Staffing the Project Office


Large, complex projects are managed by a team of people called the project office rather than just the project manager. The people who reside in the project office are referred to as assistant project managers (APMs).

Because the complexity of today’s projects seems to be increasing, executives are becoming concerned about who should be assigned as an assistant project manager. There may be a need for an APM for engineering, manufacturing, cost control, scheduling, quality, and several other functional disciplines.

To understand the problem, we must begin first with understanding the job description of the APM. Historically on large projects, the project manager would find it almost impossible to singlehandedly manage the coordination of all personnel assigned to the project. The simplest solution seemed to be the designation of an APM.

As an example, let’s assume that there are 20 engineers assigned to a project. Rather than asking the project manager to perform the integration of activities among the 20 engineers, one of the engineers is designated as the APM for engineering (sometimes referred to as the lead engineer) and handles the coordination. Now the project manager needs to interface with just one person when discussing the engineering activities.  

While this approach appeared to work

well initially, many problems soon appeared, such as:

  • The people assigned as APMs considered themselves experts in their disciplines, and believed that knowledge of project management was unnecessary for them to perform their jobs.
  • The APMs viewed their chances of promotion as based on their technical knowledge rather than project management capability or project success.
  • Project management work was an add-on to their normal jobs, and the functional managers who evaluated them for promotion had limited project management knowledge. Therefore, APM performance was not considered during the promotion cycles.
  • Highly technical APMs changed the direction of the project for their own personal satisfaction.
  • APMs made decisions that were in the best interest of their own functional areas, rather than the best interest of the project or the company.
  • The project manager had to manage the interfacing between APMs since many of the APMs did not communicate with one another.

It was apparent that the project manager’s job was becoming more difficult rather than easier since the APMs had just a cursory understanding of project management. The next step was to assign people as APMs who had previous experience as project managers. It was then entirely possible that someone could be a project manager part time on one project and an APM part time on another project. While this technique had merit, there were still issues. The APMs understood project management but had difficulty coordinating functional activities because of lack of knowledge in the functional area.

Today, we are training functional employees in project management so that they can perform properly as APMs. Functional managers are also being trained in project management. The result is that functional employees who are asked to perform as APMs are being evaluated on their technical ability by their functional managers, and their project management performance by both the project manager (on an informal basis) and their functional managers. This gives us the best of both worlds and provides functional employees with long-term career path opportunities in either the functional or project management arena.

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