Why is it a project manager’s job to fix companies?

Projects are the future, a good portfolio office can influence and shape strategy and project management is the only way to holistically deliver improvements.

If you have sat through any project management conference presentations or talked to someone evangelizing about the role of the PMO then you will have heard this stuff before.

At the roundtable discussion about project management in the collaborative age way back in 2012, the talk turned to how project managers could shape strategy. There were aspirations shared about how we should be inspiring leaders, working across silos to design the futures of our companies. All good stuff.

Honestly, people are still talking about that as the role of a project manager. PMI (and other professional bodies) are keen to elevate the role of the project manager beyond someone who simply ticks boxes and marks tasks as 100% complete.

In principle, I suppose I have no issue with being involved in shaping strategy. It’s interesting work, it’s meaningful, and it’s fun.

But, I have to ask, why is that our job? What happened to the role of the corporate strategy department? What about the business development team? Or the CEO and the board? Why should project managers fix what is wrong with companies today and rewrite the future? That’s not what we are trained for.

So who is responsible for the strategic direction of our companies? Perhaps it is something that project managers could and should be more actively influential over. After all, we are great at implementing change.

We can implement change more effectively than everyone else

I was playing devil’s advocate back then, at the roundtable, and deliberately asking the question to see why the others in the room felt that project managers had a role to play.

Paul Major from Program Framework suggested that we adopt the premise that the business world is changing around us with the consumerization of IT, the rise of co-creation, and collaboration with customers and competitors. Therefore, he argued, competitive advantage for a business is its ability to implement change more effectively than its competitors.

If I’m in software development, it’s how quickly I can deliver the next release and what new functionality I can put in it. If I’m in manufacturing, it’s about how quickly I can produce the next widget and the benefits this gives my customers. In financial services, it’s what products I can bring to market quickly.

Competitive advantage is built on delivering change.

“If you look around the organization and asked who has the most knowledge and therefore who would I trust to be responsible for delivering change, who would you say?” Paul asked. “For me, it would be the project management community. I think we’re better equipped than anyone else in the business to do that. We just need to believe it.

We know what needs changing

Project managers get out and about, working with internal and external customers and seeing what needs changing. We also get asked to do projects, or to produce business cases, and we work with business analysts who also get to see what works and what doesn’t in the company.

We have the skill set to understand business issues.

We can answer the question: How do I capture and describe what it is we want to achieve? What does ‘good’ look like? What does the future look like? How do I build a roadmap that gets me there? We have the tools, techniques and contacts to do this.

Isn’t this what a PMO is for?

Unfortunately, project managers rarely have the resources and the time to ponder on the nature of strategic interventions. “Generally”, said Matt, one of the project managers attending the discussion, “if you’re managing a project, you’re managing that project, that’s what you’ve been employed to do.”

Delivering that project successfully is your focus. “You’re not spending a lot of time concentrating on the tools that you might use; it isn’t the most productive use of your time when you’ve got that project to submit.”

Perhaps that is where the PMO comes into play. In my experience PMO roles have typically been administrative, but the new focus on portfolio management and delivering cost efficiencies is hopefully changing that.

PMOs do generally have a bit more resource and a bit of thinking time. They also – hopefully – have the ear of the executives. If the PMO acts in this leadership role, it’s a natural place for strategy and direction to come from.

What do you think? Is the role of the corporate strategy director dead, to be replaced with a PMO and a group of enterprising project managers who can advise strategically?

Find me in our Facebook group, Project Management Cafe, and let me know your thoughts!

A version of this article first appeared in 2012.


  1. I sure wish we had a PMO where I work!
    Perhaps it is not the “job” of the PM to fix the company, but an outcome of creative problem solving while in the trenches on each of their projects? As you struggle through roadblocks integrated within your company, you often develop workarounds or strategies to succeed in spite of the institutional issues. These lessons learned from Project Managers can form the basis for change in an organization. 

    1.  Yes, but where do you pass the information to? If you develop strategies which help you get round roadblocks, that’s great, but it’s not a long term solution. Who do you turn to in order to get buy in for implementing your creative problem solving ideas?

  2. Is there room for both, I wonder? Could a PM and a corporate director work together to ‘fix’ the company, or would that just blur too many lines?

    1.  That’s a pretty good idea. One possibility would be that the PMO reports into the strategy director. That’s one place that has oversight across the whole company, taking out the issue of silos.

  3. I agree that this is an area where a PMO can really add value: keep an eye on the overall portfolio. Alas, I share your experience that most PMOs focus on administrative work…

    A recent experience with a client that had set up a PMO to exactly do the portfolio part rather than the admin and that was successful, clearly shows to me how crucial the role of the PMO manager is.
    In this particular case a very experienced senior project manager, with direct access to the CEO and other relevant directors, and who kept an eye on the overall picture, how do the different projects/programs add value to our company and the different business units? Somebody who sees himself more as an ambasador, rather than a controller.

    In most cases however, the PMO (manager) has less impact… Add to this the fact that most project owners, project boards, steering committees… still have little or no clue about their role in a project/program context and everyone starts pointing at the project manager(s) to fix this.

    1. I don’t think a project manager can fix it in the scenario you give. How could they know any better about what to do than the programme manager or project board? But on the other hand, why aren’t project managers better at seeing the big picture? The PMO role is one that has (or can have) over-arching responsibility for the big picture view of all change initiatives happening in the company, and it shouldn’t be too much to ask that project managers working on changes know how they impact the organisation overall and how they all fit together.

      I like the idea of a project ambassador, but I fear that a job title like that would be the first to get cut in the next round of redundancies…

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