Giving Project Managers a Bad Name

I’ve always had an issue with the title “Project Manager” as it does seem to place role owners firmly at the top of an organisational hierarchy where they are deemed to have sole responsibility for managing their staff on a project that only they own. In my view, for anything other than the simplest manual activity this is a very dangerous place for any one person to be. The project manager should take responsibility for managing the process, sure, but try to manage the people on your project and you’re asking for trouble (ever heard the expression “herding cats”?). Indeed, the belief that the project manager has both responsibilities is really just an unfortunate side-effect of the term “manager” in the role title – a term habitually linked to people management. Far better, then, to use “Project Coach” or “Project Facilitator” to describe the leadership and guile required to ensure that a project “company” is set up effectively and a product or service gets quickly to “market”. This removes the people management misconception and also has the immediate benefit of moderating the use of expressions such as “my” project or “I won’t let” (my team work on that). In well-run projects it’s the team’s responsibility to get things done and the project manager is just one more team member, albeit one that is, as David H Maister and Patrick J McKenna suggest in First Among Equals, the eponymous first among equals. “You’re not people’s boss, and even if you are you don’t want to act that way.” Too right!

Lyssa Adkins suggests in Coaching Agile Teams that we should “let there be silence…let the team fail: the thing you thought would harm them may actually work”. Get off your soap box and let the team really perform; they don’t need telling. In fact, in order to be truly effective and creative the project team need to work together in an environment where no one person is allowed (or indeed expected) to take control, as otherwise you’ll never get anything like the best out of your people. In a recent BBC article the Whole Foods Way of Engaging Staff, we learn that the Whole Foods firm shirks a centralised model by devolving budgets to individual stores and decision-making ability (including who stays and who goes after probationary periods are up) to the staff themselves. And this is a company that has featured in the top 100 places to work in the US for the past 17 years – go figure! “Set up the process, remove blockers, and get out of the way” is my personal project mantra, moving me away from “benevolent dictatorship” towards a much more democratic way of thinking which shuns the traditional command and control model by adopting new directives (spelled out in a prominent place at the start of each project) such as:

1. I don’t control your team members’ destiny – they do, and
2. It’s perfectly acceptable to be wrong.

(We could easily add a third: laughing is allowed!)


Someone once said that the first responsibility of a project manager is to deliver, and the second is to say that they have delivered. This does chime with my own experience of people keen to big up “their” achievements. But just as your audience wouldn’t want to watch just the ads on TV so you should be aiming to deliver without fanfare, providing value without being asked and letting the results speak for themselves. Aside from anything else, providing value with no expectation of a return is the most honest way to market your and your team’s abilities and passion, and may just result in another “sale” in the future as you are engaged for future initiatives. “How have I helped today?” is an extremely powerful question which can never have a satisfactory answer if your idea of management is telling people what to do and how to do it or an insistence on being the choke point for all communication. Agile methodologies have evolved over the last decade or so to really challenge traditional approaches. I believe that this success is down to bringing together what the customers actually care about (results, not documents) and how teams actually want to work (self-governing, not top-down). The traditional paternalistic approach to project management whereby team members are treated like recalcitrant schoolchildren really does seen to be dying a death as the Agile movement proves its mettle.

But if I dislike the role title so much, why do I call myself an Agile “Project Manager”? Well, the truth is that if I didn’t then nobody would readily understand what it is that I do. Which is ironic really as nobody understands what a “real” traditional project manager does either….