Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 8, Issue 17;   April 23, 2008: The Risky Role of Hands-On Project Manager

The Risky Role of Hands-On Project Manager

by

Last updated: July 18, 2019

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

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 . Order Now! .

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.

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Project Management:

Mess line, noon, Manzanar Relocation Center, California, 1943Remote Facilitation in Synchronous Contexts: II
Facilitators of synchronous distributed meetings — meetings that occur in real time, via telephone or video — encounter problems that facilitators of face-to-face meetings do not. Here's Part II of a little catalog of those problems, and some suggestions for addressing them.
USS Indianapolis' last Commanding Officer, Captain Charles B. McVay, IIIThe Politics of Lessons Learned
Many organizations gather lessons learned — or at least, they believe they do. Mastering the political subtleties of lessons learned efforts enhances results.
Flooding in Metarie, Louisiana, following Hurricane Katrina in 2005Mitigating Risk Resistance Risk
Project managers are responsible for managing risks, but they're often stymied by insufficient resources. Here's a proposal for making risk management more effective at an organizational scale.
Illustrating the concept of local maximumFalse Summits: II
When climbers encounter "false summits," hope of an early end to the climb comes to an end. The psychological effects can threaten the morale and even the safety of the climbing party. So it is in project work.
The "Face on Mars" as seen by Viking 1 in 1976, compared to the MGS image taken in 2001Wishful Thinking and Perception: I
How we see the world defines our experience of it, because our perception is our reality. But how we see the world isn't necessarily how the world is.

See also Project Management and Workplace Politics for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

An excavator loads spoil into rail cars in the Culebra Cut, Panama, 1904Coming October 23: Power Distance and Teams
One of the attributes of team cultures is something called power distance, which is a measure of the overall comfort people have with inequality in the distribution of power. Power distance can determine how well a team performs when executing high-risk projects. Available here and by RSS on October 23.
John Frank Stevens, who conceived the design and method of construction of the Panama CanalAnd on October 30: Power Distance and Risk
Managing or responding to project risks is much easier when team culture encourages people to report problems and question any plans they have reason to doubt. Here are five examples that show how such encouragement helps to manage risk. Available here and by RSS on October 30.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Race to the South Pole: Lessons in Leadership

On 14The Race to the South Pole: Lessons in Leadership December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough. But to organizational leaders, business analysts, project sponsors, and project managers, the story is fascinating. We'll use the history of this event to explore lessons in leadership and its application to organizational efforts. A fascinating and refreshing look at leadership from the vantage point of history. Read more about this program.

Here's a date for this program:

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power

Many The
Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Join the Organizational Politics Group at LinkedIn.comJoin the Office Politics, Workplace Politics and Organizational Politics discussion group at LinkedIn.com, the premier professional networking Web site.
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.