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.
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.
- 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 workof 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. Top Next Issue
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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.
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More articles on Project Management:
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latest thinking about designing teams for extended space exploration.
- Nonlinear Work: When Superposition Fails
- Much of the work we do is confounding, because we consistently underestimate the effort involved, the
resources required, and the time required to get it done. The failure of superposition can be one reason
why we get it wrong.
- Unresponsive Suppliers: I
- If we depend on suppliers for some tasks in a project, or for necessary materials, their performance
can affect our ability to meet deadlines. What can we do when a supplier's performance is problematic,
and the supplier doesn't respond to our increasingly urgent pleas for attention?
- Seven Planning Pitfalls: III
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cause of plan ineffectiveness is the way we think when we set about devising plans. Three cognitive
biases that can play roles are the so-called Magical Number 7, the Ambiguity Effect, and the Planning Fallacy.
- Depth First or Breadth First?
- When investigating candidate solutions to a problem, we tend to focus first on what we believe is the
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the cost of the investigation and the time it requires.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 13: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: I
- To take the risks that learning and practicing new ways require, we all need a sense that trial-and-error approaches are safe. Organizations seeking to improve processes would do well to begin by assessing their level of psychological safety. Available here and by RSS on December 13.
- And on December 20: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: II
- When we begin using new tools or processes, we make mistakes. Practice is the cure, but practice can be scary if the grace period for early mistakes is too short. For teams adopting new methods, psychological safety is a fundamental component of success. Available here and by RSS on December 20.
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