Explaining Project Management to Outsiders
The holidays are coming up, which means parties and reunions where you’ll be meeting new people who want to know what you do. Except, the role of a project manager is difficult to explain without sounding redundant and slightly peevish (“I’m a project manager. I manage projects.”)
To help you through this lurking social land mine, we run through several possible answers to this thorny question. Do note that these lines are edited for brevity, and assume that the person you’re talking to has no idea about your industry (whether it’s marketing, construction, programming, etc).
Humor is a great way to warm up to someone you just met. Your job is an excellent subject for making a joke because a) you’re making fun of yourself, and b) everyone can relate to “job” jokes. Try out these choice lines:
“Project management is like herding cats.” (HP has a great ad based off this joke.)
“I make things happen. Sometimes, they happen the way I want.”
“I work in project management. Our main product is stress.”
Sometimes you don’t want to use humor. Maybe you want to give detailed assessments of your role in an attempt to make their eyes glaze over. If that’s the case, try out these lines:
“I try to accomplish large objectives using the least amount of resources.”
“As a project manager I organize the efforts of many people in order to reach a single goal.”
“Project managers coordinate multiple contributors to try to accomplish an objective on time and under budget.”
It makes for dry conversation, so only use this if you want to bore the person and drive them away. If someone hangs around long enough to ask a good follow up question, stick with them the rest of the night. They’re genuinely interested in you.
So you’ve actually met someone you want to impress, and want them to know what you do without actually putting them to sleep. But you don’t want to use humor, because you either don’t want to be seen as a flippant jerk, or you’re not sure about their sense of humor.
“Do you know [name of project]? I led the team that made that.” (Only works if your project is something the other person is likely to know.)
“I bring people together to accomplish big things.”
“As project manager my job is helping other people do theirs.”
Keep in mind that those lines aren’t meant to be your ONLY explanation of project management. They’re supposed to make the other party interested enough to want to keep the conversation going, after which you can go into a bit more detail about your role and what your company produces.
Naturally, there are as many ways to explain project management to an outsider as there are project managers. However, these lines should help you brainstorm what your ideal response is to the inevitable “So, what do you do for a living?” question.