Every project has a human element to it, and how you approach your relationship with the project manager has a direct impact on how you tackle your assignment—and how your work will be judged. Although the project manager is ultimately responsible for the plan’s outcome, you can have a real voice in shaping things by clearly communicating your concerns and needs.
The project manager may not have your exact skill set, but it’s a safe bet that he or she possesses at least a reasonable amount of technical knowledge. “A lot of PMs have been technology people,” noted Prince Knight, PMP, a veteran project manager who’s now a consultant at Merit Career Development, a training firm based in Wayne, Pa. “They really have to relinquish the reins to allow the technical manager to flourish. They shouldn’t be overshadowing them.”
You can usually expect the project manager to look to you for guidance on technical issues. Even so, you’ll have to negotiate to make sure that you’ve got the time and budget you need to accomplish the tasks assigned to you. As in any negotiation, you’re most likely to get what you want if you bear a few simple tactics in mind.
The ‘Triple Constraint’
To start, it’s important to understand that the core of the project manager’s job is to manage three often-conflicting dynamics: time frame, cost and scope, the so-called “triple constraint.” This can be tricky, because each has a direct impact on the others. Accelerate the project’s schedule and you may increase its cost while trimming its scope. Expand the scope, and you’re sure to stretch the time frame while adding expense. Somehow, the project manager has to keep these forces aligned despite shifting business priorities and unforeseen circumstances, such as a key team member getting sick or another being transferred to a new business unit.
At the same time, PMs have to manage pressure exerted by the project’s stakeholders, Knight observed. The project team may be focused on meeting its schedule, and management is anxious about the budget, all while the client is focused on scope and “wants to maximize everything.”
Still, the triple constraint governs the project manager’s agenda. While you might be most concerned with accomplishing certain work in a specified time frame, the PM is thinking about how all of the project’s facets impact one another. For example, other team members may not be able to begin their work until you’ve completed yours. A project plan can be a complex and interconnected undertaking. Keep that in mind.
Understanding the triple constraint will help you anticipate the project manager’s concerns so you can address them. If you believe you need more time to finish a task, be ready to discuss the impact on the overall project timeline and to suggest ways you might mitigate those impacts somewhere else. Unfortunately, it’s often difficult to make material changes to a project after actual development begins, which leads us to…
About 60 percent of a project manager’s job involves planning the overall effort, Knight said. So when you’re consulted early on, be honest in your estimates about how long you need to get your work done and what assumptions you’re making to arrive at your figures. Though the business side will always exert pressure to get work done faster and cheaper, remember that it’s difficult to argue for modifying the schedule, scope or budget once the project’s kicked off. Be clear about your needs upfront.
Projects run smoothly when everyone involved knows what’s going on, and part of the project manager’s job is to recognize when a change in technical approach is needed to accommodate issues uncovered in, say, QA. If you run into challenges, raise flags promptly. That will give you and the PM more time to determine just how big an issue you face and explore viable ways to address it.
Most of the time, your negotiations with the PM will take place during the project’s planning phase, as assignments are made and time frames and budgets developed. The project manager’s focus will be on creating an effective plan, and he or she will be looking to you for input on its technical aspects. Be upfront about what you need, keeping in mind the context of your work, and you’ll go a long way toward ensuring a successful effort.