Work in Progress: The Project Manager

Work in Progress New Ways of Working Communication

Some say it was the wrath of God, others state it was arrogance.

True, the reasons for the failure of the mythical Tower of Babel may be disputed. However, despite this dispute, we would like to use this example to present to you the job of a project manager as part of our info series Bene Office "Work in Progress" in which we look at specific occupations. A profession which has become so sought after in our modern professional world.

Project managers are by now in demand in pretty much all sectors. Desperately in demand, one may want to add. Project management is modern and popular. It is the absolute economic magic word and makes a kind of promise. But stop! One thing after the other. Let's have a look at what a project manager normally deals with: A project.  And we shall use a mythical story to explain this concept.

The Tower of Babel.

Our example starting point: A client, which in this case is all of humanity, defines a complex, completely new aim: to build a tower which can reach the heavens. A detailed division of labour is needed in order to achieve the goal on time and to do justice to the complexity of the task. Craftsmen, cooks, porters and so on are taken on and start working on the tasks which were assigned to them. The goal itself has its risks as we all know from the end of the story. In this sense, the Tower of Babel also symbolises something else. The potential outcome of any project: failure.

The integral parts of a project

At the same time, our mythical example also demonstrates clearly the five necessary prerequisites that are necessary in order to call a specific task a project:

  1. A novel goal
  2. A degree of complexity
  3. The need to divide labour tasks
  4. A time frame for completion
  5. Consequences if the goal is not achieved     

If these five aspects are fulfilled then we can usually call it a project. At the same time, we also determined a sphere of action in which the project manager works: The project manager defines with his employer a certain goal, the provided means in order to achieve this goal and a detailed schedule. The clarification of these points determines the complexity of a project and illustrate what the consequences are if the goal is not achieved. Welcome to the life of a project manager!

Project manager profile

With regards to the outlined sphere of action: What are the necessary qualities of a project manager? First of all, a project manager has a mediating role - between client and those that do the work, between individual areas of the project and also between internal and external employees. A range of abilities are expected: from organisational talent to perfect time management to a pronounced hands-on mentality. Everything from leadership qualities to staff motivation. This requires above all one thing: Versatility, utmost flexibility and interdisciplinary thinking. The project manager has to keep an eye on the bigger picture and it is compulsory for him to have an insight and oversight of the many different aspects of the project. An in-depth understanding of it anyway. His daily work always hovers on the border between general and unusual work. To get to the point: The perfect project manager is mainly a specialised all-rounder!

Project manager career

As vague as the description may sound, the working life of a project manager is versatile and many routes can lead to becoming one.  And many routes can lead to becoming one. It is apparent that there are hardly any genuine training opportunities to become a project manager. Usually, it is people from lateral career paths who assume this position and who have some management experience by completing additional training courses and using suitable software tools.  This may be the case since obviously every project has different requirements. New project - completely different requirements.  At the same time, the lack of training seems to be somehow typical. And this raises a question. Training to become a versatile all-rounder: does this not seem like a complete contradiction to our current educational system? The method of specialisation? 

An answer to modern employment?

Let us ask this question in a more general manner: Could it be that that the distinct rise of this career in the last decade tried to bridge a certain development in the working environment and training? Or more precisely: Is the project manager the result of more and more division of labour? A result of the increasing trend of specialisation?

In this sense, the job of project manager would not only play a moderating part with regard to fulfilling individual projects between those participating in the project but he would also bridge the gap between disciplines. Some of those disciplines are very new and are considered a meta level of work in the 21st century. The project manager as all-rounder who as a necessary regulator has to guarantee one thing above all in our time of increasing specialisation, globalisation and consistent differentiation in the working world: Overview.

The Babylonian language disentanglement

Let's go back to our initial example for a moment: The Tower of Babel myth demonstrates much more in this context.  What does it say in the myth? That not being able to understand each other lead to the failure of the project. A mythical attempt to explain the development of languages. Yes, but not just that. Metaphorically this can also be applied to the modern specialisation of the work environment and training. Just take the ongoing development of more and more specific education and training and professional languages which become more and more hermetic. Transfer this to our mythical example: The people involved in the Tower of Babel project no longer understood each since not only because their mother tongue had changed but above all because their relevant professional language had developed in such a way that communication amongst each other was no longer possible. Lack of communication wherever you look...

An attempt for a solution

With regards to the trend of specialisation and the development of modern company structures - just think about the current buzz words of "streamlining", "outsourcing" and "project orientation" - the mediating role of the project manager has become an economic necessity in the 21st century. His task: Mediation. His virtue: Flexibility. His principal activity? Communication! He does not just do his work. He pursues a project. He completes it. And then starts the next one. Dynamic, flexible and always on the go: the project manager is the personification of all of these things. In this sense he embodies above all one thing: the publicised characteristics of a modern market economy. 

And all of this finally leads to reword the beginning of this article. The reasons why the Tower of Babel failed? Some say it was the wrath of God, others state it was arrogance. Wrong! Modern market economy shows it was a lack of communication and bad management. And reflects one thing: the current boom of project managers.


Marlon Schuhfleck