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One of the unfortunate perceptions which many project managers face when trying to do their jobs is that some stakeholders perceive that they are just bureaucratic paper-pushers. While there are certainly some ineffective project managers who put a greater emphasis on administrative activities than the real job of leading, with most of the practitioners I’ve worked with, this is not how they see their role.

There are (at least) three factors which contribute to the administrative burden:

  1. The organization’s policies and standards
  2. The complexity and size of the project
  3. The project manager’s preferred ways of working

It is to be expected that as the complexity or size of the project increases, paper work will increase, albeit at an incremental rate. If the organization’s policies and standards are flexible and fit for purpose, then the mandated documentation or practices will also scale in line with the size or complexity of the project.

When project management costs can be directly compensated such as when a project is done for a paying client or when the sponsoring division for an internal project is required to cover all labor costs, once the complexity or size of a project exceeds a threshold, a project manager may be provided administrative support via a project analyst or similar role. This is a common practice in companies which are operating at a higher level of delivery maturity. But when project management costs cannot be recouped, the project manager is left to fend for themselves.

I ran a one-week poll in PMI’s Project, Program and Portfolio Management discussion group and the community to understand how much effort was being spent on paperwork. I received 1068 responses to this poll so I must have touched a nerve! Here’s the breakdown of the results:

  • Under 25% of their overall effort: 23%
  • 26-50% of their overall effort: 44%
  • 51-75% of their overall effort: 25%
  • Over 75%: 8%

So roughly one third of project managers are spending more than half of their time on administrative work.

It is fair to expect that a project manager would be spending some of their time doing administrative activities but how much is reasonable?

If we look at it from an opportunity cost and a cost/benefit perspective, if there are more valuable activities which a project manager could be doing which they are unable to because of mandated paper work or if the benefits of their doing this paperwork are outweighed by their labor costs, then it is too much. And while the project manager is pushing paper, it is possible that certain risks emerge or are realized which could have been avoided if they were able to focus on more strategic work.

This problem could be tackled in two steps. The first is to ensure that the administrative work is minimally sufficient. Once that leaning out has been done, the second is to monitor the project manager’s administrative effort and provide them with support once it exceeds a reasonable threshold.

(If you liked this article, why not read my book Easy in Theory, Difficult in Practice which contains 100 other lessons on project leadership? It’s available on  and on  as well as a number of other online book stores).

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