One of the favourite activities of management courses is the sorting of employees into different boxes and categories.
Usually, these types are marked by colour and come with a prettily designed matrix, with a horoscope-like description of how a person will act and how to motivate them.
It is enlightening and curious, and if it is the start of a discourse between professionals, then it is helpful.
Here, by highlighting four different types of project manager, there is no suggestion that any single person will fall neatly into a category.
In fact, it is best to define from the start that all great companies need their project managers to fulfil each of these types at some point in their working week or even day.
It is, therefore, guidance for how a project manager or group of managers should adapt working practices to be the best professionals for a company?
How to effectively choose the strategy you take as a project manager relies on two questions:
- Does it fit with the existing plan undertaken by the company?
- Is there a cognisant business case to be made for this approach?
The four types can have a myriad of names but are best summarised as:
Risk-taker – when performing risk analysis tolerance for potential problems is higher if the outcome opportunity for higher growth.
Visionary – when there is little information for a solid business case and the strategy sits outside existing approaches, the project manager may need to sell an approach based on evidence and experience outside the current company’s expertise.
Completer – the company is in its comfort zone regarding the case to be made for the project, and the apparent growth opportunity and the project manager merely needs to get the job done most efficiently.
Expert – although the opportunity is within the company’s usual remit of business the potential opportunity is unclear. It is, therefore, the role of the project manager to explain why there is a potential for growth if the project is to be complete.
Obviously, the tolerance for each of these approaches is also going to be dictated by the competitive nature of the business the company is working within and the understanding of the c-suite to the independence of professionals in the company within their role.
However, the argument would be that a company needs each of them to make the most of the opportunities, but it is highly likely that most executives feel most comfortable when a project manager is completing a project that has been briefed from a solid business case with obvious growth opportunities.
It is worth looking at these four types of project manager in more depth to explore the argument for the other three types of project manager within a company.
The Four Types of Project Managers
This is the project manager that loves nothing more than seeking out new opportunities outside the existing strategic boundaries of an organisation.
Although the best project managers present opportunities based on evidence, here the visionary may have to seek data that it is only obliquely relevant to the opportunity they perceive.
There is likely to be high-level of instinct and interpretation involved and limited trustworthy quantitative data.
The visionary project manager will be able to take a company forward beyond the status quo. However, it will require stakeholders to leap of faith in support of the vision.
The risk for the company is higher, but the risk for the reputation of the project manager is even greater.
If successful, the project manager will be perceived as the best in his or her field. If unsuccessful, it is likely that the project manager will struggle to present even the most obvious of projects to stakeholders in the future.
Arguably, a company that is happy to ask a question that has yet to have a possible answer is a healthy organisation. It is such companies, like Google, like Apple, like Virgin, that step outside the obvious and ride the probabilities of risk and reward from such visionary ventures.
The individual project manager, like the individual company, decides themselves if they are willing to destroy their reputation on the chance that their idea is going to make them great.
All project managers are risk takers – big or small. It is the level of risk that a project manager is capable of tolerating that defines them in this category or not.
In the planning process of projects, a manager will define the risk and mitigate against it. In other words, the project manager will say how this threat will be eliminated through certain procedures or actions along the way.
High risk occurs when there is a case to be made for a project, but there is no clear data to support its success. It is within the strategy laid out by the company, but it is a gamble as to whether the opportunity will pay off or not.
Google Glass, for instance, was within the technical strategy for a company looking to proceed down a route of ultimate hands-free devices. However, the technology was so innovative there was no reasonable evidence base upon which to support the potential growth opportunity.
Now, people ask if it has failed as a strategy and as yet no one knows, mostly because it was years ahead of the market and the competition and so people are still critiquing the project.
The path a risk-taker will take a company on is uncertain, but there are opportunities for significant profits but also significant losses.
But, without risk-takers, the potential for significant growth opportunities may be overlooked, and a company may coast and so become stagnant within the marketplace within which they compete.
One way to deal with risk-taking project managers is to find a way of seeking proof of concept before full production or full release. This is where the IT sector uses beta version trials to explore quantitative data before the full launch, helping to mitigate the financial and reputational risk of a full-fledged failure.
As harsh as it might sound to the c-suite executive, sometimes you just need to trust the professionals you employ. Therefore, empower the project manager to find strategic opportunities that lie outside the boundaries of the standard business case the company pursues.
The expert knows the field and the area just outside their field of expertise. They will be able to make connections and see links where others may not have enough knowledge or experience to do the same.
The great thing about most project managers is that they have a varied CV. They come to the position having developed a portfolio of skills that on the surface makes them a jack of all trades and master of none – when in reality – it gives them the insight to see the mastery of each area of the business and how these can be used creatively.
Th expert will work by collecting followers throughout a company, based on their knowledge of each department, and each unit will then help build the business case for the project. They also support other lousy project managers.
The move will be supported by the reliable quantitative data drawn from the collaboration across the organisation.
In some respects, the expert is the easiest of the project manager types for the executive team to take a risk on. The business case made may be out of their comfort zone regarding strategy, but the evidence for a growth opportunity will be substantial.
Here the expert project manager takes on the role of challenging the existing strategic goals to move the company forward. It is hard work for the project manager; it takes a lot of collaboration, research and evidence gathering with the full knowledge that the answer may still be no.
However, the best project managers undertake this work with the knowledge that it is how they genuinely influence the direction of a company.
The least satisfying but most likely role of all project managers. You are given a brief that sits comfortably in the company strategy with obvious growth opportunities and you are tasked with getting the job done.
Hey, someone has to do it, right?
There is no real risk, and there is no real challenge to the way the company works. This role revolves around stable budgeting, scheduling and communication – the foundations of all great project managers.
Sure, you are only aiming at the low hanging fruit for your company but here lies the day to day bread and butter of most organisations.
All One Person?
It is possible for one project manager to be each of these roles, though it is likely a project manager will have a particular style that they slot into best.
A company will more than likely employ a type of project manager that sits within their level of comfort too, so one type will dominate within an organisation.
However, too much reliance on completers may lead to inertia, and too much acceptance of the visionary may lead to disaster.
There needs to be enough room within an organisation for each of these four types of a project manager to exist and flourish.