Say Heyo

The Curse of the Project Manager

by Sean Crickenberger

I can almost guarantee anyone who happens to read this has had at least one horrible experience working with a project manager. For most of this post I’ll be talking about PMing in the context of the digital product space, but seriously, it’s kind of wild that regardless of your background, just about everyone has struggled with a PM at some point. Often to the extent that the experience leaves an indelible mark on the affected party’s impression of PMs - as a whole - forever-after.

It sure feels like there’s an overabundance of PMs raised on the belief that their job is to wrench their team into shape with a heavy hand. It’s old guard thinking, through and through. For inexperienced and/or - frankly - insecure folks, it’s often compounded by the tension of being a “manager” with (usually) no actual direct reports, and frequently no actual management experience. I know, I have absolutely been the insecure, inexperienced idiot trying to live or die by feigned confidence.

Honestly, I feel like there’s a fundamental misunderstanding of the role. PMs are not task masters, they’re alternately a cheerleader and a gofer. That’s probably gonna piss some people off, but I absolutely don’t mean it as a slight to PMs, cheerleaders, OR gofers.

Besides the fact they’re all commonly looked down on as a profession, they share a ton of similarities.

Check out the skills generally listed as critical for being a cheerleader:

  • Balance
  • Coordination
  • Dexterity
  • Endurance
  • Flexibility
  • Rhythm
  • Strength
  • Tumbling

While the relevancy of these may be more contextually metaphorical than literal for a PM, they all apply. If you can’t see how, well, I’m sorry for your PM experiences to date.

Now think about what a gofer does: they find and deliver various things others need to make their lives easier. Again, directly applicable -- one of a PM’s nearest and dearest responsibilities should be making their teams’ lives easier through whatever means they can. Key words being “should be”.

I mean, this is glib, and I know it. Believe me, I know. There’s tons of bullshit PMs are put in the position of dealing with, for tons of different reasons. But I truly believe if you cannot embrace and perform the above roles well, you and your team are going to have a bad time.

So for PMs experiencing a lot of friction with their teams: maybe take a step back and consider how or if your handling of the role could be contributing. Do you find yourself doing more guiding and supporting, or ignoring and demanding? On the spectrum of cheerleader+gofer to tyrant+management shill, where do you land?

For teams experiencing a lot of friction with their PM: maybe take a step back and consider that your time-wasting PM actually IS trying. Maybe they’re tackling administrative drudgery and other “grunt work” behind the scenes that you aren’t aware of, and it’s just not as helpful to the team as they think. Maybe they literally don’t know how to do better, because they lack insight on the challenges they’re inflicting on their team.

And for ALL parties, please: if something’s not working, try communicating with each other. Please. Because while ultimately I’d like to see a shift in perception of the project manager toward being more of a project shepherd, that’s a longer game. Today, all you can do is find the empathy you need to help a budding manager grow. Open and earnest communication will help us all far more than memes and stereotypes.