Should a Project Manager have an assistant?
At a few presentations to PMI Chapters this year I stated that as a project manager I would not use a tool like Microsoft Project or (Insert any PM software tool here). For some reason a good portion of the audience thought this was shocking or incomprehensible. Some asked how I would even manage projects if this were the case.
Use of the Tool is an Administration Function
This reminded me again that the tools at our disposal create a disparity of views about what the role of the project manager is and how they should spend their time. Project management is challenging. It is my belief that there are many more project managers that are average at its execution than those that are very good at its execution.
If someone is very good at project management I want them to spend zero time working with a tool. In fact, one could argue the development of some project managers from average to very good at its execution is hindered because of all the time spent learning and using the tool. Let’s not forget “re-learning” because the tool typically changes every two years or the organization chooses a new tool, etc. Before we go further please consider this fundamental truth by Raymond Aaron
“If you don’t have an assistant, you are one.”
Reflect on the statement above for a moment. It is profound. Anyone that is highly skilled at anything should not be bogged down with the duties of an assistant. Use of the tool is primarily an administration function… an assisting function. My viewpoint on the role of project managers is simple. Project management should be done by project managers and project administration should be done by project administrators.
Some Project Management Offices (PMOs) are missing a tremendous opportunity for productivity improvement. The PMO could be looking at ways to free project managers from the burden of the tool by providing assistance through administration support. Some PMO’s actually do the opposite by mandating a tool to be used by every project manager thereby increasing the time spent on administration by the project manager.
Better and More Cost Effective?
Given ten slots I would hire seven project managers and three administrators whereas a lot of organizations hire ten project managers who each spend a significant portion of their time performing the duties of an assistant. Whether the ratio is 7/3, 8/2, 6/4 or whatever is dependent on the context of the organization. The median salary of a project manager in the US is $105,000. Most likely you can hire project administrators significantly less than the median and simultaneously increase the organizations effectiveness.
Project management has made great strides in progress development as a profession. Just like good accountants have assistants and good lawyers have paralegals it is time for the project management community to unburden the highly skilled PM from the duties of the administrator. Obviously there are organizations that already do this, but the project management community as a whole should embrace this philosophy. Project management would have matured more as a profession when there is a term equivalent to paralegal for project managers such as “Para-PM.”
I never thought I would say that PMI needs yet another certification but it does. The Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM) is for someone striving to become a project manager. A “Para-PM” type certification would be for someone that wants/has a career in supporting project managers.
Don’t mistake this treatise for the downplaying of the administration role compared to the project manager’s role. Administration is critical and the use of project management software tools makes it more effective and contributes to success.
Use of project management software capabilities at a high level is just a very different skill set than project management. These tools are complex with a lot of capability that is difficult to leverage/exploit on a part time use basis.
Individuals may often have a natural affinity for the project administration role while others may have a natural affinity for the project management role. It is simply common sense to align people as much as possible with what they are naturally proficient.
James T. Brown, Author The Handbook of Program Management, McGraw-Hill
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