The honest project manager

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How long will it take and how much will it cost?

In one form or another, these are probably the two most asked questions before a project starts and during the project lifecycle (and sometimes even after it is finished as firms try to calculate the full cost of a project). These are simple questions to ask but almost never simple to answer, which can sometimes lead to frustration on the part of project sponsors and senior management. That frustration is often directed at the project manager, who will be answering these questions as honestly as possible but may not be able to give the level of certainty that senior stakeholders would like.

This blog is in defence of the honest project manager.

Projects are dynamic. The project manager will be juggling hundreds of project tasks, trying to manage the risks and issues, getting decisions made, dealing with the actions that are coming out of a dozen weekly meetings, and predicting how all of these things will interact. Any one of those items could impact the project timescales and/or budget. If it appears that the project manager is not giving you a straight answer, it is not because they don’t want to. Any statement of time or cost comes with a range of variables and caveats.

Sometimes, this can seem like a bit of a Catch-22 for the project manager. The project manager knows that whatever answer they give, the underlying components of that answer are wrapped up in varying degrees of uncertainty. So, they can either give a “certain” answer, which they know will be wrong, or an “uncertain” answer, which can make it look like they are not on top of the project. Actually, I would argue that giving that honest answer and being able to articulate the uncertainty is an indication that the project manager is on top of things.

If your expectation is that, at any given point that you ask for it, the project manager will be able to give you the exact deadline and cost with 100 per cent certainty, then you are probably going to be disappointed. What the project manager will be able to give you is their best estimate based on what they know, complete with the variables and caveats. They will understand the dependencies, the key risks, and the range of possible outcomes – and they will do their best to translate all of that into a summary that answers the time and cost questions. In short, they will be honest. The longer the project runs, the more work is done, and the closer you get to the deadline, then the more accurate the project manager’s assessment is likely to be.

And if your expectation, as a project manager, is that all of your senior stakeholders will intuitively understand all of the nuances of the project based on the short summary or status report that you provide then, well, you will probably be disappointed too. You may be spending 100 per cent of your time on the project; your stakeholders may be spending 1 per cent of theirs (particularly if their only visibility is via a monthly project board or committee). I think most project managers know this and are both skilled at conveying the key project messages in a very concise way; and working hard to get time with stakeholders when they need it.

Stakeholders should trust that the project manager is doing absolutely everything that they can to complete the project and that they are providing the best information that they can. The project manager (and project team) need to know that they are trusted and trust their stakeholders in turn. That trust can take time to build even when there are existing relationships. Every project is different so, even with existing teams, there is normally an adjustment period and it doesn’t always work out. As always, the more communication the better.

This is, perhaps, a simplistic view. Even with the right expectations, trust, and good project management tools and techniques, non-project factors can introduce project uncertainty. That might be changes to internal priorities, corporate restructures, budget cuts, etc. At different points in the project, these things may need to be factored into the project manager’s assessment of time and cost. On top of all of the other variables that go along with project delivery.

In my experience, project managers will give you an honest answer and try their best to give as much certainty as they can. We tend to like certainty, while spending our lives working with uncertainty. In fact, if you could see the questions that we are asking our project teams you would see that we are asking for certainty too. So, if you ever find yourself thinking ‘that project manager isn’t giving me a straight answer’, take comfort in the fact that they will be giving you an honest one.

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David Hamilton

Posted by David Hamilton on 7th Oct 2020

About the Author

David is the Managing Director of the project management firm Projecting which specialises in financial services projects and has offices in Edinburgh, London, and Madrid. He started the company in 2013 after 14 years in project management in various project, programme, and Head of Project roles. David has been involved with APM for several years, including as a former branch committee member and organiser of the Scottish Conference, as well as running project management seminars and writing articles within the sector.

David is a trustee of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh – a non-departmental public body and home to Scotland’s national collection of plant species and specimens – and sits on the programme board for their £70m Edinburgh Biomes project. He is also a Board member, and former chair, of the Scottish youth homelessness charity The Rock Trust.

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