Project Management and the Short Order Cook

By Heike Peters | August 3, 2017

In most professions, there are variations to the art and science of them. There are a variety of specialists in the medical professions, in teaching, in the culinary arts, etc.

And in managing and leadership, we have had many a discussion about the differences between Supervisors, Managers and Leaders, and what they do differently, and where you need what type of skills and personality.

I have long been curious about these concepts when it comes to Project Management. There are Project Coordinators and then there is the Project Manager (PM), Senior Project Manager, Principal Project Manager differentiations. For many, this likely depended on years of experience and budget size or size of project teams we have dealt with. Those data points or ranges determined how the position would be categorized.

But what about the actual use and need for a PM on a project?

You don’t hire a short order cook to be your party planner or the other way around! You would have to rely on sheer luck that the person also has the talent, experience, and enjoys doing something so unlike their chosen profession.

Now how does that relate to hiring the right project manager for the job? I think the questions to ask when trying to find the right one should be centered on what you will have that individual do.

  • Do you need someone who primarily sets up meetings, organizes project activities and events?
  • Do you need someone who is really good with spreadsheets and will track deliverables and test cases and other spreadsheet-able tasks?
  • Do you need someone who will be a controller for the project actual and budget track the spending of time and $ and report against it?
  • Do you need someone who creates variations of detailed project plans to satisfy different stakeholders expectations as to what a project plan looks like, and works on keeping them all current?


  • Do you need someone who works with the project stakeholders across all work streams and brings the big picture together?
  • Do you need someone who can identify risks and assess likelihood and impact and develop mitigation plans accordingly?
  • Do you need someone who develops and offers trade-offs, identifies what activities can progress when others are behind or have to yield to new priorities?
  • Do you need someone who is a great change agent and will partner with leaders in project-impacted departments on preparing them for the future?
  • Do you need someone who is trusted and respected by leadership to be clued in on planned scope changes early enough to develop impact models?

I am sure I could keep adding to the list for a while but I think these examples are likely sufficient to illustrate the variables. If you need someone who is good at the top four and hire someone who excels at the bottom four listed activities neither one of you will be happy, and the same is true the other way around.

Make a seasoned strategic thinking project leader with good people skills a “spreadsheet jockey,” tasked with creating plan variations upon request and you will have frustration on both sides. Likewise, if you put an outstanding project coordinator or controller in the role of a project leader you will have someone out of their element who does not enjoy the less tangible work, the influencing, and you may end up with stakeholders and partners who might be frustrated with more tactical responses.

Ultimately the generic term of project manager takes reputation hit after hit, not because we as PMs are not able to do a good job, but because the “match-making” often falls short of putting the right kind of PM into the right kind of role.

Which role do you need?

So, if you need a project coordinator/controller who will track the project successfully to completion, who will create the reports that show where you are at, and assist with setting up meetings: hire exactly that skill set, talent and expectation, and everyone will be happy with the assignment and the eventual outcome.

And if in fact, you need a project leader who can work on the non-tangibles, on the people side, the change impact, the tradeoffs, anticipating what scope, risk or issue might be around the corner, the stakeholders, especially the reluctant ones then hire that skill set, talent, and expectation and there will be great satisfaction all around.

I do believe that this is true for the in-house PM search as much as for finding the right partner PM for a project. As for the large engagements where an in-house PM meets a partner PMs getting clarity around who falls into which category, and how much overlap do they have and how well do they complement each other will be crucial to the success of the project that put them both there. And yes, some projects are large enough where you will need both - and possibly more than one of each.

I am looking forward to thoughts and feedback from the community!

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