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Volume 8, Issue 17;   April 23, 2008: The Risky Role of Hands-On Project Manager
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The Risky Role of Hands-On Project Manager

by

The hands-on project manager manages the project and performs some of the work, too. There are lots of excellent hands-on project managers, but the job is inherently risky, and it's loaded with potential conflicts of interest.

When we designate a hands-on project manager, we're usually hoping to save money by having one person in two roles. The hands-on project manager is supposed to both manage the project and personally carry out part of the work. For small, low-risk projects, it probably works well, most of the time.

"Taking an observation at the pole."

"Taking an observation at the pole." The photo shows a member of the Amundsen expedition (probably Roald Amundsen himself) taking an observation to confirm his achieving the South Pole on December 14, 1911. The leaders of the polar expeditions from the eighteenth century through and beyond Amundsen's expedition provide numerous examples of hands-on project managers. Amundsen is perhaps the prototype. Expedition leaders often endured all the hardships everyone else did, and more: they often kept longer hours, took more risks, and bore the burdens of most decision-making. Some managed the dual role well; others did not. For an excellent study of the differences between the Amundsen and Scott expeditions to the South Pole, see Roland Huntford's The Last Place on Earth (Order from Amazon.com). Photo by Steve Nicklas, NOS, NGS. Courtesy U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The photo originally appeared in The South Pole: an account of the Norwegian Antarctic expedition in the "Fram," 1910-12, by Roald Amundsen. Volume 2: p. 112.

And then there are the other times.

The arrangement places the project at elevated risk, both for structural reasons and because of the conflicts of interest inherent in the role.

Schedule collisions
Project managers devise, negotiate, defend, explain, and adjust project schedules, but they can't control unanticipated events. Situations that demand the full attention of the project manager can collide with the parts of the schedule that demand the full attention of the same person as a team contributor.
Conflict of love or fascination
Sometimes, hands-on project managers have a love for or fascination with particular subsets of the project's work. Hands-on project managers tend to assign that work to themselves, independent of whether or not that assignment is a sound project management decision. Some will even contort the project schedule to make this assignment possible.
Distraction
At times when the project management work isn't fun, the hands-on project manager is often tempted to retreat to the hands-on part of the role, and when the hands-on part isn't going well, the hands-on project manager might retreat to the project management part of the role. Sadly, the right choice is usually exactly the opposite behavior.
Teammate risk
A special risk appears when the road gets so rocky that the hands-on project manager must ask for extra effort from the team. Unless everyone believes that the hands-on project manager bears a fair share of the extra load, some might experience resentment, because the hands-on project manager has a conflict of interest. The result can stress the team and its relationships.
Financial conflicts
The possibility Usually, hands-on project managers
have a love for or fascination
with particular subsets
of the project's work
of savings from the hands-on project manager role sometimes biases those who decide whether or not a project will have a hands-on project manager. The bias likely arises from underestimating the risks of the combined role compared to a structure with a separation of the roles.

One factor that makes the device of hands-on project manager so tempting to sponsors and managers is the small size of the projects in which it's usually employed. According to this argument, even in the worst case, the downside for the organization is limited, because the project is so small.

But the small size of the project might not provide much protection. For instance, larger projects with big impact might depend on the success of one little project. Or the dependent projects might themselves be small, but the impact of their deliverables on the organization might be considerable. In assessing these risks, it's not the size of the project that matters — it's the size of the consequences. To think otherwise is risky. Go to top Top  Next issue: Bemused Detachment  Next Issue

This article is based on an excerpt from my ebook How to Spot a Troubled Project Before the Trouble Starts, which has much more about the factors that put projects at risk.

How to Spot a Troubled Project Before the Trouble StartsProjects never go quite as planned. We expect that, but we don't expect disaster. How can we get better at spotting disaster when there's still time to prevent it? How to Spot a Troubled Project Before the Trouble Starts is filled with tips for executives, senior managers, managers of project managers, and sponsors of projects in project-oriented organizations. It helps readers learn the subtle cues that indicate that a project is at risk for wreckage in time to do something about it. It's an ebook, but it's about 15% larger than "Who Moved My Cheese?" Just USD 19.95. Order Now! .

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