standard bearers, driving innovation in our field in the years to come.
That fact that we can pause to consider the scale of our roles as project managers at the current juncture is a testament to how far our field has come in a very short time. As our practice and discipline becomes more defined every day, the shift must be made from determining what it is we do to how we might do it best. The evolution will be constant, but as long as we continue to work in the best interest of the projects and our clients, our profession will continue to flourish.
 Pamela S. Lewis, Stephen H. Goodman, Patricia M. Fandt, Joseph F. Michlitsch, Management Challenges for Tomorrow’s Leaders (Ohio: Thomson-Southwestern, 2007), 192.