The Role of the Project Manager: How and Why It’s Changing

The Role of the Project Manager: How and Why It’s Changing

By Harold Kerzner, Ph.D. | Senior Executive Director for Project Management, IIL

The role of the project manager is changing.

Today’s top management appears to have significantly more trust in, and more expectations for, the capabilities of its project managers than its predecessors. Unfortunately, it was not always like this.

For decades, senior management stated that they supported the use of project management, but it came with a price. Senior management was fearful that the project managers might start making decisions that were reserved for the senior levels of management.

To maintain control from the top down, management created rigid project management methodologies structured around inflexible policies and procedures. When management stated that they supported project managers, it really meant as long as project managers demonstrated obedience to the rigid practices and hierarchical authority relationships.

Many executives believed that, when establishing a project management methodology, “one size fits all.” Unfortunately, A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) seemed to encourage this belief. Whenever flexibility and/or creativity was needed, it had to be accomplished within obedience to the project management methodology.

Having to follow the methodology restricted to some degree the type of projects that project managers were asked to manage. Project managers were given the responsibilities for managing projects that focused on linear thinking, namely investments and commitments that followed linear processes/phases such as investments in plants and equipment, followed by raw material procurement, work-in-progress, finished goods inventories, and finally product sales. The deliverables were generally products or services for either internal or external clients. Financial statements reported the creation of linear business value.

Numerous articles have appeared over the years, on the benefits of using project management and the value that project management can bring to an organization. Some of the benefits appear in Exhibit 1 below.

Attribute Benefit
Efficiency Allows an organization to take on more work in less time without any increase in cost or degradation of quality
Profitability With all other things being equal, profitability should increase
Scope changes Allows for better upfront planning, which should reduce the number of scope changes downstream and prevent unwanted changes from happening
Organizational stability Focuses on effective teamwork, communication, cooperation and trust rather than organizational restructuring
Quality Quality and project management are married together; they both emphasize effective upfront planning
Risks Allows for better identification and mitigation of risks
Problem-solving The project management processes allow for informed decision making and problem-solving in a timely manner

 Exhibit 1: Benefits of Using Project Management

As more trust was given to project managers, the responsibility for managing strategic projects was handed off to the project managers rather than the functional managers. Other than the benefits provided previously, perhaps the primary benefit of using project management, which makes it extremely attractive for strategic planning projects, was to provide executives and stakeholders with a single point of contact for status reporting.

Most of today’s strategic planning projects are becoming so complex that they cannot be managed effectively by one functional manager, who may have a conflict between his/her functional duties and project duties. These projects require the coordinated effort of several functional areas such as sales, marketing, engineering, and manufacturing.

Without having a single point of contact for status reporting, the executives would need to do the coordination and integration themselves, and it is highly unlikely that they would have the time to do this in addition to their other duties.

Likewise, functional managers do not have sufficient time to manage their functional areas and perform integration work on various projects. The need for new applications of project management was now becoming more apparent.

Using project management practices for strategic projects brought with it several new challenges for the traditional project managers:

  • Some of the projects could run for five to ten years, or longer
  • Linear thinking had to be replaced with non-linear thinking
  • Rigid project management methodologies were replaced with flexible methodologies or frameworks that could be more easily aligned to the client’s business needs.
  • Projects were being aligned to strategic business objectives
  • There was a need to measure and report the business value of intangibles
  • The measurement of intangibles affects long-term business decision-making more so than short-term business decision-making
  • The outcome of these projects are not necessarily the traditional deliverables such as product but could be activities that mandate organizational change management actions


While the use of traditional project management practices may have worked well in the past and is still a successful way of managing for many companies, it did come with some limitations that led to changes in the role of a project manager.

  1. The need to think and act strategically 

Project managers now view themselves as managing part of a business rather than just a project. Project managers are expected to make business decisions as well as project-based decisions. With traditional project management practices, project managers acted more in line with tactical thinking than with strategic thinking. Now, project managers must think strategically and be able to react rapidly to changing market conditions and crises.

  1. The need for non-linear thinking

With traditional project management, the requirements at the onset of the project were usually well-defined. For projects with ill-defined or constantly evolving scope, nonlinear or out-of-the-box thinking may be required, which is one of the reasons for the success of Agile and Scrum approaches to project management.

Strategic projects are often initiated with a “fuzzy front end (FFE).” Unfortunately, because of up-front uncertainty and a need to make quick choices, especially based upon incomplete information, managing the FFE is a challenge. Project managers must now learn a different toolset that includes many of the principles of design thinking and rapid prototyping so that they can effectively test different ideas during periods of ambiguity and complexity. Design thinking is a collaborative approach to creative problem-solving in rapidly changing markets where breakthrough ideas may be necessary. The focus is on customer needs.

  1. The need to interface with stakeholders

In traditional project management, project sponsors and steering committees supported the project managers with stakeholder interfacing. In some cases, sponsorship was responsible for all of the interfacing. Now, project managers are expected to interface with the business owners and stakeholders during project planning, execution, and even follow-up. This is one of the characteristics of the Agile and Scrum approaches.

  1. The need to measure intangible metrics

Traditional project management using linear thinking focused heavily upon the metrics of time, cost, and scope. These are tangible metrics. Business value was measured in financial terms based upon the tangible metrics and was being used for short-term decision-making which out-weighted long-term decision-making. It was difficult to measure and report the intangibles, especially those intangibles that affected long-term business decisions.

We believe today that measurement techniques have matured to the point where anything can be measured. Intangibles may be difficult to measure, but they are not immeasurable. Typical intangibles include items such as those shown below in Exhibit 2:

Collaboration Image/Reputation
Commitment Leadership Effectiveness
Creativity Motivation
Culture Quality of Life
Customer Satisfaction Stress Level
Emotional Maturity Sustainability
Employee Morale Teamwork


Exhibit 2: Typical Intangibles

Some people argue that the intangibles have a much more descriptive picture of the health of the organization than do the tangibles that are most commonly measured in financial terms only.

  1. The need to become an agent of change

Project outcomes can require that the organization change the way that it functions. As an example, the introduction of a new software package that everyone must use. In the past, once the software was developed, the project would be turned over to another functional group responsible for installation and training. Today, project managers are asked to become the “go live” managers and assume this responsibility.

Not all projects end up with deliverables that are sold as products. There are numerous projects related to strategic planning where the outcome is a requirement for organizational change management.

In such situations, the project managers are now being asked to function as the change management agents. This may require that the project manager change his/her leadership style from that of a traditional project manager to more of a functional manager.

Some of the changes that may be necessary appear in Exhibit 3. The most frequent challenge with organizational change management projects is that people must be removed from their comfort zones and begin working differently.

Traits Differences
Authority From leadership without authority to significant authority
Power From legitimate power to judicious use of power
Decision making From some decision making to having authority for significant decision making
Types of decisions From only project decisions to project and business decisions
Willingness to delegate The length and size of the project will force the project managers to delegate more authority and decision making than they normally would
Loyalty From project loyalty to corporate vision and business loyalty
Social skills Strong social skills are needed since we could be working with the same people for years
Motivation Learning how to motivate workers without using financial rewards and power
Communication skills Communication across the entire organization rather than with a selected few
Status reporting Recognizing that the status of strategic projects cannot be made from time and cost alone
Perspective/outlook Having a much wider outlook, especially from a business perspective
Vision Must have the same long-term vision as the executives and promote the vision throughout the company
Compassion Must have a much stronger compassion for the workers, since they may be assigned for years
Self-control Must not over-react to bad news or disturbances
Brainstorming and problem-solving Must have very strong brainstorming and problem-solving skills
Change management Going from project to corporate-wide change management
Change management impact Going from project to organizational change management effects

Exhibit 3: Differences Between Traditional and Strategic Project Management Leadership Styles

The role of the project manager is changing and can be expected to continue changing in the future. The business side of project management, the need to measure intangibles as well as tangibles, and the project manager’s involvement in strategic planning activities will take center stage. 

Harold Kerzner (M.S., Ph.D., Engineering, and M.B.A) is IIL’s Senior Executive Director for Project Management. He is a globally recognized expert on project management and strategic planning, and the author of many best-selling textbooks including Project Management: A Systems Approach to Planning, Scheduling, and Controlling and Project Management 2.0. Dr. Kerzner has previously taught project management and business administration at Baldwin-Wallace University, engineering at the University of Illinois and business administration at Utah State University. He obtained his industrial experience at Thiokol Corporation where he held both program management and project engineering responsibilities on a variety of NASA, Air Force, Army, Navy and internal R&D programs.

Comments (2)

  • Michael

    Hi I think that you are doing the PMs of the past a disservice.

    “To maintain control from the top down, management created rigid project management methodologies structured around inflexible policies and procedures. When management stated that they supported project managers, it really meant as long as project managers demonstrated obedience to the rigid practices and hierarchical authority relationships.”

    I’ve never in my 30 years of management seen the top management impose rigid methodologies to PMs. They impose strict guidelines on what reporting they want to see but how to get from A to B is flexible. Maybe I’ve been working in different industries but I haven’t come across such a dictatorial way of working.

    “Many executives believed that, when establishing a project management methodology, “one size fits all.” Unfortunately, A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) seemed to encourage this belief. Whenever flexibility and/or creativity was needed, it had to be accomplished within obedience to the project management methodology.”

    PMBOK has never suggested a “one-size-fits-all” approach. PMBOK provides guidelines on tools to use and then leaves it to the PM to use them as and when he/she sees fit. PMBOK is not a methodology and can be adopted as seen fit. Many people associate PMBOK with a waterfall design process and it isn’t. Even then, nobody uses Waterfall strictly. They assess risks and manage the design process to mitigate them and to uncover problems as early as possible. Nobody waits until the end to see if the design does what it was intended to do without many hours of iterative testing. Some products can only be tested as a complete system but you do try to test individual risky components as best you can as early as you can.

    I agree that “Business value was measured in financial terms”; it still is. It is very difficult to measure intangible benefits and demonstrate that they will have long-term financial benefits (which is what most companies are interested in………making money).

    You’ll find it hard to break away from the constraints of senior managers who simply want to know:

    “Are we doing what we agreed to do”
    “Are we on time to deliver what we promised”
    “Will we deliver what we promised within the agreed budget”
    “Is the customer happy or am I going to get a nasty phonecall from them”

  • admin

    Hi Michael,
    The wording related to “rigid obedience” appears in published papers such as:

    Geraldi, J. G., Turner, J. R., Maylor, H., Söderholm, A., Hobday, M., & Brady, T. (2008). Innovation in project management: Voice of researchers. International Journal of Project Management, 26 (5), 586 – 589. DOI: 10.1016/j.ijproman.2008.05.011.

    I grew up in an environment where this was the norm and I consulted for companies where this was the norm. Yes, this was many, many years ago, and times have changed. But even in 2008, as seen in the above publication, these words were used.


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