How To Decide Whether Your Project Needs a Project Manager

By: Adam Carpenter - Guest Contributor on December 20, 2023
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Project managers (PMs) often have adequate resources at their disposal but not enough time to handle all of their tasks. This is especially true when the scope of one project starts creeping, forcing the PM to steal time away from other projects to compensate. As a result, you end up with overworked, burnt-out PMs.

One way to avoid this problem is to use a systemic approach to deciding what is considered a “project” and what is not. In this way, your project managers have fewer projects to oversee and can invest more time and energy into scoring wins with high-value projects.

This article is your guide to deciding when you need a project manager to handle a task, how to leverage technology to better manage non-project work, and how to optimize your PM resources.

Define your criteria for when a project manager is required

If you regularly evaluate how to deploy talent to meet the demands of projects, you can do a better job of prioritizing projects. Then, it’s far easier to decide which projects should go to a project manager and which you should designate as managed work, allowing team members to handle them—without a PM.

One factor to consider is the complexity of the task. The more complex the job, the more likely it is that you’ll need a project manager to help get it done. For instance, Gartner suggests anything that requires less than 400 hours shouldn’t be considered a project. [1]

You should also think about the level of risk associated with a project, with higher-risk tasks getting project managers and lower-risk ones being taken care of by self-managed teams. The risks could include one or a mix of the following:

  • Tasks taking longer than the allotted time

  • Organizational risks if the task does not get completed

  • The need to bring in more employees to perform more difficult elements of the task

A third criterion you should consider is the criticality of the task. A task with a high level of criticality may include, for example, one whose outcome will come under the microscope of an audit. In many situations, even though a task’s end-product may not get audited, it can affect another system or process that auditors may soon examine.

According to Gartner’s criteria, criticality can also be determined by the timing constraints associated with the work. If the timing involves mandatory timelines, the work should go to a senior project manager. If timing is discretionary or flexible, the work would still get the “project” designation but would go to a project manager. On the other hand, if the work is routine, self-managed teams can be asked to take care of it.

Leverage collaborative work management technology

By using collaborative work management technology, you empower self-managed teams with solutions that elevate the quality of the final product—as if an experienced project manager had taken the wheel. The first step is deciding which kinds of tasks you should use collaborative work management technology to handle.

Collaborative software can assist with the following kinds of tasks [1]:

  • High-value, routine work, which you can use full automation or off-the-shelf business software to manage.

  • High-value but less routine work that has greater uncertainty. This would be a good fit for custom application development.

You can also leverage collaborative work management software for:

  • Planning projects 

  • Producing live, interactive reports and dashboards

  • Sending notifications and reminders

  • Designing customized action triggers for specific work

  • Setting up custom workflows and scripts that can automate sequences of actions

By automating these task management elements, you save time and ease the workloads of project managers and team members. You also create consistent systems for reporting on the status of tasks, as well as keeping team members organized and productive.

Optimize project management resource usage

Once you use the criteria above to figure out which tasks should go to project managers and which should go to independent teams, you can pinpoint where to allocate your project management resources. This is where you may have to establish some concrete standards to make the decision process easier.

For example, the amount of money you have to spend on the task may streamline the process of deciding which project management resources to allocate. For instance, as Gartner’s study found, if the budget is [1]:

  • Above $1 million, you can have a senior project manager oversee it

  • Between $500,000 and $1 million, a regular PM may be assigned

  • Less than $500,000, a small, self-managed team can take care of it

By factoring in budget, you make sure your PMs don't have to spend excessive amounts of time managing projects that aren’t as financially crucial as other tasks they have on their plates. At the same time, you ensure the projects that have a bigger impact on your company’s finances have the most experienced and qualified staff, steering them in the right direction.

Give PMs more time with a project classification system

Using this article as a guide, you can create criteria that determine when you need a project manager and when a team can self-manage a task. You can use the level of risk, complexity, and criticality to set tipping points that send projects to PMs or self-managed teams. 

Once you’ve made the call, start deciding which technology you want to use to manage the work. Some tech can automate mission-critical tasks in addition to managing who does what and when. Leveraging collaborative work management tools helps teams to produce high-quality results more efficiently.

Your next step is to bolster your project management software tools so you can empower your PM resources. You can use these links to get started: