Are you a leader or a tracker?

We have truly messed up our job titles.

Somehow, somewhere, the job title project manager became lame. I don’t know if it was born this way, or if it happened over time, but it’s a shame. Here’s what I think happened – we’ve confused project tracking with project leading.

If you take any interesting work in architecture, film, software, or any pursuit that involves millions of dollars or dozens of people, there is someone playing an executive role, overseeing decisions, budgets and schedules. They are a leadership force for the project, and are, in essence, a project leader. They might call themselves director, producer, architect, or VP of whatever, but if their authority is tied to a project, they are a Project Leader.

But somehow that job title never caught on. Not in software, not anywhere. Instead, the title project manager is used everywhere with all sorts of meanings. At NASA, the director of the entire space shuttle program is called a project manager. But more often the project manager is the guy with an ambiguous role and even less clear authority.

Many of these people are really Project Trackers. They write reports, make spreadsheets, and report back to people on what just happened. They aren’t expected to lead the entire project, as engineers or business analysts take most of the fun parts of the leadership role anyway. But no one ever gets that job title – it’d be too easy to figure things out.

Microsoft dodged this whole problem, and created new ones, by creating the role of Program Manager. This was a project manager who isn’t granted much leadership authority, but who is allowed to earn it and grow into a true project leader. But soon there were program managers whose sole job was to manage a single dialog box, and the power of the role was gone.

Worse, many places have Product managers, program managers, and project managers all on the same teams, further confusing who does what and why.

The solution: whenever I meet people with a P or an M in the title, I ask the following questions.

  • Does your team report to you?
  • Whose approval do you need to decide what work gets done?
  • Do you create / contribute to / follow requirements?
  • Do you create / contribute to / follow specifications?
  • Do you create / contribute to / follow schedules?
  • Is idea generation and design a major / minor / negligible part of your role?
  • How much of your time is spent tracking the project vs. leading it?
  • Does your level of involvement, from project inception to completion, change?
  • Are you completely / partially / indirectly accountable for the project outcome?

Only then do I understand which dimensions of leadership/management the person is responsible for. I wish it was easier, but I find I’m always asking these questions every time I teach or consult in a different place, no matter what their job title says.

Anyone else have ideas for how to identify which kind of PM you’re dealing with?

20 Responses to “Are you a leader or a tracker?”

  1. Steve McLeod

    Here in Germany Project Managers _are_ indeed often called Project Leaders (Projektleiter in the local tongue). And yet more than anywhere else I have worked, the role seems to be about project tracking, often leaving a project in sore need of leadership.

  2. Robby Slaughter

    Good project managers have three qualities: they provide *direction* for their team, they *track progress* and manage accordingly, and they have the relevant *domain expertise* to contribute substaintally to the problem.

    Bad project managers generally fail because they either don’t give good direction, don’t know what’s going on, or don’t actually understand how the team does it’s work. I think what’s happened to project management is that we’ve come to believe that good project management can be independent of leadership ability, measurement ability, or domain expertise. You have to have all three, not just one, to manage effectively.

  3. Scott

    Robby: love the 3 part breakdown. But how can hire for those traits? They’re hard to measure in an interview.

    And also: my suspicion on the job title fuzziness. Who benefits? If the engineering team doesn’t want to give up control, it’s easy to believe it’s in their self interest to have weak project management. Same for business analysts. They all have reasons to push for defining the PM role in ways that grant it little power.

  4. KÃ¥re Mulvad

    I like this one: “the project manager is the guy with an ambiguous role and even less clear authority.”

    I had the similar thought a while back, and absolutely hated my Project Manager role, in Denmark where I lieve we actually say Projekt leader (in danish = projektleder)
    But it still gave no meaning because it’s still just the guy with an ambiguous role and even less clear authority :)

    Now I’m a webproducer… you like that instead?

  5. Real Manager

    I think Scott, in the previous post, makes a good point. If You are going to have a “tracker” type of Project Manager I have found it has been better for me to have a weak one. They deal with all the annoying administrative stuff that the executives want to see but don’t get in the way of real production. This also allows for those that are natural leaders(managers) or know what they are doing to emerge more organically without being encumbered by thier “production theories”.

    This assumes you have natural leaders on your team that are willing to own the project. If you don’t, you’re probably in trouble.

    The downside is that, while it allows the talent to funtion more effeciently, those with the Titles will invariably get the credit for the projects success.

  6. Pawel Brodzinski

    I would ask about goals which PM should achieve. If these are writing reports or actualizing schedule, well, these are trackers. On the other hand when PM help others to do their tasks, pushes things to be done, resolve problems the chances are good we have a leader.

    When you hear about someone’s tasks you can rather easily put them either in “reactive” or “proactive” category. The more of the latter, the more leadership you should find.

  7. Metatone

    What this reminds me of is that too often we expect too much from one person. A lot of projects need a fair amount of “tracking” but how often does the PM have the assistance they should have to delegate “tracking” to? How many people with “domain expertise” actually have the patience for “tracking” or skills or even just time for “setting direction” etc. etc. Have we become too locked into a culture of a “project manager” rather than a “project management team”?

    To throw out some extra terminology confusion, the PRINCE2 blokes do make some of these distinctions between the “Project Sponsor” who is supposed to have the power to get decisions made and actually acquire resources if needed and the “Project Manager” who is in more of a co-ordinating and allocating of existing resources role. The terminology confusion is that in PRINCE2 “Program Managers” are people who manage a portfolio of projects…

  8. Phil Lynch


    I think you’re really onto something here.

    From where I’m sitting, the shift from manager/leader to tracker applies not solely to project management but to all management.

    Does anyone else out there have to fill in status reports to give their manager at least a clue as to what they do all day? Anyone else have to repeat this exercise on a grander scale come appraisal time?

    By definition, being a leader means being up front; the tracker merely follows behind. The result is not so much management by fact as management after the fact.

    Now that managers are connected to their laptops and BlackBerries 24/7 they are no longer connected to the work itself or the people who do it.

  9. Jim Bullock

    I’ve called them “Project Administrators” for quite some time. Thanks for the answer. I’ve had a question about the three (or more) PM-s for a while, especially in Seattle.

  10. Fizban Lamarr

    Thank you so much for the great post! Everything you said was so true for my company! Untill… we realized that it was time to change things. MS Project is the tool, that brings top-down management style to an organization. We adopted another tool – that gave us more freedom. I’m interested in the topic of Enterprise 2.0 software chaging organizations, I’ve read a lot on this and I would really like to know what do you think on this topic?

  11. Agile Jedi

    I don’t really fault the organizations for a lack of Project Leaders. I fault the individual Project Managers. Most PMs want the title and paycheck but do not want the real burden of leading. They believe they can lead by charts and spreadsheets. In many cases (as you pointed out) these weak leaders are purposefully placed as frontmen for some other ineffective leader.

    I measure a leader by how well they can bring a single vision to a team. Unfortunately, these people aren’t interviewed and then hired. Real leaders rise from the crowd and expose themselves when you least expect it.

  12. Vinnie

    Just come across your article while browsing other PM articles. in 2007 when I was searching for PM job I was rejected because I displayed leadership capability during interviews. I come from development background and then moved into project management.

    Actually after working as PM for last 5 years I realised that they infact want someone who can do administrative tasks, highlight issues and chair meetings. Companies do not want to make their business analyst, solution architects or development managers angry by giving more authority to PM.

    It is also difficult to find PM who has technical knowledge, business acumen, project management skills and other soft skills. And these kind of people will demand too much salary. By distributing authority amongst multiple people it becomes easy to replace people whenever necessary to do so.

  13. Sanjeev Pratinidhi

    Thanks for this post, Scott. Got to this only from your tweet, and then realized it was posted in 2007.
    This situation is much more ambiguous in India. Most of the companies have created multitude of intermediate roles to sort of cushion the responsibilities of a manager, resulting in most PMs becoming trackers and delegators.

  14. Matthieu

    Scott, I really think you have a point here.
    The way I see it is that most of the project managers or leaders have been dilluted by methods like PrinceII, which are – to a large extend – reporting tools. By the way; nobody ever reads these reports..;-))

    Consequently; but this is just a hunge – projectmanagers have shifted their focus on reporting, rather than leading.



  1. […] Scott Berkun asks the question “are you a leader or a tracker” in his most recent blog post complaining about the ambiguity surrounding the title “project manager.” He lists a number of questions he has to ask anyone with a “P” or an “M” in their title to figure out what they REALLY do. I thought it was a really insightful post, and it helped me make an observation, although not a particularly keen one. […]

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