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What does a PM do all day?

I was given a fab new wheelie suitcase as a gift at the weekend, which is great as I seem to be doing a lot of travelling at the moment. On the way to the UK at the weekend I found myself sitting next to a guy in a leather jacket. He obviously wasn’t taking advantage of the latest Eurostar campaign. By the time we were halfway through the tunnel I knew that he was on his way to see a band play in Camden with his mate Tim and that the last time they saw that band the sound system was so bad it was a waste of time. He also treated me to a run down of a good hour or so of his favourite music. The wonders of modern technology. So by the time he actually spoke to me I felt like we were old friends. No, I jest.

Bref, a can of beer having loosened his tounge he felt sufficiently bored with his music to attempt to strike up a conversation. I don’t speak to strangers on trains. It’s my time to do my own thing: read, sleep, plan articles and novel plots in my head, text my friends, catch up on all the thinking I haven’t had time to do. Plus my mother taught me well. Needless to say I didn’t appreciate the interruption to my perusal of my copy of Marie France. After a few short questions and answers, he asked me what I did.

“I’m a project manager,” I replied. Silence. “That killed the conversation.”

Tim’s friend apologised for his ten seconds or so of complete blankness. “It’s just that I don’t know what a project manager does,” he said.

I tried to explain a little: plan things, organise other people to do things, monitor how it’s all going. The more I tried to explain the more pointless my job sounded, especially after he grasped the essential concept that in fact I had no staff and had to cajole people into doing what I want as I couldn’t just shout at them. He was a techie and told me he was pleased that his users feared him. Apparently shouting is his management tool of choice.

Fortunately, at about this point I was rescued from further muddled explanations by a call from Tim, who wanted to arrange a suitable meeting point. Tim’s friend and Tim managed to make their conversation last until we arrived at Ashford where I got off and escaped having to explain why shouting doesn’t work for me. Or any other successful PM.

Wheeling my new suitcase through the station I wondered why it is so incredibly hard to explain what we do. PMFORUM has an article about this, but it doesn’t provide a 30-second elevator speech answer. And I’m not sure I agree with a part of our job being ‘chatting people up’. That doesn’t really work in British English. HRA Consulting have tackled it too in their article ‘So you want to be a project manager?’ As they are a consultancy selling project management training they have a vested interest in making it sound glamorous. There is some truth in Mike Harding’s statement:

Why would anybody want a job where success means everyone assumes it must have been easy, and problems mean you’re going to get kicked?

I have yet to find the ideal answer, an answer I can give Tim’s friend and the millions of people like him who have no idea what we do. I’m looking for a phrase I can use in any situation, for anyone, that succinctly explains why project managers are so crucial to businesses and organisations. Any ideas?

About Elizabeth Harrin

Elizabeth HarrinElizabeth Harrin is a Fellow of the Association for Project Management in the UK and the award-winning blogger behind A Girl's Guide To Project Management. She's passionate about demystifying project management and making tools and techniques work in the real world. She's also the author of several books including the PMI bestseller, Collaboration Tools for Project Managers.

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