Project Leads vs. Project Managers


Atomic Object has no dedicated, specialized project managers.

Instead, we have project leads who play multiple roles of implementor, team lead, and project manager.

Benefits of the Project Lead Model

As a designer or developer, the project lead is intimately familiar with the product’s user needs and related features. They know the team’s implementation plan and can creatively consider alternatives if constraints challenge the original plan. By also playing the project manager role, the project lead will be able to anticipate constraints early on and manage the team and scope appropriately.

For instance, let’s pretend you are the project lead, and your team is working on an administrative reporting interface that shows eight key reports related to user conversions and activity. The reports are going to be run monthly by one person. As the reporting interface is being designed, the client identifies other ways their users want to manipulate reports and select data.

As a project lead, you manage progress data and know that the team is already trending behind. The team has burned a higher percentage of the project’s time/budget than the project’s scope. You also know that there are several future milestones that include complex and risky features. You are in a perfect position to raise concerns about the project status and offer concrete alternatives for a reporting solution. Because the reports are run infrequently by one user, you recommend using date selectors and CSV export interface that could be accomplished for a fraction of the cost of the original plan. The CSV solution reduced requirements gathering, design, and implementation time. The CSV export also allows for endless custom reporting and graphing in Excel.

In the reporting example, a pure project manager would have known the project was in trouble from a budget to scope perspective, but they would have had to have more conversations with team members and the product owner to reach the same alternative. A pure project manager may also still feel vulnerable about the change because they can’t the have the same confidence and trust that a project lead has from direct participation in the product’s implementation.

When a Project Lead Isn’t Enough

The project lead model works great for single-platform, pure software solutions, where the team has autonomy. For instance, project leads can manage a team of 2-4 designers and developers building a web application hosted by a third party like Heroku.

Project leads may need support for significantly complex projects. For example, when:

  • Integrating custom applications into enterprise environments where many IT preferences and restrictions may need to be considered and navigated by a technical consultant.
  • Many stakeholders or politics are involved and a strong product owner or product management role should exist.
  • A product spans multiple platforms or has many dependencies, and a project manager needs to ensure that all teams are on schedule for integration points. This is especially true when physical devices are involved and industrial design, hardware, firmware, manufacturing, software, packaging, distribution channels, etc. all need to be considered for launch.

In significantly complex projects, an Atomic project lead can step into the necessary consultant or management role, but it is nearly impossible for the project lead to also have an implementation role. In such situations, it’s better to have the project lead in a role focused on technical consulting, project management, or product management; and then have another senior team member focused on being an implementor and team lead.

Atomic has had successful engagements with significantly complex projects when our client dedicates a full-time, capable person to the project management and/or product management roles. The client-side project champion works closely with our project lead who can then work in their traditional roles and still remain involved in product implementation.

What’s Next

Atomic is excited to continue working on challenging and significantly complex projects. These are the types of projects that allow us to exercise our strengths and provide differentiated value through our experience and diverse skill set spanning design plus embedded, mobile, and web development.

It’s not uncommon that our clients can’t provide someone in the project management or product management role. It may make increasing sense for us to provide those specialized services in the future.

How does your team organize implementation, team lead, and project management, product management responsibilities? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

  • Deirdre Farmer says:

    Your article has the facts right, Shawn. A project lead works well for single platform and smaller teams. In a larger enterprise, a project manager is likely the best bet to navigate the multiple teams, platforms and communication styles.

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