Project Manager: Tank or Healer?

There are days and projects where I wonder which character type a good project manager should emulate. In video games and gaming culture there are specific roles for each character on a team; a well-balanced team can be pretty successful because responsibilities are split to leverage each member’s specific skills.

Similarly, in agencies, teams are often selected to form a small group assigned to a project. Take, for example, an account strategist, a project manager, a designer and a developer — each has a specific part to play to make that client project succeed. Sometimes their knowledge and tasks overlap, but thinking about them in terms of gaming archetypes can illustrate a different aspect of the group dynamic.

If you don’t believe me, think of any superhero group. If they don’t learn to work together and play to their strengths, they will fail.

Lately, I’ve been debating with myself (I like to look at life through a TV/movie/video game lens): Should a good project manager be more of a tank or a healer?

In multiplayer video games, a player’s stats and abilities can change their role, but typically there are damagers, tanks, healers and hybrids.

  • Damagers are your typical fighters; they are on the offense and have pretty consistent attacking power.
  • Tanks are usually the big guys, but sometimes they are just characters with high health and/or resistance (i.e. they take longer to kill). Tanks can act like a shield that allows the rest of the team to advance or be used like a wrecking ball.
  • Healers are characters with the ability to heal or revive teammates (often a wizard, shaman or another magical person). Healers usually have the least attack power, but they play a vital role in the longevity of a campaign. A well-protected healer can deal out extra health and defense to the rest of the team; one of the best symbiotic relationships!
  • And finally, hybrids combine different attributes to hopefully round out the team; sometimes an additional fighter with fewer attack skills, in exchange for agility.

WHAT is he talking about?
Stay with me! It will start to make sense.

There are days where I feel like I need to be a tank: handling tough conversations, taking the brunt of client questions and feedback and allowing the rest of my team to keep their eyes on the prize. If everyone else is busy and an urgent task comes up, this tank will handle it. A project manager has to wear multiple hats, and when it feels like you’re doing more than one job, you start to see yourself as a tank — a massive green Hulk that everyone is glad to have on their side.

As I write this I realize anyone on the team can be a tank, and perhaps it makes more sense for a good project manager to be a healer. We often have to help our team stay on track, make sure they have what they need, give them words of encouragement and make sure they don’t burn out. A team can survive without a healer for a time, but without this support system in place, they can’t go on forever—and that could mean missed deadlines or low-quality work.

What about the other types? Well … some project managers might see themselves as damagers or agile ninjas attacking the workload, but, the way I see it, it’s the designer and developer who fall into those types. You need an account strategist to think big, be proactive and sometimes take the obvious lead, so maybe they’re the tank!

A successful micro team on a client project could look like this:

  • Account strategist – Tank
  • Project manager – Healer
  • Designer – Damager
  • Developer – Hybrid ninja

And it’s not just the type of work each member performs; it’s also the personal qualities each person exudes that shape the team for successful delivery beyond client expectations. Everyone is capable of giving support and encouragement, and sometimes even healers have to go on the offense to drive the most impact.

Success – for us and our clients – relies on having the right team in place to do the best work. Finding the right mix includes our client’s role, as well.

What are the best roles for your project?

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