Why project managers get no respect

There is not a child alive who dreams of being a project manager. Maybe a firefighter, a rock star or an astronaut, but not a PM. There is something inherently dull about the words “project” and “manager” – even the flames of a bright imagination would consider smothering itself to death in their presence. And it follows that in professional ranks, saying you are a project manager won’t get you much respect either. To many being a PM means you fit this unfortunate stereotype: you were not good enough in your field to be an engineer or a programmer, and through politics and self-inflation, you find ways to take credit for the hard work done by others. It stings, but that’s the stereotype (ask at your next happy hour).

Many PMs unintentionally reinforce this view by trying to get everyone to pay attention to the work they do produce: the meta work of spreadsheets, specifications, presentations and status reports, failing to realize that to most in any organization, these are the least interesting and most bureaucratic things produced in the building. This mismatch of value sends the PM and his/her team into a downward spiral: the PM asking for more and more respect in ways guaranteed to push people further away.

The core problem is perspective. Our culture does not think of movie directors, executive chefs, astronauts, brain surgeons, or rock stars as project managers, despite the fact that much of what these cool, high profile occupations do is manage projects. Everything is a project. The difference is these individuals would never describe themselves primarily as project managers. They’d describe themselves as directors, architects or rock stars first, and as a projects manager or team leaders second. They are committed first to the output, not the process. And the perspective many PMs have is the opposite: they are committed first to the process, and their status in the process, not the output.

The result is that most of the world thinks of project management as BORING. Not sure how it happened, but instead of thinking of the great moments in PM history, say the NASA space race, The D-Day invasion of Normandy, The construction of the pyramids, the Empire State building, or any of a thousand great things made possible only by someone’s effective management of the project, people think of pocket protectors, overdesigned charts, epic status reports, and people who spend too much time in rooms filled exclusively with other project managers. If you are not going out of your way to separate yourself from the stereotype, odds are good that when you say “I’m a project manager” the person you are talking to puts you into a Dilbert cartoon in their mind, and you are the punchline.

People with job titles like “Program Manager”, “Product Manager”, “Information Architect” or “Quality Assurance manager” have similar problems. These titles all makes it hard to relate to what it really is that the person gets paid to make happen: a sure sign of title inflation, confusion via over-specialization, or abstraction from the real work. I suspect all of these folks have similar problems with getting respect from people when they introduce themselves with their literal job title (process), instead of what it is they help make (output).

The news isn’t all bad. This lack of respect creates a huge opportunity for people with open minds: their expectations of you are low. If you take the time to find out what it is that the people on the project need from you, or value from you, and make that as large a part of your job as possible, you’ll get more respect than you expect. And you may find that people start referring to you as a different kind of PM – one who has changed their opinion of what PMs can do for a team – and you’ll earn not only their respect, but their trust and best work too.

51 Responses to “Why project managers get no respect”

  1. WaveyDavey

    Amen, brother. And I say this as a programmer, not a PM – I tried PM, hated it and was terrible at it. Dear Lord, send us more PM’s like this.

    Reply
  2. Sprightly

    I’ve heard project management described as accounting minus the dollars plus man hours and tasks. That’s probably where the boring comes in.

    Nevertheless, and honestly now – how many programmers are really working on something that is not fundamentally boring for a paycheck? Is it any more exciting to work on fuel nozzle velocity dynamics than to be managing that project?

    I think some people actually consider writing Java middleware for financial institutions to be exciting, but for each one there’s a project manager who also thinks his job is something special.

    Plus, I think the pyramids are not a good example of great project management. Great empire building maybe, but slave labor plays havoc with efficiency and resource consumption constraints.

    Reply
  3. Steve

    Here is my biggest problem with most PMs, from my limited experience in the industry as a developer. Most PMs try to lead a team to project completion, rather than help the team. As in, the manager will tell this developer to work on this subsystem, or finish a given spec sheet, or whatever. Engineers tend to know how they can best use their skills (and other team members’ skills) to implement a project. This leads to conflicts between developers, and lambasting of the management.

    The best manager I’d ever had on a project left the few engineers on the project to divvy up the work according to their strengths and timelines, and remained on the project to figure out the answers to questions from the developers.

    Reply
  4. John Hewitt

    Someone once told me that I would be a good project manager, so I read a textbook about the field and asked around. It sounded like the worst white-collar job on the planet. No thank you.

    Reply
  5. ilan berci

    Thanks for the great article, I just wanted to point out that the role of the PM has changed drastically from what it was 15 years ago with the advent of agile methodologies. I believe (and I may be totally wrong) that many of the smaller code shops are having good success with the manager stepping out of the director role and more into the scrum master role.

    The days of MS project where each developer was daily allocated 35% to this project, 55% to that one, and 60% to yet another ( I know it doesn’t add up) are for the most part behind us..

    As for the “traditional” PM role being boring..
    Coders (to which I am one) are not stupid, when you see a guy spend 2 days a week from 9-5 in a boardroom with other suits, there is no box of donuts big enough to make those meetings any less excruciating. Especially those “pass the buck ones” on missed launch dates. To make it worse, just stick the PM on a 2 hour teleconference with his offshore shop at the oddest times of day or even better, whisk them off on a red-eye flight for a next day meeting. The word is “hell”, not “boring”!

    Lastly, any PM that isn’t a micro-manager and is a team player will be supported if and when the shit hits the fan.

    Thanks again for the great article.. great read
    ilan berci

    Reply
  6. Giulio Petrucci

    I partialy agree…I’m a sw-dev/architect and I think I won’t be ineterested in becoming a PM (at least in the next 5 years). Anyway I think the big issue is that for almost all the small-company-bosses with no experience in programming there’s no difference between a PM and a Technical Leader. What do they need? A PM? A TechLeader? And this is bad…

    Reply
  7. Dwayne Phillips

    Most PMs get no respect because they took the job to make more money. They show no interest in learning how to do the job well.

    I go way back to a story written by Jerry Weinberg in one of his books. He was a programmer and had a stressful home life. He wanted to become a manager so he could make more money and hire a housekeeper to reduce the stress at home. He then realized that his home life was stressful because he was a lousy manager at home. If he was lousy at managing a home, why would he be any better at managing at work.

    He remained a programmer.

    Reply
  8. Scott

    Dwayne: That might be true, but if we’re going to criticize people for taking jobs that earn them more money, we’d be criticizing a large percentage of people. Frankly, if bad PMs are the norm in any organization the problem isn’t the PMs, it’s whoever is responsible for hiring them.

    Reply
  9. Scott

    Ilan: There is something to be said for being the guy who takes “boring meeting” bullet for the team. If the PM can be in the room and prevent stupid decisions from happening, while allowing the programmers to do what they love, which is to write code, the have a great deal of value to those programmers.

    Reply
  10. ohcello

    Just got my PMP… you guys are depressing me =)=)

    I’ll try and keep the dev’s perspective in mind, I promise =)

    Reply
  11. suholla

    Amen! One of the truest write-ups I’ve ever read on the fate and state of PMs. Especially true in the software industry

    Reply
  12. Richard

    I think PM’s aren’t respect because they focus too much on process/procedures over leadership. As a PM, or any job title, you control your destiny. You can LEAD the project or enforce meetings and procedures. If PM’s would focus more on the people involved in their projects over the process maybe they would get more respect.

    Reply
  13. javaguy

    I’m not the biggest fan of certain PM’s myself, but to be fair you need to step inside the shoes of the PM.

    PM’s # 1 job is to deliver value. The rest is secondary. I’m not saying the secondary is unimportant(leadership, team welfare etc) but once you realize what their #1 is, it’s easier to see where they are coming from. I think not everyone looks at it from his / her shoes.

    Reply
  14. Lisa

    Great article. It made me smile. I am a PM and yes, this article stung a bit, but I realized I’m doing much more for my team than this article outlines. PMs who act as the first point of contact for their projects and field initial questions about status, defects, etc. are valuable. I act as a shield for my developers so that they aren’t in meetings all day and don’t have to answer calls with requests for additional changes to requirements.

    Reply
  15. Scott

    Lisa: I totally agree. You used a key word – value. Value as defined by the other people working on the project. As long as the work the PM does is seen as valuable, and a net plus, by the actual project team members, they deserve respect.

    The problem is I can think of a single book, course, certificate, or degree around project management that centers on this view.

    And I’d go further – shielding is the first level, but higher levels of value include leadership, crisis management, planning, cross-discipline decision making, and on it goes.

    Reply
  16. DaveK

    Its easy to see the need for PM when projects are handed to inexperienced PMs, that are really technical leads of their area of expertise, that have little or no training running projects. These projects usually run late, over budget, or under quality.

    The devs/engs can always blame everyone else – I mean heck, its not their fault that marketing didn’t describe the requirements in enough detail and they had to redo most of the work.

    Enter the PM – the savior to this problem. He is the ring leader, orchestrating the project, taking full responsibility. Bad wrap? Ug, well, remember the days of failing projects – where everyone is running around like chickens with their heads cut off.

    Reply
  17. Lui Sieh

    Hi,

    A very nice post. My personal feeling about PMs who’ve made it their calling, may need some personal counseling to have to put up with the crap day-in-and-day-out :).

    For some of the respondents, I’d be curious how they’d feel about “accidental project managers” which for those in the IT side of things, most are. It’s not like the construction industry for example, where project management is a recognized and respect professional choice. Most IT guys doing PM work got there because they got the short end of the straw so to speak or they really didn’t know what they got into when they accepted the mission to work “miracles” :).

    Project management by process is lack of PM maturity and it takes a lot of practice and learning from failures to improve one’s PM skills. PM’ing doesn’t come naturally IMHO because most people get by by following process (i.e. be a good corporate ‘team player’) than delivering results/outcomes.

    Thanks for this article!
    -Lui

    Reply
  18. NotYou

    You think PM’s have it bad, try being a talented QA Engineer. At least PM’s have some authority and input on direction. The problem is not PM’s or QA Engineers, or anyone else in the Engineering department who is not a developer. The problem is the developer. Somewhere along the way someone told each and every single software developer that they were God. That they were the best and that what they did was the most important thing in the world. Then they told them it was ok to be a complete social reject and to be as lazy as humanly possible.

    The funny thing is that ALL of them took this advice to be true and actually live it out on a daily basis wreaking havoc on the entire team.

    Reply
  19. Kareem Shaker

    Well, I can understand the genuine frustration behind this post, because simply the Project Management job has gotten some kind of bad reputation these days, I think that’s because a lot of people try to make the jump and leave their technical career and shift to PM.

    Second, the reason a lot of PMs follow the process is that they can not get the outcome without the process, I can think here of a weak matrix environment!

    Third, PMs get lost while executing the project, they simply think of the project delivery not the value to be delivered out of the project and here lies the problem and that’s why projects do fail! ( you can check my blog about more posts about why projects fail )

    Don’t give up, be a different PM, that’s it, Thank you!

    Reply
  20. Jane

    Your article and some of the responses act as if the job of the project manager is to make the team members’ lives easier. I also see complaints of micro-management. The entire PM methodology, no matter which one you are using, is indeed micro-management. The PM’s job isn’t to take the boring meeting bullet for the team. The PM’s job is to deliver the value of the project back to the organization on time and within budget. That value should deliver one of three things to the business that commissioned the project: increased revenue, lower costs, or compliance with governmental regulations.

    I agree with your assertion that PM’s should define themselves by outcomes instead of process. However, the process by which the valued outcome is achieved is generally micro-management. If it weren’t needed then the all-knowing developers could simply figure out their own requirements, run the testing with the users, report on the progress of their coding to the primary stakeholders who are paying their paychecks, negotiate change requests and how that will affect the delivery, order the infrastructure and test systems to test their code on, haggle with the vendors to get the best prices, ride herd on the subcontractors who haven’t delivered on time… oh, I guess perhaps a PM does add some value after all.

    I get tired of the prima donna attitude of the developers as well. I didn’t mean for this to turn negative, but as a PM, I have to say that I’ve been on the engineering side. I’ve learned that the colleges are pumping out great developers and with a flooded market, the price of development goes down. Seems like I’ve read that somewhere before. Hmmm.

    Without people skills, nothing gets done. The Sales department still rules the organization. I take the advice to heart about being committed to the output instead of the process. When we can get that part right, we’ll all remember that we are part of the same team trying deliver value, grow the organization, and thus secure our paychecks by satisfying the ultimate customers. The PM’s do play a vital role, whether that role is respected or not.

    Reply
  21. Smaranda

    I can’t say that everybody I’ve ever met in the software industry or the likes gives PMs little recognition. I’ve even met people who want to become PMs and recognize the talent it takes to get a project right.

    That being said, people do like stereotypes, and PMs are no strangers to them. But as others have also noticed, the worse stereotype in the software industry is probably that of the QA! The “mind numb button clicking QA that’s not really an engineer at all”. It really is quite annoying.

    Reply
  22. king

    I need your help folks.

    I have been been offered a place to do Project Mgt at Westminster University and UCL; and Supply Chain Mgt at Brunel University.

    I am torn between these two courses and need assistance.

    Your inputs will be greatly appreciate.

    Thanks,
    King.

    Reply
    • Chris

      The one you find most interesting. Advice heard often and often ignored. You are far more likely to excel in something you enjoy.

      Reply
  23. Roger

    “Project Management” is a complete hoax perpetrated by people that do not have the skills to do actual IT work but want to work in IT anyway. PMs: you are managing nothing, you are controlling nothing, we do not need you, you are bs artists, you are a joke, go away.

    Reply
    • Kp

      Agreed most PMs Do not have a strong technical background, Just because they read a bunch of tech magazines and use a Mac does not make them tech savvy. And the sad part is they know they suck in IT but they want to look technical and that’s when they jump into project management. They are practically glorified secretaries.

      Reply
    • Erica

      …but that “bs artist” PM your refer to is keeping me out of boring meetings all day so I can do what I love – programming!

      I’ll be forever grateful to the PM who can respond to business-related, non-technical questions about the project simply so that I don’t have to. Not to mention reporting, or requirements gathering (sometimes), or a million other things I appreciate the help on.

      So I agree with much of what you said, except for the “go away” part!

      Reply
    • Brigitte

      I strongly oppose both the statement that PM is boring and that PM’s are fakes.
      I have been in IT for over 30 years, developed micro chips, computers, write assembler code in Hex, compilers for several programing languages, CASE tools, Application software, did quality assurance and build simulation systems. All the while – trying to co-ordinate my work with the work of everybody else who worked on the same project with me. I just wanted to make sure they get my results when they needed it and I get theirs when I needed them.

      Without me doing that, most of my projects would have gone astray. That’s the way I became a PM for nearly every project I was on for the Past 25 years.

      I always wanted a job where I could organise, plan and coordinate things and people, and rearrange things to be more effective and efficient. That’s essentially what the PM is doing.

      I wonder how your projects would fear if you didn’t have someone who gives you and your colleges / team mates a direction and a plan to work against. Several of the developers I know don’t see get the bigger picture and have issues organising anything that involves more then 2 people.

      Reply
    • lee

      Bit of a daft post Roger in that you offer no constructive rationale as to why PM’s should be such deluded souls. I would guess that you are probably continually frustrated by being asked your opinion and then ignored, or worse, never asked in the first place and then continually asked to ‘sort out the mess’.

      Regardless. I have been a PM in title for 6 years, moving from various tech roles which I held for many years. If I see an issue with PM it’s more to do with education. In the UK Prince2 is king, but Prince2 only begins to make sense if the higher level MSP programme level work has been done correctly; more often than not it hasn’t.

      I’m a PMP and as such have been brought up with the rationale of owning the project end to end, from concept through to final delivery. This entails far more than maintain a gantt chart – which to be honest it what most people think project management is; in reality that takes about 15% of a PM’s time and effort.

      I am sure you are well p1ssed with bailing PM’s out, for my tuppence I don’t see the issue with PM. I see the issue in the sales and engagement process that all organisations seem to follow – fill the room with people who can sell a dream to the people who don’t have the ability to understand the potential pitfalls. It shouldn’t be any surprise that a significant number of IT project fail, nobody bothers to ask the people who need to use the thing until it’s too late – this isn’t a PM issue, its a social hierarchical issue.

      Reply
    • Kannan

      Fully agree and I will add more. All these assh0les do is send out stupid emails asking for status, asking for status, asking for status, using various different words. They can’t appreciate or even understand or try to understand the technical challenges worked on by the engineer. All they care is whether or not timelines or met. If an ass kissing engineer produces crappy work that would result in a lot of performance issues later on for example, but meets the timelines well, he will be well appreciated. On the other hand if a non-ass kissing engineer detects that there is some potential for performance degradation, and incorporates changes for efficiency even when not asked for, and even though his change will prevent problems later on after shipping the product, yet the stupid PM won’t even try to understand what it is the guy is sweating his ass on, and will only still check for timelines.

      Reply
  24. Brian

    The PM fills a critical role in a project. The reason why they get no respect is the skills involved with the PM are all non-technical therefore almost anyone can do it. Whether they can do a good job, bad job or mediocre job is a different story, but literally anyone can do it.

    Reply
  25. Brian Mccoy

    As a PM, I can see truth in all of the comments. I worked in the trenches of IT support, field engineering, business analyst, help desk as well as non IT work. I always found myself bridging the gaps between business strategy and solution delivery. Working as a PM in the IT field, respect with team is essential as you are a professional manager working with professionals. Setting expectations with clear, concise communication and defined goals/work packages creates ownership for every team member. We have to manage the changes and scope creep to provide stability to the team and maintain flexibility. Having fun is also an essential element of successful PM work.

    Reply

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  1. […] Why Project Managers Get No Respect A great insight into project managers and why so many people don’t respect them. I think this is a great article because I know a number of people who don’t respect their managers (mine is great though). […]

  2. […] scottberkun.com » Why project managers get no respect “The result is that most of the world thinks of project management as BORING.” (tags: projectmanagement career) This entry was posted by delicious on Wednesday July 16th, 2008 at 4:30 am in Links SHARETHIS.addEntry({ title: “links for 2008-07-16″, url: “http://www.rodenas.org/blog/2008/07/16/links-for-2008-07-16/” }); […]

  3. […] scottberkun.com » Why project managers get no respect “Project Manager” is a term that recalls people who focus on process. The best project managers, though; are the artists and people who focus on the product: outcome, rather than process. (tags: business projectmanagement articles) […]

  4. Berkun on PMs and Respect…

    Since I riffed on Manny Ramirez and Theo Epstein earlier (here), let’s continue the baseball metaphor.  Scott Berkun drives a “hanger” a long way when he highlights how PMs sabotage their personal brands (here).  The money quote:
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  5. […] Project Managers are both the adhesive and the compass for project deliveries. They are also the recipients of an unfortunate stereotype of being pure project bloat: unnecessary bureaucracy that gets in the way of progress and in the worst cases, innovation. At best, PMs are viewed as what Bill Simmons calls Table Test Guys: those that bring as much to the table as they take off it – or a break even. The fact is project management’s expectations are fairly low, as Scott Berkun effectively points out […]

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