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Who's Really the Project Lead?

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On teams that work in creative services, like those found in advertising and in consulting agencies, often the person who serves as the project lead is not a project manager. 

This situation can be very tricky for a truly robust project manager who provides -- or wants to provide -- strong leadership and guidance to the team. It can lead to conflicts of interest and power struggles that can leave team morale in shreds.

When you see project managers in these environments, they've typically been relegated to a more administrative function. They essentially provide resource scheduling and reporting on data such as project profit and loss, rather than being empowered to provide much true leadership. (I discussed this in a little more detail in my first post.)

So should we eliminate the project management position and have the creative leads or account managers take on those responsibilities? Well, no.

Companies that attempt to eliminate the project management position from their ranks are ultimately just pushing this responsibility to other members of the existing team. Those members may believe they are able to take on the role of project manager, but more likely are too busy with their current responsibilities. Not to mention, they are nowhere near as knowledgeable or skilled in project management as they would like to believe.

The challenge lies in the perception of what it takes to manage and lead a project team from start to finish. If you were to ask your creative team or your account team, I'm willing to bet their description of leading teams would be inadequate. And much of the job they describe will be tasks they simply don't have an interest in performing.
So what do we do in these situations?

To me, the answer lies in accountability. If creative or account teams are going to claim leadership positions on projects, they need to be clearly identified by senior management as owning of the final, holistic project outcome. These project leaders must understand that their success -- and the project's success -- is tied directly to their ability to make all of the parts come together, even when many of the parts don't fall squarely in their functional purview.  

Have you experienced this kind of conflict? How was it resolved?


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I've had clients come to me after they'd awarded a job to a competitor and lament on and on about the poor level of project management they were receiving on the job.

The competitor had eliminated the PM position and instead designated a lead person over each trade area. Thus, there was no single point of accountability and continuity between the project team and the client. This forced the client to spend nearly 50% of his time managing the project, rather than focusing on his primary role as an engineer. Opportunity lost.

I shared with him that the cost for a PM was included in the unsuccessful bid. Project Management comes at a cost but...what's your time worth?

It all comes back to a single point for accountability and communication. You can call that point a PM, a lead, or anything else...that's semantics. But it has to be there, and it has to be spelled out in the Project Management Plan.

I greatly enjoyed this read.

I'm a new project manager on an existing project with a team lead who was "managing" the project before me, and is having difficulty letting go of the planning responsibilities.

It has become quite a tug of war, and I'm seeking ways to correct the issues so we can get back on track. I like the suggestion of clearly assigning the roles and responsibilities based on "technical how" and "project how".

Tiffiny, did you ever come across a forum that goes into this topic further?

For the last three years I have been working in a similar type of situation. I have taken my project management skills developed in the IT world and have applied them to projects in the financial world. I am no CMA or Economist but have managed to successfully demonstrate the benefits of project management to these groups and have been asked repeatedly to come back to manage again.

"Tricky" definitely describes the power struggles that this situation can cause. Especially when by nature, project managers want to be in charge, however their team lead is the one who has the technical expertise to get the job done and will be the one to communicate project activies and progress.

In order to make this situation work, the key is clear definition of roles and the ability to focus on project success while letting go of project manager ego.

In this situation, the PM is a project facilitator. Their strength is having the hollistic view of what needs to happen to make a project successful. The project lead has the "technical how" while the project manager has the "project how". There are two very different perpectives. Both are required for a successful project.

The PM and the Project Lead must be strong allies. I have found that once the Project Leads understand that you are not trying to tell them what to do, that you are working to make them successful while taking away the burden of planning, documenting and tracking, they are much more willing to share the leadership responsibilities and work as an effective leadership team.

I am hoping to hear from others project managing in this type of situation. Can anyone tell me where I can find a forum or other venues where I can find professionals that specialize in this type of arrangement? I know I am not the only one...


Unfortunately, many companies expect the 'technical' guys driving the projects to handle the 'additional' responsibility of a project manager. In such cases, I have seen that project managers who have the 'technical' domain knowledge, are the ones who can contribute more to the needs of the project. Maybe a jack of all trades is what such companies are looking at.

~ Amit

When I have found myself in this situation I have adopted one of two strategies.

The first is to quietly manage the project in the background. Identify and enlist key allies and simply do what needs to be done. This works, but the power struggles are always simmering and it can be unpleasant for you and your competitor.

A better approach is to treat the project as a learning opportunity and do what you can to embed pm knowledge and techniques in the heads of the rest of the team. Not only is this more rewarding personally, it also builds organizational capability in the long run.

What do you think?


I totally agree with your analysis. A project manager is always necessary - and managing the project often means the planning and facilitation to ensure that things get done (not necessarily controlling WHAT gets done).

I love user experience design & strategy -- and one reason I left a past job was because there weren't project managers. I was responsible for planning the project - so the bigger the project, the bigger the project planning. The bigger the planning, the less time I had for other things. The result? The bigger the project, the less strategy we applied to the project!

There is so much that a project manager can do to enable others to do their jobs. NEVER, NEVER, NEVER skimp on this role!

Well said Geoff.

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