Managing projects through people
Managing projects through people

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Managing projects through people

2 Role of the project manager

2.1 What makes a good project manager?

The performance of the project manager is crucial to the success of any project, since he or she is the person responsible for ensuring that it reaches a successful conclusion. Although criteria for project success are likely to be expressed in terms of meeting deadlines, budgets and standards, much of the project manager's work will involve achieving these benchmarks through people involved in the project. While the role of the project manager has traditionally been powerful in professions such as construction and IT, project managers have become increasingly important in a range of businesses, as illustrated by the following extract from an article that appeared in The Guardian.

Holding hands on the brands

Project manager as a job description isn't going to have people flocking to you at parties. If you add in ‘design’ you may hold your audience for a split second longer, but it's not guaranteed. Yet in design business, the people who manage the daily crises and maintain the flow of constantly changing information between client and creative team are worth their weight in gold. ‘The key to good project management in design is the ability to understand the intricacies of running a business,’ says Professor Simon Majaro, co-director of the Centre for Creativity at Cranfield School of Management. ‘You need to be able to deal with people in an organisation and to talk to them in their own language.’

‘It's exciting to work within a creative environment,’ admits Julie Oxberry, client director at 20/20, the design consultancy responsible for the new Sainsbury's identity. ‘My job is to make sure that everything is “on brand”, dealing with day-to-day client management and making sure that both the client and creative team are happy.’ Project managers in design consultancies are often known as ‘suits’, but Julie Oxberry sees this as just a way to differentiate them from the designers. While ‘project manager’ has a nuts and boltsy resonance, Ms Oxberry thinks that ‘relationship manager’ might be a more accurate job title.

After all, diplomacy is key to good project management – particularly when creative feathers are easily ruffled. ‘You need a lot of patience and a good sense of humour,’ says Ruth Somerfield, project manager at design consultancy Lewis Moberly. ‘My background in public relations has helped,’ she admits. ‘You also have to have an appreciation of the process of design. Management and communication skills are incredibly important but you need an eye for design.’

At Major Players, a recruitment firm that places project managers in the top 100 design companies, there is a specific set of skills desirable for managing design projects. ‘The people who do well are articulate, they can stand up and present,’ explains Jacqueline Rose, who looks at potential candidates. ‘In design the whole issue is about the personality of a brand. The design project manager has a more robust role than they would have if they worked in an advertising agency. They very often draw up guidelines for other agencies as the designers are the guardian of the brand.’

(Source: based on Deeble, S. (1999), ‘Holding hands on the brands’, The Guardian, 17th July 1999. Copyright Sandra Deeble. With permission of the author)

As the extract describes, key skills for project managers are technical, i.e. knowledge of the business sector in which the project is being conducted (in this case, the design industry) and interpersonal (i.e. communicating to and managing effectively the different parties with a stake in the project.)

In a study of UK project managers’ experiences, Boddy and Buchanan (1992) identified six key activities of the project managers who took part in their research.

Shaping goals – The project managers are responsible for setting or receiving overall objectives and directions, interpreting them, reacting to changes in them, and clarifying any problems which arise with regard to these objectives.

Obtaining resources – The project managers identify the resources they needed for their project, negotiate for their release, retain them and manage their effective use in the context of the project.

Building roles and structures – The project managers clarified their own roles, those of members of their project team, and those of other relevant functions and individuals.

Establishing good communications – The project managers linked together the diverse groups and individuals contributing to the project, in order to obtain their support and commitment.

Seeing the whole picture – The project managers took a helicopter view of the project as a whole, managing time and other resources, anticipating reactions from stakeholders, identifying links with other relevant activities, and spotting unexpected events.

Moving things forward – The project managers took action and risks to keep the project going, especially through difficult phases.

Boddy and Buchanan (1992) concluded that these activities are largely concerned with influencing others in order to get them to work in a particular way. A project manager may have very little formal authority, yet a key part of their job is to influence others to do certain things. To be successful, they must draw on a wide range of methods, especially political and interpersonal skills.

In order to carry out the activities which their job requires, a project manager must perform a number of roles, including:

Leadership – A project manager needs to be able to communicate a vision of the project outcome and gain support for it from stakeholders within the project team and outside it.

Motivation – A project manager needs to be able to motivate individuals involved in the project, in particular the project team, to make the contribution required of them for the project to be completed successfully. Using expectancy theory, members of the project team will work well when they expect their efforts to produce good performance, they expect rewards for good performance, and they value these rewards. Rewards may be more difficult to achieve, since performance and rewards are often controlled by line managers who may not be directly involved in the project process or outcome.

Team building – The project team needs to have the right mix of skills to complete the project task and the project manager needs to manage this. He or she must also facilitate their productive co-operation. This is likely to involve the use of techniques to maximise participation and empowerment. The ability to handle conflict will be an important part of the project manager's team-building role.

Communication – communicating well about different aspects of the project to various individuals or groups with an interest in its outcome is important. The project manager must enable the flow of relevant information about the project to interested parties at various stages of a project. He or she must win support for the project and secure resources for it. He or she must keep the organisation and any external clients committed to the project. Communicating relevant information to and from the project team helps to maintain their motivation.

  • Make sure that workable communication ‘links’ are created with those who will be involved in a project, for example, end users and the project team.

  • Ensure that all interested parties understand a project's goals and objectives as clearly as possible. This avoids potential misunderstandings which could impede communication. It is important that this is achieved at a project's outset, before there is time for any alternative accounts of the project's purpose to emerge.

  • Select the right medium for communicating important messages, e.g. face-to-face presentations, meetings or written documents. For example, it is not sufficient to assume that people understand and support a project's objectives, simply because they have been sent an email about it.

  • Ensure that a sufficient amount of relevant and informative project documentation is produced. Producing too much information about a project's progress is as bad as producing too little. If people feel overloaded with detail, they are less likely to absorb any particularly important pieces of information.

  • Hold timely and well-run meetings. Again, a proliferation of meetings or meetings that are too long and badly run are likely to inhibit, rather than facilitate, proper discussion about a project, since people will be deterred from attending.

  • Actively resolve negative conflict between project participants, instead of simply allowing it to disperse. It is easy to ignore conflict between groups with different interests, but impossible to ignore its consequences, which are likely to have a profound impact on a project's outcome.

Activity 1: Thinking about effective communication

Timing: 0 hours 20 minutes

Think about a recent conversation that you have had. This can be a work or personal conversation. Review the barriers to good communication and consider which of these might have hindered communication and what steps you might have taken to improve the communication?

Use a table to present your answers with the headings ‘What hindered communication ?’ and ‘What might have improved communication’.


Here is an example of how your table might look

What hindered communication?What might have improved communication?
Working in different buildingsHaving more frequent meetings
Limited IT facilitiesBeing able to share documents more easily

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