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Nobody Really Manages Projects – Not Even You

That’s right, I said it, nobody really manages projects.  Not even project managers.  Not even you.  In fact, the term project manager is a misnomer.

  • Project managers do not manage scope
  • Project managers do not manage time
  • Project managers do not manage costs
  • Project managers do not manage projects

They also don’t manage integration, risk, quality, communications, procurement or any of the other nine knowledge areas of the Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) save one.  There is really only one of the nine knowledge areas that the PM actually does manage.

So what is that one thing that project managers do manage?  Project managers manage only one thing; people.  It is through people that all of those other things are managed.

Consider time management as an example.  How does a PM manage time?  What exactly do they manage when they manage a schedule?  You might argue that they manage the tasks on the schedule (they certainly don’t manage the speed of time passing).  What exactly about those tasks do they manage?  The estimated or actual duration?  How would they “manage” that?  The sequence?  Perhaps.  But that is simply the sequence of when the tasks are performed, that is, when persons will work on them.  What else can they manage about a task?  Susan de la Vergne, a fellow fan of emotional intelligence, had it right when she said “You Can’t Manage Time“.

What about cost management?  The PMBOK® Guide breaks cost management down into the following three areas:  cost estimating, cost budgeting, and cost control.  What does the PM “manage” when they manage costs?

  • Cost Estimating – estimating the costs of the resources needed for the project.  That is, the human resources (people) who will work on the project and the other resources that the people will install, use, or consume on the project.
  • Cost Budgeting – Adding up the cost estimates to create a baseline.  How is that simple tabulation a “management” activity?  Answer- it isn’t.
  • Cost Control – influencing the factors (i.e. people) that cause cost variances and controlling changes (caused by people) to the project budget.  This is true management, however, the PM is managing the people, not the costs.

My point?  The PMBOK® Guide is long on managing all the wrong things, the things that cannot be managed, and short on managing people.  This is the inverse of what it needs to be.  Projects are completed by people first and foremost.  I dare you to show me a project that has no people on it – it doesn’t exist.  Project managers manage people!

Even the one section of the PMBOK® Guide that is reportedly about people (Human Resource Management) is weak on managing people.  The four parts of the HR Management section are:

  • Human Resource Planning – Planning for the people we need on the project.
  • Acquire Project Team – Get the people we need on the project.
  • Develop Project Team – Invest in the people on the project.
  • Manage Project Team – AHA!  Eureka!  I think I finally found what it is that PMs need to do on the project.

The HR Management chapter of the PMBOK® Guide is 21 pages long, representing just 6% of the PMBOK content (less back matter).  That is ridiculous!  HR or people management should be the largest section of the PMBOK and it should be first!

I know there are many of you out there who have drank the PMI Kool-Aid who I have completed offended.  Even now you are preparing to unscubscribe from this blog.  Before you do, I challenge you to show me where I am wrong.  I dare you to step up and point out how project managers manage anything but people, or how project management can be performed or separated from managing people.

Show me and I will recant.  I promise.


This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. Ed Sullivan

    I agree completely with this perspective and shortcoming of generally accepted practices of project management. The bulk of the recognized aspects of PM appear like they are administrative in nature. The same old story – Soft vs. Hard and the soft skills win.
    I often see where two PMs can follow the same methodology, use the same tools and have the same support yet one fails where the other succeeds. The only differences come from the PMs ability to build trusting relationships.
    Interestingly, your comments remind me of the transitions that happened in the last 30-50 years (my guess) relative to general management in the thought-worker world. Management philosophy and approaches came to the realization that their world was not about manufacturing optimization, ruling with iron fists, eeking out parts per hour etc. and changed to a more human focus. A focus that ultimately recognized that the value of managers is in getting their people to be productive and build value for their organizations. To do this, they also had to build trusting relationships.

  2. Anthony Mersino

    Ed, it’s great to hear from you and thanks for your comment.
    You’ve drawn an interesting comparison to management philosophy on relationships vs. production and process efficiency. I hadn’t thought of it that way but perhaps that is where I got the idea from.
    Thanks for tuning in and responding!

  3. Pete

    Yes, managing people is important. Saying that it’s the only thing PMs can manage is bold indeed! You mention time and cost so let’s focus on those two (I’ll cover other knowledge areas on my blog – thanks for giving me an idea for my next post!).
    1. Scheduling (under Time Management in PMBoK)
    On a project with multiple suppliers (see PRINCE2 for definition) a schedule must consider the interdependencies between deliverables and ensure that proper alignment is maintained. It’s the basis for an optimal schedule. A PM is ultimately responsible for ensuring this. The PM is not managing people for other suppliers, he is managing project dependencies. Useful tool here is a Dependency Structure Matrix.
    2. Budget (under Cost Management in PMBoK)
    People are not the only cost on a project. It’s very clear from your post that you limit your discussion to IT projects only, otherwise you wouldn’t be making such a statement at all, so let’s limit my response to IT projects as well. Other costs outside of labour on a project are:
    – physical infrastructure eg. you need to provide workstations for your project staff, servers for central code repositories and shared resources like databases
    – licenses for development tools and other resources like databases
    – cost of skill development such as training for project staff (that includes cost of administration such as booking training courses and scheduling training session times)
    – implementation costs such as printing user training materials and providing training sessions
    This list can go on.
    Now, PMBoK does not limit itself to IT projects. For example on construction projects you need to manage things like logistics (ie. delivery of raw materials exactly on time since you have limited storage capacity and storing surplus off-site costs money) while on pharma projects you need to manage the process of clinical trials. Once again these have little to do with managing people.

  4. Anthony Mersino

    Pete, thanks for stopping in, reading the blog, and taking the time to comment. And congratulations on the launch of your own blog “Someone’s Gotta Do It”, at I look forward to reading it and commenting.
    Yes, you are right that I am primarily focused on IT though I wouldn’t call it exclusively. I don’t have much experience in other areas so I don’t comment on them (though I did write the PM manual for a global engineering and construction firm).
    Now, to your points. I applaud your response to the challenge – few braved the challenge even though my argument was weak at best and seemingly easily shot down. Or is it? How exactly does a PM manage something other than people?
    Starting with your response to the blog, what exactly are the steps that a PM would take to manage just one of the things you mentioned in your comments:
    “The PM is not managing people for other suppliers, he is managing project dependencies.”
    I am not being funny, I am being quite serious. What does the PM do to manage something? How does the PM manage a dependency? I am very interested in hearing what is involved in managing the dependency, with or without the tool that you have mentioned. Do they change the dependency in any way? Do they track it, or report on it (BTW, that would involve people)? PMs can certainly change the models they make of real life dependencies but I am not sure they can change the real life dependency. Please explain to me what they would do to manage the dependency.

  5. Sreejith Kesavan

    I dont think the PMBOK guide is not ‘exclusively’ for project managers. It address a larger audience. Any one who want to learn project management has to cruise through all the functions of project no matter he is directly managing it or not.
    There are instances when project manager manages technology and cost as well. Especially in small size teams.
    I also dont agree with you regarding the ‘Cost Management’. Project Manager is over seeing people’s expenditure in the project , but still he can contribute by establishing methodologies of cost reduction.
    Please note that, number of small scale projects are more in this world , which has got smaller team size. This sometimes pushes the project manager to take up some functional role as well !

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