The Challenges of being a Part-Time Project Manager
Surprisingly, many project managers perform their role through a part-time engagement only. A product developer may be asked to manage a product development project, besides all responsibilities as subject matter expert. Or a specialist for Human Resources is made responsible to perform a turn-around project in the organisation. Managing projects is often just another role for employees to be performed on top of their assignments. One reason might be that the organisation is not yet performing enough projects to employ people who only focus on project management. Or the organisation is too small to afford a person that is just focusing on managing projects. Another reason might be that the organisation is more focusing on functional departments and the top management does not want to add another function.
Part-time means that someone is only partially available for managing projects and has to perform other assignments in parallel. That certainly imposes challenges as well as opportunities. Let´s start with the opportunities first. An opportunity of being a part-time project manager is possessing subject-matter expertise, knowing what needs to be done through performing the project, even doing it in person. An opportunity for the organisation might be the flexible resource allocation and potential optimization of cost associated to resources.
The downside of part-time engagement for the individual may include but is not limited to the following: Due to a lack of competences in the field of project management the individual may feel uncomfortable and unsecure, miss important activities throughout the project and thus risk to fail. A part-time project manager may be too much distracted through the role as subject matter expert, not spending enough time for the project, and thus feeling overwhelmed with all the requirements of project and non-project work. The leadership also runs a risk of assigning projects to part-time managers. In case of failures, conflicts and crisis they need to intervene and spend more time than necessary on projects. The organisation may lose the (strategic) focus, is only driven by the operational needs of projects and other work, whether the right projects are done right may be purely coincidental. Frustration, demotivation, burnout, absenteeism and an increasing rate of employees leaving the organisation may be the result of this.
I am not arguing that organisations should avoid having part-time project managers. It´s just important to know the downside of it, checking whether or when full-time project managers make sense and how to properly deal with part-time project assignments. Firstly, all employees considered to managing projects should be offered a project management training, making them aware of their role and responsibilities, the processes, methods and tools as well as the leadership aspects of projects. Secondly, it should be made clear by the sponsor of the project, how much time they are allowed to spend for the project. The larger a project is, the more time a project manager need to spend, however also for a small project a part-time manager requires a significant amount of time. In case of change requests in the context of the project, the time requirements may also be adapted. In addition, a part-time project manager may require a mentor, coach or sparring partner. Thus, the project sponsor, the PMO or any other senior project manager need to spend time to support the part-time project manager.
Another issue for a part-time project manager is the reporting line. Does she / he need to report to a line manager, the CEO or another manager in the organisation? A part-time project manager may be subordinate to a line manager and thus listen more to this manager, than any other manager in the organisation. This may cause a conflict of interest or at least irritations. It should be made clear to all people in the organisation that a part-time project manager has two distinct reporting lines, one to the line manager in his / her role as subject matter expert, and another one to the project sponsor for project-related matters. Whether an employee is taking over a part-time project manager´s role or not should be the choice of the employee. Forcing someone into this role is certainly counterproductive.