Hiring a Project Manager Doesn’t Let You Off the Hook

Hiring a Project Manager Doesn’t Let You Off the Hook

I recently came across an opinion piece by Liza Lowery Massey called Poor Project Management Dooms Many IT Projects.

I really liked it. She had some great points in the face of high rates of IT project failure, and inconsistencies between best practices and poor results. What particularly resonated with me were her comments regarding how receptive and mature organizations are towards project management.

Here’s my personal take on it. Nobody, not even the most visionary, most knowledgeable, most strong-backed person can carry the weight of the world on their own. I think few would argue that statement, yet as project managers, how much of our time do we spend educating and reminding stakeholders of the need for their ongoing involvement?

There is a desire I’ve seen countless times (as I’m sure you have) to slough off all accountability and responsibility for the success of a project to the project manager in charge. PMs will accept it, because that’s what we’ve built our careers doing.

Take the following dialogue:

“I just want it handled,” says the executive stakeholder.

“Not a problem,” says the project manager.

In that simple transaction, the executive stakeholder has washed their hands, and the PM has allowed it. Variants of this conversation have begun, I would say, roughly 80% of the projects I’ve seen throughout my career. I’ve been dumb enough to take jobs under those circumstances, and I’ve lost jobs because I effectively suggested, “sure I’ll take the job but we need to have some changes ’round here before we start”.

As I got older and (allegedly) wiser, I stopped with the “not a problem” part, and challenged the “I just want it handled” part. Sometimes my challenge would result in disgruntled, but present, stakeholder availability. That helped (although geez don’t do me no favours, eh?) But sometimes, my challenge would result in stakeholders opening their eyes wide to the light of possibility. These champions would recruit others, go back to their respective organizations and shape them into resilient machines that would be receptive to my efforts.

On occasions where this happened, I met with not just tremendous success, but frequently our projects overachieved in some fashion. When we encountered problems, we cut through them like butter…indeed these projects were effortless to pull off, invariably resulting in prosperity for everyone involved.

From these experiences and comparisons, I’ve learned that for large projects to stand the highest success rates, organizations need to be project-aware. Everyone, from the highest-paid executive, right down through entry-level need to understand the vagaries of projects and be prepared to adapt to their influences.

That’s not a job for one person: that’s a culture shift.

Wordle: Project Management Mayhem

As I say this, I feel like I’m providing reasons why the project manager shouldn’t have to be accountable. That’s not my intent. What so many fail to realize is, a project of any complexity needs more than just one person fighting on its behalf. That’s a recipe for failure! If the PM is successful under those conditions it may seem like they’ve only just met expectations, but the reality is they’ve done so much more. Likely at great cost to themselves.

It comes down to this: a project manager can spend their time diving into risk analysis, tearing through the project looking for issues to resolve, knocking down barriers and filling gaps (in other words, doing his or her job).

Or, the project manager can spend vast chunks of his or her time negotiating with other people why they should get involved, or make changes to their workflow, or get resources briefed and ready on the side as backup, or even just read their status reports.

Project and portfolio success means so much more than just hiring the best to do the best. While projects are transient in nature, they leave behind a legacy the organization has to live with. Stakeholders will have to contend with that legacy long after the project has closed down. That suggests stakeholders need to have every bit as much ownership of the work as the PM at the helm. They need to ensure the very fabric of their organizations are resilient enough to handle the demands of projects taking place within their walls.

I’m a professor of project management at the college where I work. My students continually amaze me with their insights, passion and all-around awesomeness. I figure they deserve access to more answers than I can give them by myself. This site is for them.
  • Anonymous

    Hello again Geoff. I get your meaning. This dovetails nicely with a convo I had last night with someone. Project management is a better way of doing business. It IS a culture shift. It’s not just the nine processes of the PMBOK!

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  • boblight


    Your recent musings on destructive pm behaviors were a fun and at times too close for comfort read… ;>), but here again you shine your spotlight on a common behavior pattern in a way that makes us think and perhaps rethink how we approach what we do.


  • project aware organisations – YES.
    enlightened organisations are starting to get that they can use their PMO to 'projectise' their strategy. but they need to buy into it. they need to create the environment for success. THEN they hire in the talent.
    great post!

  • Hey Bob! HAHA yah a lot of the behaviour articles were plucked out of my own life with names changed to protect the flagrantly guilty (I include myself in that LOL)

    Cheers and thanks for the comment!

  • You're so right, Laura! The PMBOK is a nice place to start. It's a good learning point that encompasses so much good material. But it's only a piece, just as a project is only a piece of the grand vision of an organization. *sigh* When I work with stakeholders who see and understand that, I breathe so much easier knowing that the project will be a pleasure. When I work with stakeholders who stubbornly refuse to see the light I know I'm in for a loooooong haul.

    Thanks so much for chiming in!!!

  • HEYA Sas! Thanks for chiming in! You're so right about that. So many companies don't have a PMO, or if they do, they're ridiculously under-utilized. I believe (and could be way off). These same companies seem to have really bought into the definition of a project as “a temporary endeavour”, rather than looking at a project as a major piece in the tapestry of an organization, that shares the same warp and weft.

    On that blindingly purple metaphor I'm going to end this comment. Wow that was bad even for me! ROFL

  • woah! that was quite somethin'
    do you need coffee? sleep?


  • Excellent post, Geoff. It's still a long way to go before most organisations stop seeing projects as a straight-off-the-shelf, colour-by-numbers product.

    This problem appears to be even more pronounced when the project is provided by a vendor. I have seen many vendor organisations where the project manager is deliberately kept out of the loop until after the project has been sold to the client, no matter how undefined the project still is. The never-ending search for clarity that is a project manager's job is sometimes seen as a threat to closing the sale – but if an undeliverable project is sold, guess who is left carrying the can?

    The project manager must be involved from the very beginning, and be prepared to reign in any stakeholder (no matter who or where) when the project is under any kind of threat. The project always has top priority, even if the best course of action is to stop the project before it has even begun.

  • LOL Or a renewal on my prescription drugs ROFL

  • OMG Simon you are SO right! Gaahh I can't tell you the number of times I've said “get me involved from the beginning…get me involved from the beginning…it'll go so much easier…”, been met with vague nods, and then a phone call three months after it started, after decisions have been made that affect all the work to come. I bet…I know a bunch of readers here have experienced the exact same thing.

    I like your analogy of companies seeing a project as a “straight-off-the-shelf, colour-by-numbers product.” Despite the fact that the PMBOK prescribes a recipe-style format for project management work, nothing could be further from the truth.

    Vendor involvement in project initiation can be very messy indeed. A further confounding factor is which side of the buy / sell line the project manager lives on. If he or she is on the buy side, he or she can be sidelined until after a deal is closed like you say. If he or she is on the sell side, he or she can be pressured into unhealthy practices by salespeople pushing for more revenue. I've seen both with my own eyes and it's not pretty.

    However, it will always fall to the client organization to make decisions regarding project initiation…and however the chips fall, it will be up to the client organization to bear the consequences of those decisions.

    Simon thanks so much for a really great comment!!