What Does A Project Manager Actually Do?

The 10 Key Jobs That Every Successful Project Manager Must Perform

There are ten core functions you must perform as an engineering project manager. All ten are critical to success, and none can be ignored. Your job as a project manager is to proactively plan and carryout each of these jobs in the correct order. If you don’t, you will risk failing. In this post below, I describe what the ten key PM jobs are, how they’re logically grouped together, and why they are each so important to your project’s success.
project management pyramid, knowledge areas

Engineering Project Management: The Pyramid of 10 Key Functions and Roles of the Successful Project Manager

By definition, every project is unique. Every project is different than the next one, but there are ten fundamental tasks and functions that every project manager has to perform, regardless of the project itself. The Project Management Institute (PMI) labels these ten items the core “knowledge areas” of management, which is fine, but I personally prefer to think of them as specific functions, or jobs that you have to actively and deliberately plan and perform when managing an engineering project.

I also like to think of these ten functions in hierarchical form, with the first, fundamental tasks displayed on the bottom row of a pyramid, as shown in the image above. As you rise upward in the pyramid, you layer in the higher-level tasks and functions that are dependent upon the lower tiered items. There is always iterations between the levels, but this gross, “bottom up” approach to management is one that has served me well through the years.

To understand this better, let’s start with the  four foundational elements found in the bottom row of the pyramid, which are scope, quality, schedule, and cost management.

The 4 Foundational Elements of Any Project: Scope, Quality, Schedule, & Cost

By definition, all projects have a unique deliverable they’re tasked with creating. This is the reason for the project in the first place, whether that deliverable is a physical thing or product, a specific service, or some kind of non-physical result. Each project has something unique it will deliver, and we call this the project’s “scope.”  Further, all project’s have some level of constraints or restrictions placed on them to deliver this scope. There are three broad types of  constraints: 1) quality, or how good does the delivered scope have to be; 2) schedule, or how quickly does the scope have to be delivered and in what order; and 3) cost, or how much money and/or other resources are there to spend on delivering the scope.

Managers often refer to these four foundational elements as the project’s “Scope + the Triple Constraints,” and it’s not an overstatement to say that defining and managing them make up the first core tasks you have to begin doing as a PM assigned to a new project.

scope management, quality management, schedule management, cost management

The most important functions of the project manager are to define and deliver the scope of the project within the triple constraints of quality, time, and money. You literally cannot succeed as a PM until you define what success will look like; these four things are how you do that.

I like to imagine the management of these four elements in terms of a planning a journey, like a summer road trip vacation you might be thinking of taking with the family. Defining the project’s scope is akin to determining where exactly it is that you want to travel on the upcoming trip, and then making sure you get to that destination. In a sense, the scope is your project’s overall destination. If at the end of the project, you’ve delivered the full scope, you will have by definition met the key goal of your project. Whether that “destination” is the construction a physical product or device, the performance of some unique service, or any other kind of measurable and delivered result, the a priori definition of your project’s scope is the first and most important thing you must do as a project manager. You literally cannot get from here to there unless you know where “there” is. This is scope management.

Extending the road trip analogy a bit, we can also see that the definition (and management) of quality, schedule, and cost, are like the restrictions that might be placed on your journey from the outset at the planning stage. For example, when organizing a road trip vacation, you need to know how much money you can spend on the journey; i.e., you have to establish an overall budget for the vacation– and then adhere to it during the journey.

You also need to determine how long the trip can and will take, and then ensure you stay on schedule, passing specific mile markers and visiting specific milestones on a prescribed timetable. And finally, you have to decide how “nice” the trip needs to be for the travelers; i.e., what the overall quality requirements are you’re going to hold to during the trip. For example, do you want to stay in 5-star hotels, eat at fancy restaurants, and travel by chauffeured limousine, or will it be sufficient to travel cross-country on a bus, eat at fast food joints, and stay in roadside motels? This is the “quality” aspect of your trip, and defining what is and isn’t acceptable up front will help define what success of your journey–or your project–will look like.

The Heart of a Project: People & Communications

The next row up in the project management pyramid of job functions is focused on people and communicating to/with them. The hiring, development, and leadership of your project team is one of the most important things you can do as a PM. The quality, skills, morale and performance of your people will have a huge impact on whether you succeed or not.

Besides your own team, there are also often external stakeholders that care about your project, have influence over you,  and have expectations of their own that you need to managed the best you can. Some of these external entities can be vitally important, such as the customer to whom you will deliver the product, a sponsor who is paying the for the work, and/or vendors and suppliers helping to deliver the scope.

And tying all these people together is communications; informing, directing, tasking, and reporting to/from all these entities, including your own project team, is the basis of the central communication element in the pyramid. If you’re doing it right, you’ll spend the biggest fraction of your time as a PM communicating to/from your team and your stakeholders.

communication management, leadership, project team management, stakeholder management

People are the lifeblood of a successful project, and how you manage and communicate with them will determine how successful you are as a PM.

How effectively you manage your project team/office will make or break the project. People are the key to your success. Your project team will perform the day-to-day work to deliver the product on time and budget, and keeping them informed, focused, and motivated is one of your primary responsibilities as a PM. It doesn’t matter if this team is just 1-2 people, including yourself, or it’s a cast of hundreds or even thousands– you need to actively plan and carryout the management of this group. Your leadership of the project team is fundamental to your project’s success; i.e., these people are the heart and soul of a project, and everything from their technical skills and abilities, to the tools you provide them, to their morale and motivation are factors that can and will ultimately affect the delivery of the project’s scope.

Stakeholders are the organizations, groups, and/or individuals external to your team that will impact and/or be impacted by your project. For example, your project is probably being funded by someone external to your immediate project team– and that someone cares and often wants to be in decision loops—or least informed of project progress on a regular basis… or else they might decide to stop supporting the project. Similarly, there are customers who will ultimately take possession of and use the delivered scope, and these people often have strong opinions about things like scope, quality and schedule. There can also be government regulatory entities who have a say in how you can procure the scope, trade associations and unions that want a piece of the pie, interest groups who want you to succeed or fail, suppliers, lenders, senior management, etc. that all have a stake, big or small, in your project’s success. How you identify, monitor, inform, manage, and ultimately satisfy these stakeholders can and will have a huge impact on the perception of whether your project succeeds or fails. Unfortunately, perception is reality in this business, so taking an active role in managing your stakeholders is vital.

The central piece of the pyramid is front and center as its heart: communication management. Communicating takes on many different forms, from formal reports to informal telephone calls, to everything in between, including meetings, emails, document repositories, task lists, websites, blogs, and the like. As PM, you will literally spend the majority of your working time communicating with others. Doing so in a clear, consistent, and complete manner, whilst not wasting your staff’s time, if the reason you need to actively plan and manage communications. Because it’s so broad in nature, and because it stretches across all of the previous nine PM functions/jobs, it resides at the center of the heap.

The Top of the Pyramid: The Project Execution Suite

Right smack at the top of the project management pyramid are the three key main aspects of your project’s execution plan, or PEP: the procurement management plan, the risk management plan, and the overall integration management plan. These three things form the deliberate and pre-determined means by which you and your team will a) procure, produce, and/or create the delivered scope; b) identify, track, and proactively manage the programmatic, technical, and external risks that threaten delivery of the scope within the triple constraints; and c) combine and manage the other nine underlaying management areas as a unified whole, measuring the project’s progress along the way, and managing any and all changes as they arise. Laying out a plan for performing these three items, and then executing them, is is a major focus of a PM.

project execution plan, procurement plan, integration plans, risk management

The key to a properly managed project are its explicit plans to perform the project’s core work. There are three key parts to these so-called “project execution plans,” which are procurement, risk, and integration plans. Your job as a PM are to plan and execute these plans.

To delve just a little deeper, procurement management is the process of determining how the constituent components of your delivered scope are going to be created, and then ensuring that this plan is carried out correctly. For a physical product, this usually means either purchasing the item or its components from an outside source, or making these things in-house. Often it’s a combination of the two. The process by which you determine which methods you’ll undertake, and how you’ll execute those procurements, are contained in in your procurement management plan. Having this plan in place up front helps you address other key areas of the project’s management, such as determining the required staff you need to hire to execute the work; for example, if you’re building the deliverable in-house, you likely need very different types of subject matter experts (SMEs) on-staff than if you are out-sourcing this work.

Similarly, risk management is vital to a project’s success, and is something best addressed in a forward-thinking, proactive manner. Simply waiting for something bad to happen, and then dealing with it in realtime, is not usually the best approach. Identifying potential threats to your project, analyzing, ranking and prioritizing them, and then deliberately putting in place mitigation schemes to lessen their probability and/or impact is something that is often overlooked on many projects– but history has repeatedly shown that you can’t ignore risks without significantly endangering your project.

Finally, at the very top of the pyramid is integration management, which simply is the means and methods by which you’re integrate and combine all the other areas of the project into a collective and comprehensive whole. This complex task includes such disparate things as how you will measure and report progress in each area (e.g., cost and schedule via earned value), how proposed changes to the project will be dealt with, and even how you will close-out the project when it’s nearing completion.

The Bottom Line

You can’t do a job–any job–unless you know what that job is. To most outsiders and many new PMs, the job of project management is often viewed as some kind of fuzzy, ill-defined collection of separate, unrelated tasks, but it’s not. Project Management is not some kind of mysterious black art, but is instead a collection of  logical tasks and functions that should be performed in a specific order. Most successful PMs understand this fact: project management is really nothing more than actively planning and implementing ten core functions. Focus on these ten things in the proper order (i.e., upward from the bottom), and you will be on the path to managing a successful project.


Like this post? Hate it? Have something to add? I encourage you to join the conversation in the comments box, below. You can also drop me a line if you prefer. I’d love to hear from you in either format. My  email address is MarkHWarner@gmail.com or you can find me on LinkedIn.

MW | Tucson

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