Project Management

Is project management all administration?

A member who is considering project management wants to know how much administrative work he can expect to take on. Our project management mentor outlines the PM's duties and looks at critical tasks that have the air of administrative paperwork.

TechRepublic columnist Tom Mochal receives dozens of e-mails each week from members with questions about project management problems. He shares his tips on a host of project management issues in this Q&A format.

I’m thinking about switching my focus to project management. The concern I have is that it seems that most project managers I know spend the bulk of their time dealing with administrative paperwork. I’m sure there is more to the job than that, but how much of the role is administrative?

I know a lot of project managers would agree with your comment that it seems like administrative work takes up a lot of their time. However, to be honest, administrative work is in the eye of the beholder, so to speak. What one person sees as dull administrative work might be a vital part of controlling the project to another person.

Defining what makes up administrative work can be a tricky proposition. Some project managers think that anytime a document is involved, it is an administrative task. Some might go as far as to say that anything that requires writing (or typing) is administrative. But, generally, administrative work should be defined more by its relationship to the project rather than the type of work it is.

For example, if your organization requires some type of report that is not project-focused, you might say that it is administrative. You may also participate in other non-project-related activities, such as interviewing new employees, filling out surveys, and responding to management requests for information, and that work might also be considered administrative. Still, there are jobs that fall into the project manager’s domain that have every appearance of being administrative work, but aren’t.

A quick definition of project management
This is probably overkill, but it might help to quickly define the project manager’s job. In general, the project manager is responsible for the overall success of the project. He or she leads the team through a definition and planning phase and then monitors and controls the project until it successfully concludes. This would include managing scope, issues, quality, and so on. Notice that performing general administrative work is not a part of that simple definition.

In addition, the project team may or may not report functionally to the project manager. The project team members may report to a different manager for things like performance reviews, while reporting to the project manager for their workload. In other companies, the functional reporting relationship goes directly to the project manager.

However, in either case, the project manager must also perform people-management responsibilities. This includes soft skills like listening, providing feedback, being empathetic, providing leadership, and so on.

It’s all part of the job
As I mentioned earlier, many jobs that are part of the project management landscape feature elements of administrative work, but they are too critical to the project to be correctly called anything other than the project manager’s job. Here are a few examples of this type of project management work:
  • Handling status reporting: I think you can tell a lot about the mind-set of a project manager based on how he or she looks at status reporting. Many project managers think that status reporting falls under administrative work. I think that status reporting falls directly under the jurisdiction of a project manager in order to proactively communicate status. When I am in a project management role, I plan out the best way to deliver status updates to my stakeholders as a part of a communication plan. To me, this is not administrative work. This is a fundamental part of my project management responsibilities.
  • Updating the work plan: I have mentored project managers who hated to update a work plan and thought that work plans were an administrative burden. To me, updating the work plan is one of the core responsibilities of the project manager.
  • Completing a project definition: Again, many project managers just want to get going and start the work. To them, planning is an afterthought and not something that should hold up a project. To me, if the project manager views the definition process as administrative work, it implies a certain lack of project management maturity. There is always a legitimate question as to how much planning is required, but there never should be a question about doing it or not doing it.
  • Updating project logs and forms: Many projects have forms that are used to request scope changes, or perhaps the project manager keeps track of issues on an issues log.
  • Conducting performance reviews: If you have project team members that report to you, you undoubtedly have some paperwork affiliated with the performance review process. This has a direct tie to your people-management role.

The final word
I hope this response gives you some more insight into the project management role. Much of what might appear to be administrative work is really the direct input or output related to project management or people management. Project managers can master this aspect of their job and relegate it to a smaller percentage of their time. However, if you have an aversion to this type of work, project management may not be right for you.

Tom Mochal is president of TenStep, Inc., a project management consulting and training firm. Recently, he was Director of Internal Development at Geac, Inc., a major ERP software company. He’s worked for Coca-Cola, Eastman Kodak, and Cap Gemini Ernst & Young. Tom has developed a project management methodology called TenStep and an application support methodology called SupportStep.

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