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
Projects 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.
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More articles on Project Management:
- Make a Project Family Album
- Like a traditional family album, a project family album has pictures of people, places, and events.
It builds connections, helps tie the team together, and it can be as much fun to look through as it
is to create.
- Declaring Condition Red
- High-performance teams have customary ways of working together that suit them, their organizations,
and their work. But when emergencies happen, operating in business-as-usual mode damages teams —
and the relationships between their people — permanently. To avoid this, train for emergencies.
- Nine Positive Indicators of Negative Progress
- Project status reports rarely acknowledge negative progress until after it becomes undeniable. But projects
do sometimes move backwards, outside of our awareness. What are the warning signs that negative progress
might be underway?
- Dubious Dealings
- Negotiating contracts with outsourcing suppliers can present ethical dilemmas, even when we try to be
as fair as possible. The negotiation itself can present conflicts of interest. What are those conflicts?
- Higher-Velocity Problem Definition
- Typical approaches to shortening time-to-market for new products often involve accelerating problem
solving. Accelerating problem definition can also help, but a curious paradox stands in the way.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
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- And on August 19: Motivated Reasoning: I
- When we prefer a certain outcome of a decision process, we risk falling into a pattern of motivated reasoning. That can cause us to gather data and construct arguments that lead to the outcome we prefer, often outside our awareness. And it can happen even when the outcome we prefer is known to threaten our safety and security. Available here and by RSS on August 19.
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