What’s the difference between an operations manager and a project manager? Whichever camp you fall into, chances are you have to work with both. There’s a good description of the difference in Karen R. J. White’s book, Practical Project Management for Agile Nonprofits.
She describes 4 areas of responsibility that operations managers and project managers both have, and how they differ. The 4 areas are:
- Staff management
- Skills development.
Let’s look at each of those in a bit more detail.
An operational manager is responsible for the department budget and the overheads related to running that department. This covers things like staff salaries and other benefits, costs of running their office building and services that they have to purchase in order to ensure the department is effective. This might also include money coming into the department, for example if staff are charged out to other departments who pay for the internally-provided services.
A project manager is responsible only for the budget relating to the particular project that he or she is working on at the time. This is mainly costs – after all, projects are expensive – but can include revenue if there is any money to be made while the project is running. If this is the case it will normally be accounted for as a project benefit.
The operations manager has day-to-day management responsibilities and many of those tasks will take place on a business as usual schedule. However, if there are multiple projects and initiatives happening, they can be responsible for the overall departmental portfolio and all the tasks within it. There will probably be some operational reporting to enable the operations manager to see what’s going on and make decisions at a departmental level.
The project manager is responsible for ensuring that the project stays on time. They are responsible for the project schedule, which means planning out the delivery dates, scheduling milestones and then tracking progress (using tools like Seavus ProjectViewer) against forecast to ensure that all the tasks stay on track.
The operations manager has a much larger role to play here than a project manager. They are typically responsible for recruitment into the department, onboarding new staff, assigning people to projects (which requires understanding their skill profiles and development needs). They will approve holiday requests, deal with sickness absence and all the other HR responsibilities that an individual expects from their manager. They will also oversee the performance on everything that isn’t to do with projects – all those business as usual activities and the day-to-day activities that keep the department running.
The project manager is not likely to be involved with hiring and firing or other HR issues. Instead, he or she will oversee performance on project work. They may not even have the authority to be able to do anything about poor performance except report it to the team member’s manager. It will then be up to the operational manager of that team member to deal with the performance issue.
Operations managers should provide skill and career development for the staff in their department. This could be through training, mentoring, coaching, time off to study for professional qualifications or other means. Typically the annual goals are set for the departmental staff some time at the beginning of the year, and then they work towards their development plan during the year.
Project managers, on the other hand, don’t often have line management responsibility for their project team members so they are only responsible for providing training if someone needs some extra help in order to be able to complete their project tasks effectively.
So, as you can see, operations managers and project managers have very different sets of responsibilities, although they are complementary. The operations manager takes a lot of the burden of ‘management’ away from the project manager, enabling them to focus completely on the successful delivery of the project.
What is clear, though, is that you can’t do a project without input from the operations managers in your company. You’ll need their help to allocate resources (both people and money) in the most effective way. Operational and departmental management can be a good career experience for project managers as well, so it is something to consider for your own career and skills development if you haven’t already spent time as an operations manager.