Project Management Institute

The project manager


by William R. Duncan, PMP, Contributing Editor

THIS MONTH'S COLUMN responds to a series of questions about the project manager: skills, training needs, and a manageable workload.

Q. Are there unique skills associated with running a program or is the skill set essentially the same as that used on projects?

First, let's define program. PMI's PMBOKGuide defines a program as “a group of projects managed in a coordinated way to obtain benefits not available from managing them individually.” Pellegrinelli [International Journal of Project Management,Vol. 15, No. 3] identifies four different kinds of endeavors which can overlap somewhat, commonly referred to as programs:

What skills does a project manager need? How many projects can a project manager manage at one time?

images Megaprojects: very large projects

images Portfolio programs: coordinating distinct projects using a common resource or skill base

images Goal-oriented programs: developing something completely or mostly new, where uncertainty prevails and learning is a prerequisite to progress

images Heartbeat programs: enhancing an existing item.

That said, are the skills different? My answer: The basic skills are the same, but the required areas of strength are often different. For example, both positions need good presentation skills. But a program manager who is likely to present to higher levels of management better have presentation skills that are not just good, but excellent.

These differences in degree most often come into play in the area of “soft” skills, such as leadership, negotiation, communications, perspective. Weaknesses in these areas that are survivable as a project manager may be disastrous to a program manager's career.

Q. Should project managers receive technical training?

As with all employees, project managers should have the skills needed to do their job. If they lack these skills, training is one option; mentoring or coaching is another. So, let me rephrase the question: Do your project managers need more technical skills than they already possess?

On larger projects (a new aircraft, a major process plant, a systems integration project) there are simply too many complex technologies for the project manager to master all of them. Technical training that provides breadth may be useful, but technical training that provides depth is unlikely to provide much benefit. On smaller projects the project manager may also be a key technical contributor. In this case, technical training may enhance the project manager's ability to contribute.


William R. Duncan, PMP, is a principal in Project Management Partners, a project management consulting and training firm headquartered in Lexington, Mass., USA. He is also a member of the Editorial Review Board for the Project Management Journal. Send your comments to

Q. How can we provide on-site mentoring without signaling that the project manager or the project team is in trouble?

Provide mentors to teams that aren't in trouble! The literature on mentoring doesn't talk about supporting weak people: it talks about improving the skills of qualified people. If you have a project manager that can't do the job, assign a new project manager!

Q. How many projects can a full-time project manager handle at one time?

There is a simple Zen answer to this question: Project managers can handle as many projects as they are capable of managing successfully. Don't even consider increasing their workload unless all of their projects—that is all, as in every one—are being finished on time, within budget, according to spec, and with the stakeholders satisfied.

I don't believe that there is a single, reliable, numerical answer to How many [projects] can one person handle? that will be correct for all or even most organizations. But you can start to develop an answer for your organization by first answering one key question: What is the project manager supposed to do?

Once you know that, then (and only then) should you look at other factors that may affect the range of performance:

images How much support will be provided?

images How many people are on the project? Are they part-time or full-time?

images What are the management challenges? An adequately budgeted project may require less effort to manage than one that is extremely lean.

images Are all the projects in the same location? Or will the project manager spend a lot of time traveling?

images Do all the projects involve the same technology? The same business cultures? The same set of stakeholders?

images How many of the projects have important deadlines that are close together?

With this information in hand, the question should be answerable. However, selling the answer to your management may be a challenge since the most likely result is “our project managers are managing too many projects.”

GOT A QUESTION? E-mail it to images

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