What does a project manager do?
At their core, every great company runs on organized chaos. Creative features, successful product ideas, wild marketing stunts, full rebrands, or massive IT projects — none of them work without the project managers that tirelessly make sure everyone’s on the same page and making progress towards a shared goal.
But there’s a problem. In 2021, the Project Management Institute estimated that by 2030 the global economy would need 25 million more project managers to keep up with the demand for change.
Whether you’re a growing company worried about falling behind, or a professional looking to make the move into project management, you need to know what you’re getting into.
In this guide, we’ll cover what a project manager does, the ten essential PM skills and responsibilities to master, and how the role of a project manager changes between startups and large companies.
The basics: Understanding project management & the project lifecycle
To understand what a project manager does, you first need to know what is meant by “project management.”
According to the Association for Project Management:
“Project management is the application of processes, methods, skills, knowledge, and experience to achieve specific objectives, according to defined acceptance criteria, within agreed parameters.”
In everyday terms, a project manager’s job is to oversee, coordinate, and lead their team from project kickoff to handoff. Along the way, this means:
- Planning the work, including when it’s done and who will do it.
- Making sure that projects align with the overall business strategy and goals.
- Ensuring that the work is done to the right quality standard.
- Using the chosen project management process to track progress and budget.
- Identifying and managing any risks or issues as the project progresses.
- Working with stakeholders to push the project forward.
- Taking ultimate responsibility for the project’s outcomes and benefits.
That’s a lot of work and responsibility for one person. But over the years, project managers have learned to follow a strict project lifecycle, which helps them manage every step of the journey, from establishing initial goals to handover and closing.
Here’s a breakdown of the typical project lifecycle and what project managers do at each stage:
- Initiation: Every project needs a “why.” During the project initiation stage, the goal is to identify a project’s objectives and milestones and balance them against the triple constraint of time, costs, and resources. This stage involves collaboration with all the different project stakeholders as well as undertaking competitive analysis, and collecting user and customer feedback.
- Planning: Next is the “how” portion of the project lifecycle. During project planning, the team gets into the details of their solution, understanding exactly how they will deliver on their promises. This phase requires more analysis and requirements gathering and ends with the project manager creating an in-depth project plan.
- Execution & monitoring: With the plan in place, it’s time to start delivering. The project manager transfers the plan into a project management tool like Planio so that the team knows what to build (and the PM can easily monitor the schedule, budget, risk, and issues as things progress).
- Testing & handoff: Once the execution is complete, the project manager oversees the testing/quality assurance before launch. In some cases, this means handing over their work to another team (along with an implementation plan). This often involves rounds of training, communications, and some quick fixes/updates as the test team learns more.
- Closure: To finish, the project is transitioned into normal business operations. During this phase, there’s a lot of box-ticking and governance to ensure everyone understands their ongoing requirements. In an ideal world, the project manager will also take time to document lessons learned and disband the team.
From idea to launch day, project managers are essential to the success of any endeavor. But becoming (or hiring) a project manager takes more than just understanding the stages of a project.
A project manager’s job is to oversee, coordinate, and lead their team from project kickoff to handoff.
What does a project manager do? 10 essential responsibilities
The wide range of responsibilities is what makes project management both such an exciting and stressful role. Here are some of the key day-to-day responsibilities of a project manager:
1. Researching and validating project ideas
During the project initiation phase, a project manager works to validate ideas and assess whether they’re worth proceeding with. This involves market and competitor research to help understand what your users want and what’s currently available to them.
How to do this:
- Start by getting a deeper understanding of your market, competition, users, and opportunities. We’ve documented this process in our Guide To Validating New Product Ideas.
- It’s also always a good idea to network and learn from project managers with similar experiences. Learn from their mistakes and lean on them for insights.
James works as a project manager for InvestX, a FinTech company that allows customers to invest in foreign exchanges. InvestX wants to expand its offering and create a new web app for crypto investing.
To initiate the project, James connects with the:
- Sales team to assess the size of the crypto market.
- Development team: to understand the high-level costs and resources for developing the new app.
- Customer research team: to get existing customer feedback on the new proposition.
2. Communicating with key stakeholders
Project management is a people-focused profession. During the initiation phase, the best project managers take the time to identify, reach out, and begin managing their stakeholders. The goal is to get people buying into your project so they’ll support and champion you to the rest of the business.
How to do this:
- List out and categorize anyone who could impact the success of your project. These are your main stakeholders. For each, work out a specific plan for how you’re going to gain their buy-in, communicate progress, and manage their expectations throughout the life of the project.
- To help with identifying stakeholders, get your current project team together to brainstorm who will be involved using org charts to help if needed.
James sits down and starts creating a stakeholder map for his project. To do this, he thinks about:
- Who will input into the project?
- Who will be affected by the project?
- Who may support/block the project from moving forward?
Once each stakeholder is identified, James plots a plan for engaging each one and makes an initial introduction, either by email, over a video call, or face-to-face, depending on that stakeholder’s engagement plan.
3. Getting approval for new projects
To end the project initiation phase, as a project manager, you need to get your project approved by writing your scope of work and completing a business case. To do this, you’ll need to assess all of the aspects of your project and present them to your sponsor or investment committee for sign-off.
How to do this:
This is an in-depth process that we cover in our Guide to Writing a Business Case. In it, you’ll learn how to assess and define your project’s:
- Goals, objectives, and benefits
- Timeline and schedule
- Costs and resources
- Risks and issues
- Overall recommendation
Having worked with all his stakeholders, James pulls together a business case for the Crypto web app project. He documents the goals and objectives of the project, estimates how long it will take to deliver, the costs and resources required, and, based on conversations with experts, the risks and issues he expects. He confirms the benefits outweigh the investment and puts the business case to the Finance Director for approval.
4. Creating actionable project plans
As you enter the planning phase, you’ll need to get into the details to understand how you’ll get from A to B. As part of this, Project Managers break down the deliverables into work packages and plan them out over time to create a clear project schedule and plan.
How to do this:
- Project managers use different approaches for planning out their project’s schedule. See what options are available to you in our Guide to Creating a Project Schedule (You’ll Actually Stick To). This will show you how to break down your tasks, plan backward and forwards, estimate your timescales, and identify any dependencies.
- If you’re working on a complex IT project, you can lean on more detailed techniques such as the Critical Path Method or PERT to provide more granularity.
James starts the planning phase by creating a work breakdown structure to show all the tasks that will need completing clearly. Then, he works with technical software development experts to estimate the duration of each task and plots it onto a Gantt chart.
5. Planning and scheduling project resources
Once you know the tasks to be completed, you need to identify and schedule your resources. Project resources can be anything from team members to raw materials, fuel, IT hardware, and marketing materials.
How to do this:
- Based on the complexity and criticality of your tasks, review the skills, experience, and seniority of the people you need in your team. Always remember: the more risky, high-profile, or time-dependent the project, the more senior you need your team members to be.
- Work with whoever provides resources (such as your project management office) to request the necessary skills/resources/knowledge.
- Once assigned, onboard your team onto the project and get them working on the tasks you need.
Now that James has his Gantt Chart completed, he works with his PMO to plan the resources he’ll need for the project.
James requests three software developers, two software testers, one graphic designer, and two business analysts to support the project. While some resources are available in the company straight away, James also has to recruit others from scratch.
6. Assessing and mitigating project risks
The last step before jumping into the execution phase involves considering your project’s risks. Projects don’t happen in a vacuum, so project managers need to examine the world around them to identify and mitigate anything that might cause them problems.
How to do this:
- Follow the steps in our Guide To Risk Management. This guide will give you a structured process for setting your risk threshold, identifying risks, and planning mitigation strategies.
- To help identify your risks, try simulating a pre-mortum. Get your team members together and think about how your project could “die.” Then, work backward from each one to understand the causes and how you could stop it from happening.
James gets the team together to run a pre-mortum on the Crypto web app project. The team identifies upcoming Crypto regulation changes, high inflation in their country, and the recent resignation of the Technology Director as risky events that may cause damage to their project. They consider ways to mitigate the likelihood and impact of each risk and make plans accordingly.
7. Planning sprints and running agile ceremonies
With plans, approvals, and risks out of the way, it’s time for the fun to start. During the execution phase, project managers manage the work in sprint cycles and monitor progress using Agile ceremonies such as sprint planning, standups, and retrospectives.
How to do this:
- Based on your high-level project plan, begin breaking the work down into sprints. The Planio Guide to Sprint Planning is your best friend here and will show you how to keep things moving with your team in a structured but non-authoritative way.
- Find the right meeting cadence for you and your team. Many teams use two or four-week sprint cycles, with quick 15-minute standups allowing everyone to check in and raise issues daily.
At their core, every great company runs on organized chaos.
James’ team gets together to plan their first sprint. They look at all the work they need to do and order it in their product roadmap backlog. They decide to work on two-week sprints and select the right amount of work for the first sprint. They agree to hold a standup every morning, limiting it to 20 minutes to keep it short and snappy.
8. Updating project management software to keep their team on track
Once the work and task delivery begins, it’s easy for project managers to get overwhelmed. To prevent this and keep the team on track, many PMs use a project management software tool to store their important project information in one place.
How to do this:
Project management software is essential for storing documents, tracking progress, and communicating across your entire team. Get familiar with how these features work:
James onboards the team onto a project management tool to help visualize work and monitor progress. James’ team decides they like an Agile Kanban Board view. This helps them easily visualize their tasks on cards, giving them one place to keep notes, ask questions, and update James on their progress.
9. Signing off on project deliverables
As you reach the end of the execution phase, project managers need to support signing off on deliverables before launch. This means overseeing user testing, witnessing requirements sign-off, and documenting any scope changes that have happened along the way.
How to do this:
- Like all things in project management, testing is done best when you have a plan. Prepare to build a killer test plan by defining your success criteria, selecting the best testing approach, and assigning sign-off responsibilities across the team.
- Testing often takes multiple rounds as you come across issues/bugs. Don’t panic and work through the testing step-by-step until everyone’s happy with the outcomes.
James plans for a three-stage test approach:
- First, the Crypto web app completes a round of functional testing with the development team.
- Next, the testers complete a more detailed integration test.
- Finally, the product is given to a sample of customers for user testing.
10. Collecting lessons learned and closing out the project
It’s easy to think that once the project is launched, the project manager’s job is over. But that’s not the case. Projects need to be closed properly by collecting lessons learned from the team, completing a handover, and signing off the closure documents.
How to do this:
- Lessons learned are captured best by simply getting everyone together to discuss. As a team, think about what went well in the project and what you’re proud of. Next, think about what you’d do differently if you were to run the project again.
- Make sure you share the lessons learned with other teams and project managers as they can take the learnings forward and ensure that previous mistakes aren’t made again.
The Crypto web app team documents their lessons learned, focusing on both the good and bad throughout the project journey. James shares the template with the Project Management Office and works to complete the project closure process, including a formal handover of the web app to the IT operations team.
Startup project manager vs. large-company PM
The exact role of a project manager often depends on the size and scale of an organization. Responsibilities can change drastically whether you work at a startup or larger company. Here are some of the main differences:
|Startup||Large corporate Company|
|Scope||Typically work on multiple, small projects.||Usually work on one or two large projects.|
|Focus||Projects may impact/influence multiple parts of the business.||Projects are often focused on a particular business area.|
|Structure||Projects are less structured and focused on speed and innovation.||Project departments are more mature, meaning projects are structured with many governance layers.|
|Methodology||Projects are more likely to follow an agile project management methodology.||Projects vary between traditional Waterfall and agile methodologies.|
|Decision-making||Project Managers need to make fast decisions to keep their projects moving.||Decision-making can be slower in larger companies, with many different approval layers and committees.|
|Responsibilities||The exact responsibilities of a project manager are less defined — they become a jack of all trades.||The project manager role is more defined, with support from other roles such as business analysts.|
|Stakeholders||Project managers have fewer stakeholders to manage as their organization is smaller.||PM’s have more stakeholders to manage in big enterprises, often in multiple departments.|
|Location||A project manager’s team is often co-located in a single location.||Large companies have teams spread across multiple locations/countries that the project manager needs to manage.|
Kickstart your project management career with these free templates and tools
If you’re new to project management, the good news is that the profession is booming and is on track to get even bigger by 2030. The key to mastering project management is to use the right tools, processes, and techniques for the job.
That’s why thousands of teams choose Planio to help them organize, structure, and collaborate on their projects. Whether it’s task management, agile planning, or document storage, Planio has features to fit into every team.
Try Planio free for 30 days (no credit card required).