Can someone tell PM how to do his job?

Posted on September 18, 2013 by ThePMJournal

Should PM execute superiors orders even if this will conflicts with company interests?  Theory, as described in PMBoK (PMI), says a PM has moral and professional responsibility to apply always standards and best practices of management at any cost, in the interest of the company, even if it leads to a conflict of interest with direct superiors or means losing the job.

Take the following example: You are assigned as a manager of a project. Project’s Sponsor or a key-stakeholder (the client) asks you to remove from project plan the cost associated with communication management, because he/she does not consider communication management billable as part of the project… on the other hand cutting cost of communication management, means to eliminate your tasks (as a PM) from the project plan, as 90% of your activities represents communication… In this case, a Project Manager has two options: he accepts to work for free (as client refuse to pay PM work) or could refuse to take ownership of the project (because logically, the client will assume the communication management of the project).

Conflict of interests

What if, you are assigned to a new project. The project’s Sponsor, who is also your line manager, gives you the following assignment (in the Initiating phase):

-I would like to have a full risk plan in order to see if the project is feasible or not!

[You natural answer should be] -Based on current project documentation I will make a scope plan, a resource plan, a timeline and a budget plan, then I can provide you a full risk assessment.

[Sponsor]-No, I need only the risk plan, I don’t care about scope and budget plan for the moment.

You, as a PM, representing interest of the project and company, you should respectfully deny:

-Sir, I can’t do that… according to project management best practice to make the risk plan I need first: to define scope… to create WBS… to allocate resources… to estimate budget, etc; risks are identified at the end of the planning process because the impact of the risks can be correctly evaluated only after other project plans (time, resources, money, scope, etc) are known. [Of course this is a naive answer.]

Your manager (and your Sponsor), upset by your  “audacity”, could answer you:

-I need those risks, urgent! I don’t care of other plans… I want first a list of the projects risks. If you don’t give me what I asked, you are fired!

In theory, the project’s Sponsor should not influence or decide how PM is doing his job, because project management processes are responsibility and competence of a Project Manager. But also, Sponsor is your line manager and expert analyst, so you have a responsibility to implement what he says.

Now, you have several options:

  1. Provide a list with identified risks, as requested, but this mean a poor risk assessment (without knowing scope, budget, timeline, etc) this could damage your credibility as a Project Manager and could have a negative impact on company’s objectives. You are in a conflict of interest with your Sponsor.
  2. Refuse the project
  3. Resign

Although the situation is apparently without escape, lets see if there is any solution. A possible answer to Sponsor’s request would be:

-I will do, as you asked me: I will evaluate the risks before scope, time, budget. But risk analysis won’t be so accurate as it would be if I begin evaluation of other project plans (scope, time, cost, etc).

If you fell uncomfortable with this answer, what will come next will give you the comfort:

[You will present the risk plan to Sponsor] -It is possible the risks plan need further adjustments, because I haven’t included yet risks related to other plans (scope, time, budget). For example, features not known in this moment, involves the risk of huge change requests during project execution, which can prevent the project finish in time.

[Sponsor]-That’s good. I like the plan. Give me a timeline plan and if we can meet the deadline, we will start the project.

[Suppose you make the timeline plan] -Here is the timeline, as you asked me. On the critical path, I have added special tasks allocated to re-assessment of risks (an extra time is needed to reevaluate periodically the risks, in other words “a risk of risks” or “a project without a complete risk plan is a risk itself”)


It is possible the project plan to have a longer critical path than “expected” because of new tasks added for risks re-assessment. Sponsor will not sign off the plan:

 [Sponsor] -According to your plan, the project is finishing later than we want. We can afford to extend the deadline.

[PM] -We can finish the project in time if you will give me more resources.

[Sponsor]: -We can afford other resources.

[PM]: -Then we need to reduce the quality of the product, but this mean a lower customer satisfaction or cut the less important features.

[Sponsor]: -We cannot drop nothing!

[PM]: -I still believe the deadline can be meet if me and the rest of the team will work overtime. But I accept overtime only if its paid.

[Sponsor]: -No, we can’t go with that… you must finish the project in time with all you got! I am sure you will find a solution, I trust you!

[PM]: -Okay, I will do my best and not disappoint you! I already have thought to a solution to meet the deadline: I will eliminate with your approval, all the tasks allocated to risk management assigned to me, so we could fit in schedule.

[Sponsor]: -Do whatever you fill necessary… I am interested only to deliver in time.

You will remove the project tasks associated with reevaluation of risks so the timeline will fit in schedule, but also you will add the following risk in project plan: “Planning did not include the evaluation of all risks related to time and budget plans, so the estimation timeline and cost might be too optimistic. Impact: could impact the delivery date. Probability of impact: 90%.  Contingency plan: reevaluation of time and budget for all the remaining tasks and adjust the baseline.” After project plan is made, PM will ask Sponsor to sign off the project plan.

Sponsor will sign the document without take a look on details, since he thinks little of your risk assessment. However, if Sponsor does not want to sign it, because he can’t assume the risks included in plan, you can argue: “A risk does not mean it will happen. It could happen or could not happen at all. I am not God to know what will happen, but since we do our best to avoid risks I don’t see a reason why we should be worry“. Sponsor will trust your sincerity and most certainly will sign the project plan. From Project Management perspective, contingency plan allocated to risks should have a dedicated budget.  Also if contingency budget is not enough (in our case is zero), Sponsor of the project should have allocated also a management reserves (for unforeseen risks), just in case contingency reserves Project Manager allocated do not cover all the risks. Management reserves usually are not managed by Project Manager, so it is Sponsor responsibility to cover the budget for any risks uncovered by Project Manager.

In most pessimistic scenario, those “90% probable” risks identified will happen… Then you might miss some interim deliverable. But before the situation runs out of control, you have the responsibility to inform the Sponsor with the “good” news:

[PM]-We encountered a problem. The team figured out what we initially estimated for timeline was incorrect. (Pay attention: do not remind him about he sign project plan/project charter with “risk of risks” because it will be considered ill will).

[Sponsor]: -Well it is your problem you didn’t evaluated correctly…

[PM]: -With all due respect, these problems we couldn’t been identified from the beginning. As you know the risks were evaluated before we finished the time and budget, so we missed some risks there. Also because we removed the tasks associated with risk reassessment, you couldn’t foreseen this problem until now. We did everything in our power to deliver in time, but with all effort was not possible. I would appreciate any solution you might have.

[Sponsor, in this desperate situation, will start to collaborate]: Well…

Sponsor will begin to offer you multiple solutions… From now on, the relation with the “Bad and Almighty” Sponsor will be just fine. In this way, you managed a complete transfer of the risks from you to Sponsor. If, Sponsor won’t provide you any solution, you will show him the signature on project plan (that’s why the sign off in the project plan is so important) and he will be forced to give you a solution (because he assumed the risk).

The above scenario is extreme: you can’t negotiate and risks actually happens. In reality, it is possible the project to be just fine with all the risks involved and what might be impossible in the project plan, in reality, to become possible…

In any delicate situation, in your mind should exist a simple rule: Cover your back! Make small steps and do not skip any step! In the above example, PM finds a solution without break the professional rules or resign.

So the answer to question: Could someone tell PM how to do his job? the answer is “Yes“, but a PM will always use this aspect in his favor.

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