General versus Project Management

jugglingI’ve been asked by many beginning project management students about the difference between general and project management. My simple answer has been that the things that make a good general manager (GM) help a project manager (PM), and that the PM does a few additional things specific to projects. That seems to satisfy most, but it got me thinking about my experiences.

In many ways, I don’t see a real distinction. As a GM I’ve used project management techniques in many situations. For example, in the case of HR – specifically, developing people – I’ve often used project concepts and structures. Defining clear deliverables, acceptance criteria, timelines, progress reporting, and so on, lend themselves to good management.

Similarly, as a PM, I’ve had to use skills that are not specific to project management such as political and influencing skills.

So, from a management skills perspective, I see a vast overlap.

Maybe it’s on the leadership side of things that more distinctions arise? For me, I don’t think so. I’ve seen managers in both the general and project environments with no leadership attributes and those with great leadership (of course, there are those with management skills and those without). In my opinion, the best managers in both contexts have good management skills and leadership behavior (the next best are those with leadership and the ability to attract and motivate those with good management skills).

So, if it’s not management skills nor leadership behavior, is there a major distinction to be made?

For me it’s about the scope of responsibility. In my experience as a PM, I’ve always focused on making “it” happen. As a PM, I was more concerned about limiting scope to the extent that I could clearly define and measure success and thus increase the probability of project success. I was not so concerned about whether the project was actually the best utilization of resources in aligment with the initiatives and strategic position of the enterprise.

As a GM, I’ve been responsible for deciding what “it” should be. Yes, it can still be thought of as a matter of degree. As a PM, I’ve had influence over the strategic and tactical portfolio of projects; and as a GM, I’ve had to think about “doability.”

For example, I remember a state government-sponsored initiative where then out of work technology workers were to become teachers. As a PM, I was focused on defining a project with deliverables that could be clearly measured in a timely manner – we ended up with a 4 month project to recruit and enroll a specific number workers in teacher certification programs. As a PM, I was satisfied. I was not primarily worried about whether children would be better educated, or whether school districts would be able to hire new teachers, or whether parents would be more likely to keep their children in the public school system, or whether workers would quit as soon as tech jobs became available again.

As a GM, I did care about those things. I had significant issues regarding the usefulness of spending resources on this program. While a politically attractive initiative showing action in dealing with two issues of significant concern to constituents, it did not strike me as particularly effective in the context of improving schools or dealing with employment/job issues. It was my responsibility to decide to do it or not.
So, there’s my take on GM versus PM. Not so much about skills or leadership. Not a clean demarkation, but a difference in the scope of responsibility.

I know there are lots of different views on this… what’s yours?


2 thoughts on “General versus Project Management”

  1. User Avatar

    Good post. I agree that PM skills help in managing people, and vise-versa.

    As a PM, the #1 focus is on the progress of the projects you are managing, and as a line manager, you are primarily focused on the people first and what they are doing in a general sense.

    Because a PM may have resources partially allocated, they probably don’t care much about what the person is doing with the rest of their time. You own the project, not the people. As a manager, you own the people, not the project (unless you are the sponsor, then you probably own both).

    My PM training and experience has enhanced my abilities as a people manager in the following ways:
    –helps set clear and achievable goals that can be measured.
    –adds structure and tools to everything a manager does
    –increases the value I place on employees’ time and how they are allocated: are they adding value?
    –helps me quantify achievements for feedback and performance reviews, by viewing what they do as distinct projects throughout the year, even if they were not formally managed as projects.
    –learning to lead without positional authority (because they don’t work directly for you) enhances the ability to lead those who do work directly for you.

    Josh Nankivel

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