Do I Really NEED a Project Manager?

April 1, 2020

This is an age-old struggle, from construction sites to legal departments, but it is becoming more commonplace with technology projects that aim to improve access to justice. The real question here is, “Can I afford NOT to have a Project Manager?” At first glance, many legal teams and attorneys have the tendency to think, “Oh, I can manage that,” but when you break down a project in a more granular way, what you find may surprise you.

If you have undertaken even a single project as an attorney, nonprofit project sponsor, or product owner, you understand that there is a need for someone to plan, manage, and control a project’s many tasks. There are four powerfully revealing questions that will help you decide whether it is more fiscally responsible and will help your already overloaded schedule to hire a Project Manager or to take a DIY approach to projects.

Do I have the time?

Image of an hourglass on a table representing the concept of time availability when considering a project manager

You may be thinking, “Of course I don't have time! I work in a nonprofit legal office!” Even so, try this exercise, and it may help you see time leaks that you didn't know you had. In order to fully answer the question, “Do I have the time to run this project?” you must consider several things. Begin by taking stock of your week. You may or may not be tracking how much time you spend on different aspects of your work, but this is a necessary step in understanding your project needs. Take a week to track your time. If you don’t currently do this, try a tool like Toggl or Harvest. After the week is finished, evaluate the amount of time you work, how much time you spend on other projects and outreach, and keep your records. This will be one evaluation tool that will help you decide if the amount of time you have to offer will contribute to the ultimate success or failure of the project.

Now that you have a solid picture of how much time you have to offer the project, complete your evaluation of project needs by considering how much time it will take to manage the project. Consider end-to-end project tasks. Keep in mind that this includes everything from gathering and recording technical requirements to creating and managing a schedule, budgeting, and risk planning. Additionally, a Project Manager needs to consider not only task management, but people management as well. Consider the time required for project delegation and communication. Managing a project is largely about managing people. Think about the time required to determine the number of people to assign, what duties each will have, and managing people throughout the project. Once you have an understanding of your time and the required project time, you have some other project requirements to consider.

Do I have the support?

Women, including women of color, sitting at a conference room table with notebooks and a Macbook, apparently collaborating at work

Another consideration in attempting to determine if you need a Project Manager is whether you have SUPPORT for other important tasks you normally complete and to assist with difficult/unknown areas of the project.

The nature of projects can be unpredictable. There are times in project management that the unexpected happens and the project requires more hours than anyone planned to get it back on track. If you are intending to manage your own project, you must have a contingency plan and support so that your focus can be fully on the project if the need arises. This means making certain important non-project work you do can be supported by others if you are pulled away to manage the project. If you have no support, or less support than you think is necessary, consider what duties can reasonably be neglected to cover project duties.

In addition to ensuring support in other areas of the business, you must know that you can find support for managing the project areas in which you have less experience or understanding. Look for resources, project management communities, and ask questions. Information you receive from experienced professionals will help you understand whether you have the support necessary to move forward on your own. Knowing more about the amount of support available to you, internally and externally, is critical in making the decision to self-manage a project or hire a professional.

Do I have the skills?

The next area that must be evaluated is your skill level in the arena of project management. “Do I truly have the skills necessary to complete this project well?” If you have never looked at a formal project management plan, do a little research before attempting to answer this question. A few of the major project areas should be considered in depth:

Communications Management

A well-managed project has a communication plan. This requires a Project Manager to determine communication tools and protocols for everyone involved in the project, disseminate user information to all involved, and manage, on a daily basis, proper communications protocols.

Scope Management

Project scope varies widely between projects, so having a thorough knowledge of the project itself is a necessity to evaluate your skills in this area. To manage scope properly, you will need an understanding of the quality management policy, the life cycle of the project, and the high-level project requirements. During this process, you will create a scope baseline, full requirements, a work breakdown structure, and a list of deliverables. Throughout the project, you will monitor and control each of these areas, in addition to other scope management demands.

Cost Management

This area requires some knowledge in creating estimates and budgets, as well as monitoring and managing them. Have you ever created a project budget from scratch? Have you performed an earned value analysis? Cost management often requires preventive or corrective action as the result of an earned value analysis, so make certain this is something you are comfortable managing.

Schedule Management

Similar to cost management, schedule management requires constant attention to keep a project on track. Consider your experience with scheduling projects. You’ll need to have an understanding of the methodology your team utilizes and schedule in sprints or phases, then use performance measurements such as schedule variance and schedule performance index to assess the magnitude of variation to the original schedule baseline.

The skills listed above are a brief overview, and do not include all the aspects involved in each area or all the required skills for managing a project. Some other areas you will be managing are project integration, change control, quality control, and resources. Make sure you have a solid understanding of the skills required and evaluate your ability accordingly.

Will a PM increase our reach?

Shot from below, a picture of hands reaching towards each other with the backdrop of a partly cloudy daytime sky

When you consider bringing in another human to make a project happen, there are naturally many questions that accompany the decision, but likely the most pressing and most influential of the questions is this: “Is the cost to hire a Project Manager going to be worth it?” Another way of asking this question is, “Will the addition to our workforce really allow our office to reach more people?” This can be difficult to objectively assess and determine an unbiased answer. When finances and the bottom line of how many people you can reach are involved, it’s easy to allow emotions to determine whether a Project Manager is too costly. Here are some practical and objective tasks that will help you answer this query.

In the nonprofit world, it always seems to come back to time. For this exercise, go back and look at your time estimates for what you expect project management to require. Will your time, including your work on the project and the time you must require of others for jobs you’ll hand off, allow you to reach more people or less people than those you could reach with a PM on board? Look at how many people you and your coworkers currently reach with your normal workload. Next, consider the time you will be pulled away from other tasks and job duties you would normally perform. Will you ultimately reassign others to perform these tasks, or will you end up hiring someone else (and using more time to train them) since the tasks must be completed? How does this affect reach? Finally, consider the expertise of a Project Manager. What is the likelihood that a PM will be able to catch a schedule variance, quality issue, or potential cost overrun, and remedy it in the early stages because they are trained to watch for such problems? What is the likelihood that you could miss a variance or a problem since you don’t have the experience a Project Manager has? What could this potentially cost the project? Think about the potential of adding to the number you can reach with the help of a Project Manager.

Ultimately, a decision must be made. Do you hire someone to manage the project for you, or do you manage the project yourself? This is an important and impactful decision. Take the time to genuinely look at every aspect of the project and your work objectively. Consider your time, support, skills, and potential reach. With each of these areas considered, which direction will allow your project the best chance for success and improve your ability to reach those who need your assistance?

Written by Jami Cope. Image credits to You X Ventures, Alexander Todov,, and Youssef Naddam on Unsplash. Sources: A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge: (PMBOK® Guide). 6th ed., Project Management Institute, 2017.

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