The Many Roles of a Project Manager

Valarie Griep, MBA, PMP - June 2011

"All the world's a stage and all the men and women merely players.
They have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts"
from As You Like It by William Shakespeare, 1600 AD

Project managers are a lot like the actors Shakespeare described. They play many roles over the course of a project. And each project they lead may require a different set of roles. A study published last year ("The role of the project manager: all things to all people?") defines 32 possible roles a project manager can play and how they may change over time on similar projects.

Roles Defined


By examining this list you may find familiar roles you regularly play on your projects, and perhaps a few you seldom or never play. The asterisks indicate the roles most often played by the project managers in the study. In a way, you can think of these roles as your toolbox of possible courses of action. In some project situations it may be clear that you should perform a certain role. And at other times, you may have to decide between two equally plausible courses of action: you could be a negotiator or act more autonomously as the decision maker. The interaction with others and the outcome could be very different if you seek a win/win solution as a negotiator versus making the decision without input.

Expanding Roles With Experience

The project managers studied were aged between 23 and 62 and the number of roles undertaken in their projects is shown in the graph below.


Not surprisingly it was found that as the age (and experience?) of the project manager increases, they generally play a greater number of the roles. Each project is a unique undertaking, and the combination of skills we employ must be suited to that project's challenges. If we have a less experienced team we'll need to spend more time motivating and communicating. But if the project involves a lot of organizational change, we may need to employ the roles of diplomat, communications facilitator, and disturbance handler more often. Understanding the critical success factors of our project will help us determine which roles we need to play. In addition, we may see that some roles are more likely to be needed in certain phases in the project. For example, the planning and organizing roles are needed in all phases but especially in the early stages of initiating and planning the project. The progress controller, implementer, and quality coordinator roles are more prevalent in the execution phase of the project. So over the project life cycle, we'll see a shift in the roles used and the amount of time spent in the different roles.

The skills we, as individuals, bring to bear are as unique as the project we are working on. There's no one ideal personality type or bundle of skills that indicate the perfect project manager. Early in our career, we may need to play a role that we don't have the skill for but we go ahead and try it, or find a way to learn it, or perhaps we compensate by playing a role we do well. As our experience grows, we will master more roles and be better equipped to employ the best role for the situation at hand. Perhaps the key take-away from the study is the underlying and unspoken issue that there's an art to knowing what role is needed on a project at any particular point in time. When presented with a project situation, we need to be able to switch to the role that is likely to deal with the situation most effectively. The switch should be quick and seamless. That's where experience comes into play. There's no substitute for that experience which allows you to adjust your approach to get the best results. There are many ways to acquire this experience:

  • Learn by doing...sometimes by doing it wrong!
  • Formal methods like books, seminars, and training classes.
  • Observing a more experienced project manager in a similar situation then emulating them.
  • Mentoring and coaching from a more experienced person.
  • Self-reflection after pertinent opportunities to play a role.

I find this last method to be an especially effective way to accelerate skill development. Let's say that shortly after a stakeholder update meeting you take a few minutes to review the meeting in your mind. What did you do well? What didn't go well? What role or roles did you intend to play in the meeting? How effective were you? And what should you do different next time? If you don't think you can be objective about yourself, ask someone in the meeting whose opinion you trust for feedback. Of course, we all have a preferred learning style and yours may respond better to one of the other methods.

Play the Roles Your Project Needs

There are many roles we need to play as project managers. We must look at the project's needs and our abilities objectively, and then try to match our skills with those needs. Over time, with thoughtful effort, we can increase our ability to play the roles our projects need and thereby make them more successful.

James Sommerville, Nigel Craig, Julie Hendry. "The role of the project manager: all things to all people?" Structural Survey 28,2 (2010): 132-141.

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