Project Management Institute

Effective middle managers are becoming project managers

Project Management in Action

From The Executive Suite



Leonard R. Sayles is a senior research scientist at the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, North Carolina. He received his doctorate at M.I.T., has taught at Cornell and the University of Michigan, and has been a visiting professor in Canada, the U.K., Portugal and Singapore. He has recently retired as a professor of business fRom the Columbia University Graduate School of Business.

Dr. Sayles is known for a wide variety of research studies and books dealing with leadership and the managing of technology development programs. His human resource text Personnel (with George Strauss) was one of the most widely used books in that field. His books include Managing Large Systems, a report of a three-year study of the National Aeronautical and Space Administration, the first such study of a project-oriented organization. A revised edition has just been released by Transaction Publishers.

He has served as a consultant to many business and government organizations including the National Academy of Sciences. The concepts and ideas in this paper are drawn from a multiyear research project lookingat managerial work. The actual data “is derived from The Wall Street Journal, Harvard Business Review, professional monographs, and interviews of over 100 executives in 20 major corporations. The total study is reported in The Working Leader, to be published by The Free Press in early 1993.

The field of project management is critical to the management of technical programs, and there are academic courses, a vast professional literature, and well-trained professionals who specialize in the management of projects. Our research suggests that an increasing number of line managers, particularly middle managers, have to learn the skills of the project manager. They have, in fact, become central to the effective performance of that position.

Project management usually focuses on the managerial issues surrounding fixed-life projects with clear objectives and a significant degree of technical uncertainty. In addition, these projects usually require a variety of specialists, some of whom (often most) will be widely dispersed in the organization. Another way of saying that is the project manager has to influence a diversity of professionals under conditions which require the application of leadership skills beyond those of command and control. Project Managers often do not have authority commensurate with their responsibility.

The reasons are quite obvious. As we have already said, in the typical project, many of the people and resources (particularly equipment) will be under the partial control of other managers; the project manager cannot assume that his or her orders will be consistent with the standards, norms and even orders that functional managers have given.

Further, most projects represent one-of-a-kind, never-having-been-done-before objectives. Almost by definition, there are no unambiguous routines or standard operating procedures by which the manager can assure successful completion of the project. It is no “paint by number” kind of activity in which if everyone performs a clearly defined, obvious and “proper” set of programmed operations, success is assured.

Our research conclusions are that all those criteria or characteristics are present in contemporary line manager jobs, particularly in the ranks of middle management. They are there because many of the tasks that need to be done to perform the basic operations of the organization (issuing an insurance policy or a mortgage, manufacturing complex technical equipment) are no longer as routinized as they were in the era of mass production (in which U.S. managerial acumen appeared invincible).

An increasing number of line managers, particularly middle managers, have to learn the skills of the project manager.

In traditional mass production, work is carefully programmed and if everyone behaves according to plan and the company has enough orders to justify full or almost full production volumes, everything works out “for the best”; cost and quality and service.

No longer. Products and processes are in constant flux; new technologies and pressures from the market place, including the need to customize a great many products and services for demanding individual customers has created an operations world very different than presumed by the line management principles associated with traditional production.

These are the reasons:

  1. Functions in modem business that must coordinate or be interrelated have much more complex interfaces (i.e., unique elements that need to be interlocked) than traditional production operations.
  2. Tasks and functions do not have a one best way of performance; they have lots of “play” or leeway in how they can be done.
  3. Each part of the organization is likely to be changing and elaborating its way of doing the tasks and functions it controls (so the interfaces are even more complex). And there is no reason to believe that these changes will be mutually complementary.
  4. And therefore, attaining overall systems coordination (efficiency, quality, service) is an enormous managerial challenge. The “getting the work done” is by no means routine.

American industry became efficient, in part, by having jobs that interlocked easily. To oversimplify, if A made the screw the right size, it would fit perfectly in the hole drilled by B. But contemporary organizations, even in production, have jobs that interface with dozens or hundreds of elements that need to “match” or “integrate” with other jobs for high performance. Just consider how frequently software programs fail because of this.

If an operations professional handles product X fulfillment using the same data entry procedures as she uses for product Y (easier and sensible from her point of view) the product Y manager will not get as good market data as if she can be persuaded to use a special format he designed. On the other hand, some of the data she gets from his group to handle inquiries is not presented on her computer screens in what for her is an optimal way of operation. But the programmer who works for Y claims it is “too costly” to change the software that provides the backup data for those screens for “a trivial enhancement.”

And there can be literally hundreds of such job elements that effect the mutual interdependence of jobs.


Outside of mechanical assembly lines and other simple production and clerical operations, most tasks defy simple prescription; there is lots of “play.” The technician or professional has no fixed template to match in terms of how she performs the job. Therefore, her own training and interests and habits determine how work actually gets done. (And, as in the example above, what is useful or optimal for those who do a particular task may be incompatible with what others need who follow that task in the flow of work.)


Again unlike traditional production and white-collar factories, where work might remain fixed for years, most technologies we observed were constantly evolving. To be sure, many of the changes can be small increments; a short cut here and an elaboration there. But even small changes can have major repercussions in tightly interlocked systems.

A programmer improving the software to assist in making new credit cards made one minor “improvement” in the previous program that had the unanticipated result of limiting to 14 the number of spaces for customer names. Some weeks later, after many cards had been produced with contracted customer names attached, service management was deluged with complaints and canceled accounts.

Given the degree to which managers are under pressure to lower costs or improve service, change is becoming even more constant.

Given the degree to which managers are under pressure to lower costs or improve service, change is becoming even more constant.


When management speaks of change to provide better customer service they are really asking for adaptation and responsiveness. In part, that means change, on the part of certain internal groups to the outside world. Shorter product development cycles require the same thing: more responsiveness and adaptation on the part of one group to the work done elsewhere, at an earlier stage in the workflow. Higher efficiency, for the most part, means better coordination and integration, also to make sure that what A does fits neatly into B‘s work [1].

Thus contemporary organizations have the continuing challenge of coherence; of getting the parts to fit together and stay together. (Even systems that are well coordinated will tend to degrade over time as autonomous initiatives are generated among the interdependent work groups and departments who contribute to the final output.)


It is the middle manager who must bear many of the burdens of building operating competencies. As we have outlined above, the parts of work systems are not programmed to fit together so that service is responsive to customers, work progresses “seamlessly” and development projects are well coordinated. It is almost the rule, not the exception, that Department A, for good reason, will be developing a way of doing things that make Department B’s work more difficult, or, in the case of a development project, even impossible. Thus, middle managers often become the key players who can facilitate the tradeoffs among the diverse parts of any work system.

While project groups and teams and fret-line supervisors can help, many of the contradictions and inconsistencies among the parts of a larger system require managerial interventions to resolve. It is these middle managers who must “massage” the parts, continuously “rejiggle” and reconfigure the interfaces. Without these initiatives, under conditions of modern technology, the real work of the organization never gets performed effectively.

Thus, contemporary middle managers have to play the role of project managers almost every time that an inter-departmental coordination problem emerges or when they seek to improve the operations under their control. Rarely is there such complete decentralization that they can order mutually complementary adjustments and adaptations among all the far-flung parts of the work system.

In reality, at least for the effective middle managers we observed in our filed work, work life is a never ending series of “projects” requiring the well timed collaboration of diverse parts of the organization, most of whom are “marching to a different drummer.” That is, what looks like an appropriate technical decision or way of doing things doesn't fit the “project” plan of the middle manager who is seeking to optimize operations, please a finicky major customer, or fix a defect in coordination which is hurting performance effectiveness.

Also, good middle managers will be constantly evolving better ways of doing things or new products or services. Each of these becomes a “mini” project to be managed through the complexities of the organizational system.

Increasingly, project management and line management have to share common skills and leadership capabilities in this new world of rapid change and high performance requirements. The most important changes are in the amount of technical systems knowledge required by middle managers (in contrast to simply being a good generalist) and the ability to artfully intervene and negotiate in work matters rather than standing “above the fray.”

1. Sayles, L.R. 1990. Redefining What's Essential to Business Performance (Report No. 142). Greensboro, North Carolina: Center for Creative Leadership.

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