Can a project manager be a hero? Should she or he be one?

These questions came up at a meeting here. Some felt that bringing certain projects to successful conclusion was, indeed, heroic. They thought it took special determination, that something had been saved by the project manager’s actions. It might have been the team’s reputation, or the organization’s resources, or a deliverable that another team was depending upon.

Others believed that, if heroics were called for, then the project manager had not been doing a good job in the first place. These folks expected good project management to result in regular schedules, adrenaline-free Fridays, and a basic lack of unforeseen circumstances. No silver capes required.

I don’t think things are quite this cut and dried, myself. Project managers don’t always have the luxury of starting from scratch, picking a dream team, or even picking the team at all. Sometimes, the project manager joins the project mid-stream, or even toward the end. Depending on the state of affairs left by the previous project manager, the new guy or gal may not have such a good set of maps from which to start working. That means getting a handle on the project, managing the team, and delivering the service or product is an uphill battle. If that person helps the team succeed, is he or she a hero? Or simply doing a good job?

Let’s think too about the loneliness of the long-distance project manager. When I started that sentence, I intended it to be about the project manager tackling a multi-year project, the kind of thing that requires a sustaining of momentum through institutional budget cycles, staff turnover, software upgrades, and more. But it seems to me that it also applies to the project manager who is located in one city while the project team is located in at least one other place. There is energy expended to sustain momentum there as well, and there is a multiplier factor when the distance is greater than two timezones away.

You begin to get a sense that “doing a good job” in project management is actually a shifting notion, and something that’s gotten quite a bit more complicated in the last ten or fifteen years, with the increasing speed of software development changes and the ever-widening geographic scope of project teams.

In a world where a librarian can become an action figure, maybe it’s time to revisit what it means to be a hero.