The Project Notebook

Managing a Project — When You’re not the Project Manager

By: Susan Peterson, M.B.A., PMP
Copyright 2010, Susan Peterson, All Rights Reserved

Many of us know the challenges related to being the manager of a project. Probably more of us know the challenges of working on a project that is not being managed effectively. A common question is, “What can I do to manage a project when I’m not the project manager?” The unspoken but clear implication is that there is a project manager who is not doing his/her job appropriately and that the team recognizes that they need to assume the project manager’s functions. This article will address some proactive measures that can be taken to rescue a project that is floundering because of the project manager.

The first principle to keep in mind is “Don’t be afraid to ask questions”. Team members have their own specialties, while the project manager tends to be a generalist. Asking questions is a powerful technique to prod the project manager to explain his/her strategies and actions. It can also be a less confrontational method of making the project manager aware that not everyone understands what is happening on the project or where the project is headed. Finally, asking questions that are rhetorical can lead the project manager to conclusions that the team feels are necessary for the project to proceed on a more effective course.

Some of you may be thinking at this point, “Asking questions is for timid people who have lots of time”. A more direct approach is to provide solutions to problems that the team has identified. For example, if the project has fallen behind schedule, the team may have specific recommendations that relate to activities that can be delayed or eliminated. Providing solutions with rationale allows the project manager to make decisions without having to put time and effort into analysis and alternative assessment. Of course, if the team can make the manager feel that the solution is his/her idea, so much the better.

Proactive risk management actions can also be addressed by project team members even if the project manager seems unable or unwilling to forecast the future. Some project managers do not learn from their previous projects or assume that “bad things” only happen once in a lifetime. A wise person once said “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it”. If the team knows that the project manager has a history of budget overruns, poor performance and/or time delays on his/her projects, the members can take it upon themselves to head off the actions that typically cause the problems. An example is a vendor who is notoriously late in delivering key components. Rather than the project manager’s waiting to see if “it happens again”, a team member can make phone calls, send emails or even make a visit to determine what needs to happen for on time vendor delivery.

The bottom line, as we all know, is that every project needs management. “Managing from below” as a team member is a challenge. If the team knows more than the project manager about how to manage the project, then they must take the actions necessary to produce a project worthy of their capabilities. The project management principles do not change. However, more tact, finesse and “soft” leadership are required when the team has to manage the project in the absence of true project management.

Susan Peterson, M.B.A., PMP, is a consultant who manages diverse programs and projects in both the private and public sectors for individual organizations and consortia. She also conducts enterprise assessments of project portfolio management practices. Prior to establishing her consulting practice Susan led major efforts for Fortune 100 organizations throughout the United States. She teaches the Project Management Simulation capstone course as well as the Project Portfolio Management course in the University of California, San Diego, Project Management certificate program and is a member of the curriculum committee. She can be contacted at

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Project Success

Last week I wrote about the value of the PMP® Certification. During the week I received an email asking me if there was a survey which showed this value. Obviously one source of information which was not a survey but a series of case studies, was the Value of PM study performed by the University of Athabasca. The web site home for this research project is Value of PM. This early study focused on the overall value and did not focus on the value of PMP certification. The results are more powerful and relevant though since they were achieved through detailed studies and not just surveys.

Back in 2005 I asked myself the same question: how can we show the members of our PMI components the value of the PMP®. I developed a short survey which was mailed to our members, prospective members, and the CEO’s of their employers. The response was phenomenal — while most surveys fail to achieve high response rates, this survey had a 24% overall response rate with 35% of our membership responding.

Among the conclusions of the survey:
– Firms experiencing successful projects use project management work products more often
– Firms experiencing successful projects employ more PMPs.

Visit Project Success Survey to see the results presentation for this survey. I’d welcome any feedback from readers! Please leave a comment or drop me a line at

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Earn Your Value (Part III)

To recap parts one and two of this post, we saw:

– how earned value is useful for monitoring both costs and schedule
– the basic formulas used to see if our projects are off track (and by how much)
– the recommendation that earned value be looked at weekly
– the ideal values for cost and schedule index are one (1.0)
– a simple way of communicating earned value information to our clients.

This week I’d like to take a look at the things we can do to manage our projects, especially if the CI and/or SI is much bigger or much smaller than one. Note that I can merely suggest causes — you will need to diligently look at your projects and their circumstances to arrive at the conclusion right for you. You may want to produce a graph or visual of your progress so you can pinpoint the time at which things started to go south.

CI << 1 and SI = 1
Being on schedule but over budget might represent a significantly underestimated budget (or a tight budget dictated by the project sponsor), a purchase which required significantly more dollars, or a significant amount of paid overtime to keep the timeline. Since the money is gone, this is difficult to mitigate and bring back on track. Significant re-planning or re-phasing of the project may help. Its probably best at this point to be more concerned about keeping on schedule while watching over the budget more carefully as you go forward.

CI = 1 and SI >> 1
Being ahead of schedule and on budget has some usual generic causes you need to look at first. One is common for construction and other projects relying on good weather — there was insufficient time in the schedule to mitigate a long run of bad weather. Needless to say, with the delay, you may have resources not working at optimum rates since less work has been completed. You may also have fewer resources working on your project than needed. They are less expensive resources, but the job isn’t getting done. You need to look carefully at your resource and risk plans to sort this out.

CI >> 1 and SI = 1
Under budget but still on schedule? This could be enviable, or it might be a sign of unpaid overtime not being tracked. Still, you will probably do best to determine the cause and keep the project on schedule without being overly concerned about budget.

CI >> 1 and SI << 1 In this case, you are under budget, but behind on schedule. The most likely cause is in your resource plan again -- you may have too few resources or are waiting for supplies. CI << 1 and SI << 1
This is far more typical of troubled projects — they have problems with both budget and schedule. Worst case, the project is ready for termination. You may have to continue working due to contractual circumstances, but its going to be difficult to correct both costs and schedule. You may have to consider asking for more budget to make some favorable adjustments to the schedule, or shifting some of the work to subsequent project phases. This situation requires the most analysis and judgement to correct.

CI >> 1 and SI >> 1
The answer to being significantly ahead of both schedule and budget usually lies in “sandbagged” estimates. Everyone was a little too cautious and added too much time and money. There may have also been very favorable conditions. You probably want to consider sacrificing some of the budget for the greater good of the company and its project portfolio. Planning for an early release of resources may be necessary as well. In any event, make sure you keep a reasonable contingency (say 15%) available in case your lucky streak stops!

As a final thought, you might want to calcuate what is sometimes called the critical ratio for your project, which multiplies the Cost Index and Schedule Index. This helps you arrive at a single number combining cost and schedule and allows you some leeway in each. As always, if you have a question or comment, feel free to drop me a line at or as a comment to this entry.

Happy New Year!

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Happy Holidays!

Whether celebrating Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or Festivus, may the joy and beauty of the holiday season be reflected in all your projects!

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© 2010-2012 Ray W. Frohnhoefer, MBA, PMP, CCP