What Is a Project Manager and What Do They Do?

The project manager’s job is to deliver the project within the various limits that have been negotiated and agreed. But to fully answer the question, let’s look at a day in the life of a project manager. To do this we’ll step through each phase of the project life-cycle: Define – Plan – Implement – Close. By grouping project activities into phases, the project manager can efficiently plan and organise resources for each activity, and also measure achievement of goals and make well-informed decisions on how to move forward and take corrective action when necessary. Paying close attention to these details is the difference between merely doing things well and excelling as a project manager.


In the define phase the project manager’s main tasks are:

  • Setting project goals. What are the high level goals? What must be achieved? What are the critical success factors? Project goals should be SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-Bound)
  • Stakeholder Mapping helps to define project goals and involves identifying and analysing stakeholders to ensure their needs will be met. Delays and problems can occur when stakeholders are not adequately identified and understood, so this is a key task.
  • Starting to assemble the project team. Sometimes project managers have autonomy over this, sometimes not. For instance, in a functional organisation the project manager will need to negotiate with department managers to secure project team members.
  • Developing the project charter, which is the formal authorisation for the project to proceed.


The next phase is planning. What does the project manager do during this phase? Their main task is to lead the preparation of the project plan. This is the roadmap for how those high level goals identified in the define phase will be achieved. The Plan includes:

  • Developing a work breakdown structure, which identifies each task that is required to complete the project.
  • Preparing a work schedule which takes all the tasks from the work breakdown structure and arranges them in time sequence so project activities can be managed and monitored. A realistic schedule is key to a successful project.
  • Defining resource requirements. All projects cost money, take time and require resources. Cost and resource requirements should be clearly mapped out before project implementation starts. This involves: establishing the project team, confirming that required resources are available and that the scope is achievable within budget. One of the most important roles of project managers is to establish realistic expectations and to balance the constraints of scope, time and cost.
  • Writing a risk management plan to identify, rank and manage risk. A sound risk management plan helps a project to run smoothly. The adverse impacts of project threats are minimised and the opportunities that can occur are captured. Problems can be anticipated and actions to treat them can be reviewed and approved in advance.
  • Preparing a quality plan, which describes how quality will be managed throughout the life-cycle of the project to ensure the quality of the both the project and its deliverables.
  • Writing a Communications Management Plan which builds on the earlier stakeholder mapping and sets out a Plan for engaging and communicating with all stakeholders. It outlines how the right messages will be communicated to the right stakeholders at the right time. It sets out the communication goals, the stakeholder requirements for communication, and the flow of communication activities and schedules.

Planning is the key to a successful project. Often planning is ignored in preference to getting on with the work. However, successful project managers understand the value of a project plan in saving time, money and problems down the line.


The implementation phase is where the project plan is put to work as the project manager monitors, executes and controls its implementation. During this phase the project manager interfaces with management, delegates responsibilities, organises resources and communicates with all stakeholders to ensure timely and successful completion of the project. Interpersonal skills of influencing, negotiating and communicating are vital to resolving these challenges. Responsibilities include:

  • Team management and development
  • Keeping stakeholders informed and managing their expectations
  • Measuring and reporting on performance and progress
  • Monitoring and controlling cost, time and scope
  • Monitoring risk and quality
  • Taking corrective action as required.


The final phase is the closure phase. This is when the project manager delivers the finished project to the owner, acknowledges contributions made and documents the work. Reflecting on lessons learned ensures that this experience is passed on to assist other managers.

Distinguishing Features of Project Management in the 21st Century

The purpose of this article is to investigate the current hot topics of project management. In the 21st century, there is a clear swift from hard systems approach of project management to soft factors, a demand for strategic thinking in project management (Buttrick, 2000), new success factors (Atkinson, 1999) and project uncertainty management (Ward & Chapman, 2003). Broader project management theory and more intense research efforts are also a trend in the field (Winter & Smith, 2005).

Human beings have been executing projects from ancient times (Kwak, 2003). From relocating a tribe to constructing enormous buildings such as the pyramids, projects were a dominant element of history. Not long ago, those involved in projects understood that they needed methods and processes to help them manage these projects more efficiently. To meet this need, scientists and practitioners worked together to form a new concept which was called «project management». According to the PMBOK’s definition “project management is the application of knowledge, skills, tools and techniques to project activities to meet project requirements”. (A Guide to Project Management Body of Knowledge, 2004). There are many different views in the literature concerning the birth of project management. Maylor (2005) mentions that “project management in the way that we would understand it today did not exist until the 1950s” and Wideman (2001) tracks the first use of project management in the UK’s Institution of Civil Engineers report on UK post war national development first published in 1944.

Since then, there have been a lot of changes. “The hard systems approach, which treated the project as a mechanical activity, has been shown to be flawed” (Maylor, 2005). The soft skills of project management are getting more attention because it is now clear that “the ability to apply these skills effectively throughout the life cycle of a project will enhance the success of a project exponentially” (Belzer). In spite of the perfect understanding of planning, scheduling and controlling, projects have still a high rate of failure. Belzer points out that “more often they fail because of a project manager’s inability to communicate effectively, work within the organization’s culture, motivate the project team, manage stakeholder expectations, understand the business objectives, solve problems effectively, and make clear and knowledgeable decisions”. To address these problems in the 21st century, a project team needs to develop a series of soft skills such as “communication, team building, flexibility and creativity, leadership and the ability to manage stress and conflict”. (Sukhoo et. al, 2005).

In addition, project management requires a stronger strategy orientation. “More than 80 per cent of all problems at the project level are caused by failures at a board level in firms to provide clear policy and priorities” (Maylor, 2001). The approach that Maylor suggests is very different from the traditional link between strategy and projects, as he proposes a “coherent, co-ordinated, focused, strategic competence in project management which eventually provides source of competitive advantage”. This two-way methodology that relates organisational and project strategy is illustrated in figure 1. To better understand the project’s strategy, there is also a need to analyse “the experiences from past activities, politics during the pre-project phases, parallel courses of events happening during project execution and ideas about the post-project future” (Mats Engwall, 2002).

Moreover, Maylor highlights a change in project’s success criteria, from conformance to performance. In 1960s project managers seek to comply only with the documented specifications of the project, while current projects require real performance. In other words, the success criteria of the 21st century as indicated by Maylor have changed to as short time as possible, as cheaply as possible and towards a maximum customer delight. Other academics imply nowadays a much simpler view of success criteria which is focused only in keeping the client happy (Ferguson, 2005) in contrast with the 90s view of just finishing the project on time and on budget.

Changes in risk management are also one of the hot topics of project management in the new century. Ward (2003) propose the term «uncertainty management» and recommends that a “focus on «uncertainty» rather than risk could enhance project risk management”. Adams has an interesting view of risk as he describes it as “a reflexive phenomenon – we respond to perceived probabilities and magnitudes, thereby altering them”, a definition that differs from the traditional quantitive analysis of risk. Green broads even more the scope of risk management and includes the clients. He thinks that “the process of risk management only becomes meaningful through the active participation of the client’s project stakeholders”. In his point of view there is a new way of assessing risk management that “depends less upon probabilistic forecasting and more upon the need to maintain a viable political consistency within the client organisation”.

The conventional theory of project management consists of a narrow focus on projects as unique and totally separated units of work. But current projects tend to be integrated smoothly in the general context of organizations in order to “develop the «management of project portfolios» and «programme management» which are more strategically orientated towards «doing the right projects»” (Winter & Smith, 2005).
It is common ground in the literature that the theory of project management needs more research. Koskela and Howell (2002) suggest that the theoretical base “has been implicit and it rests on a faulty understanding of the nature of work in projects, and deficient definitions of planning, execution and control”. From their point of view, enrichment of project management with new methods and techniques cannot be done with any stable theoretical background. As a result, there is a trend of putting more effort in research and rethinking the way which «bodies of knowledge» is written so that complex projects’ actions will be better documented.

As a conclusion, we could use the words of D.T. Jones (2005) who writes that “project management is no longer about managing the sequence of steps required to complete the project on time”. He adds that “it is about systematically incorporating the voice of the customer, creating a disciplined way of prioritising effort and resolving trade-offs, working concurrently on all aspects of the projects in multi-functional teams”.


1. A Guide to Project Management Body of Knowledge, 2004, 3rd Edition, Project Management Institute

2. Adams, Review for THES Risk Decision and Policy, Cambridge University Press, [Electronic]

3. Atkinson, 1999, Project management: cost, time and quality, two best guesses and a phenomenon, its time to accept other success criteria, International Journal of Project Management Vol. 17, No. 6, pp. 337±342, [Electronic]

4. Belzer, Project Management : Still More Art than Science, [Electronic]

5. Buttrick, 2000, The project workout, 2nd edition

6. Engwall, 2003, No project is an island: linking projects to history and context, Research Policy 32, pp. 789-808, [Electronic]

7. Ferguson, 2005, First Tutorial on Strategic Management, Full Time MSc in Project Management, Lancaster University

8. Green, Towards an integrated script for risk and value management, Department of Construction Management & Engineering, The University of Reading, UK

9. Jones, 2005, Foreward to Maylor’s book Project Management, FT Prentice Hall, UK

10. Koskela & Howell, 2002, The underlying theory of project management is obsolete, Project Management Institute, [Electronic]

11. Kwak, 2003, The Story of Managing Projects, Quorum Books, [Electronic]

12. Maylor, 2005, Project Management, FT Prentice Hall, UK

13. Maylor, 2001, Beyond the Gantt Chart:: Project Management Moving on, European Management Journal Vol. 19, No. 1, pp. 92-100, 2001, UK, [Electronic]

14. Sukhoo, Barnard, Eloff, Van der Poll Accommodating Soft Skills in Software Project Management, Issues in Informing Science and Information Technology, University of South Africa, Pretoria, South Africa, [Electronic]

15. Ward, 2003, Transforming project risk management into project uncertainty management, International Journal of Project Management vol.21, pp. 97-105, [Electronic]

16. Wideman, 2001, Criteria for a Project Management body of knowledge, [Electronic]

17. Winter & Smith, 2005, ‘Rethinking Project Management, Making Sense So Far: Emerging Directions and Future Research’, Rethinking Project Management (EPSRC Network 2004-2006), [Electronic]