What’s Wrong with Saying “I’m Just a Project Manager”?

by Jennifer Bridges, PMP (formerly, Jennifer Whitt), Founder – PDUs2Go

Throughout my career I’ve heard the phrase “I’m just a Project Manager” a number of times. This usually comes right after the question “What Can I do about it?” Putting these two sentences together becomes “What Can I do about it? I’m just a Project Manager” and is typically stated as a result of a project (or part of a project) going awry.

“I’m just a Project Manager” is a painful statement, because it says a number of things about this person’s mindset:

  • They have unfortunately put themselves in the role of a victim that has little to no control over their environment.
  • They have resigned themselves to the fact that there is nothing they can personally do to improve the situation, and
  • They stop taking the action necessary to get ahead of the situation.

This results in their environment getting even more out of control and the downward spiral begins.

What can be done to help someone like this? Below are three suggestions.

  • Find the Root Cause. Help them think through what is causing the problem and get it resolved at the source. The problems the project may be experiencing may only be symptoms of a much larger problem with the project team or executives behind the project. Find the source and make the problem go away.
  • Focus on What you Can Influence. This is ‘old-school’ Stephen Covey, but it works. We all have a circle of concern and a circle of influence. The circle of concern is always much larger than our circle of influence. There may be little that can be done with the circle of concern (all of the things we worry about), but there is a whole lot we can do about our circle of influence (those things we have direct or indirect control over). Focus the majority of your effort, if not all, on improving those things we can influence. You will soon find those things you are concerned about become less and the things you can influence become more.
  • Prioritize. Always ask the question “What 3 things can be done right now to improve the situation”…and then do them! These 3 things will be hard, difficult and require effort. However, they will also get things back on track. Over time, that question will no longer need to be asked.

So, what have you done to help someone when you hear the statement “I’m just a Project Manager?” and what are the circumstances that push good PM’s to that point? I would love to hear your thoughts.

One Response to “What’s Wrong with Saying “I’m Just a Project Manager”?”

  1. Michael says:

    This posting makes a good point – something I have been wrestling with to improve. How do we as project managers obtain and maintain the credibility and respect our profession deserves (if done correctly!).

    I’ve changed my response to the question “So, what do you do?” from “I’m a project manager at xyz company” to “I’m responsible for **insert project purpose here ** at xyz company.”

    As project managers, we are RESPONSIBLE for the success of the project. Our project teams REPORT to us during the project. I’ve seen many project managers’ roles (I’m guilty of this from early projects) reduced to being meeting facilitators and administrators when they need to be leaders. I think it all goes back to the communication plan and expectations that are set in the beginning of the project – RACI charts are key. People need to understand their roles and be held accountable to tasks assigned to them.

    Project management is a challenging career – not for the faint of heart – proceed with authority and confidence and lead by example!

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