Management & Strategy

The importance of project managers

Project managers are essential to the success of businesses but they have historically been underappreciated. Is now the time to give these professionals – so vital to the smooth running of all industries – their proper recognition?

Consider the following analogy: if businesses are like football teams then CEOs are the touchline managers, sales staff are the strikers and project managers are the defenders. Pictures of great defenders rarely adorn the walls of teenagers’ bedrooms, yet their abilities define where teams appear in the league.

It’s the same with great companies. You can have a flood of creative ideas, clear routes to market and motivated, brilliant people, but if you can’t make the connections, and deliver on time and to an agreed brief, you don’t have a business.

Projects require a measure of preparation, organisation and adaptability. There should be a blueprint for the plan to take shape, as well as room for contingencies when, inevitably, there are unexpected changes.

Predicting the future

The bigger the project, the greater the timescale, which means a greater need for planning and more likelihood that something will go wrong. Successful businesses accept this reality and plan for it; unsuccessful ones cross their fingers and hope everything will be okay.

“If there’s one thing you can be sure of, it’s that not everything will go to plan. The better grip a manager has of a project – the timescales, milestones, costs and resources – the easier it will be to adapt.” - Paul Dixon, Director

A large building project, such as the Shard in central London, can take more than 10 years to go from blueprints to doors opening. In that time the economy will change, technology will update several times over and governments will come and go – planning is obviously essential.

“Successful projects plan for change,” says Paul Dixon, a director at accountancy firm KPMG. “If there’s one thing you can be sure of, it’s that not everything will go to plan. The better grip a manager has of a project – the timescales, milestones, costs and resources – the easier it will be to adapt.

“While there must be a firm grip and clear direction coming from a project manager, there is no point holding to a course when the environment has changed and the objectives are no longer valid or deliverable.”

The acceptance of risk and the ability to adapt in an agile way is how project managers earn their money. Within the very best organisations senior project managers report directly to the board and have power and autonomy over decisions. Good managers overseeing large projects could themselves be considered chief executives of sprawling, temporary organisations. They need the freedom to plot a course and the trust to adapt without jumping through bureaucratic hoops.

The communication game

Of course, communication and stakeholder engagement also come into play. Working together towards clear, mutual goals is a central tenet of good practice in this area.

“Successful major programme management requires establishing and maintaining a federation of interest between the buyers, users and builders of the programme,” says Alex Budzier at the Centre for Major Programme Management at Saïd Business School, University of Oxford.

Saïd Business School has the remit to train public sector civil servants to better manage projects. The training is held in such high regard that no one can lead a large government project without having been through a course at the school.

“The key element of projects is the involvement of the actual user,” says Alex. “Projects often fail because they don't connect to the organisation. For instance, in the public sector we often encounter the misconception that agreeing and issuing a new policy is the end of a change project: the organisational reality, however, is that it is only the beginning.

“The second biggest misconception is that change occurs top-down through a linear process of setting goals, defining cultural values, developing a strategy for change and finally, executing all of those plans.
“The reality is that true value often emerges from unexpected areas and surprising new and innovative ways of working. A project must therefore be ambidextrous: for example, exploiting change by increasing efficiency, at the same time as exploring change.”

Starting at the beginning

The secret to a good project is prior planning and this is something project managers tend to excel at. Before embarking on any major task, businesses should have an effective blueprint – like a fire drill or a Haynes manual – of what to expect.

“Prior to the implementation of projects, consultation at the outset with the targeted users is crucial to confirm that the initial intent will meet the needs of the majority of end customers or users,” says Sandrine Cuney, head of project management at Team Consulting.

“Looking at what is happening globally, I believe designing, executing and measuring projects in the future will require a better grasp of strategic skills, such as understanding the needs of the market, anticipating the needs of customers and having the market knowledge to help fulfil their needs.”

Project managers might be under-represented in industry and too often miss out on the plaudits they deserve but they are the true rulers of a creative world. With budgets rising and complexity in business increasing, their role in the working environment can only become more pronounced.

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John Carroll - Helping businesses achieve International success. Head of Product Management & International Business, Santander UK