Project management, engagement management & process management


For years, we’ve recommended that accounting firms hire project and process managers. If your firm’s engagement managers are running client engagements well and following the firm’s processes, you might think you don’t need project managers or process managers. After all, isn’t good engagement or process management just good project management?

I don’t believe so. While there is some skills overlap between these three roles, there is a difference.

Engagement management vs. project management

An engagement manager oversees client engagements, acting as the communicator between the client and the engagement team. They ensure the team and clients hit milestones and stay on task so each person can focus on their unique abilities.

Engagement managers use project management skills, including communication, organization, and managing timelines. Although every engagement — audits, consulting, tax planning, advisory, etc. — has unique aspects, there’s typically a process that the engagement manager follows to get to a deliverable: a financial statement, strategic plan, etc. The goal is to maximize client satisfaction as well as the firm’s revenue and profitability.

Projects, on the other hand, aren’t part of your firm’s routine operations. They have a clear beginning, end, and deliverable. Examples of projects include selecting and implementing new software, developing software for an improved business process, or opening an office in a new geographic market. The project manager has a defined scope and resources and follows a specific set of operations to accomplish the goal. The project team often includes people who don’t usually work together.

What about process management?

Process management is another role in the firm that is sometimes confused with project management. Process managers own the firm’s processes and workflows. Their responsibilities include collecting feedback and seeking continuous improvement.

Process managers often use project management skills, including organization and communication. However, they also need the crucial skill of influence to get people on board.

The biggest difference between process and project management is that process management is ongoing. There’s no final deliverable or project completion, as the firm’s processes continuously need to be analyzed, improved, monitored and optimized.

What kind of manager does your firm need?

In an ideal world, your firm would have ample resources to hire dedicated engagement, project and process managers. The three disciplines would complement each other and ensure that clients, employees and partners are happy.

But that’s not always possible. Hiring can be challenging, and resources are thin. Sometimes people need to take on more than one role. If you find yourself in that position, the solution is to build project management skills in various roles.

For example:

  • Your project managers might be firm administrators or IT team members;
  • Your tax or audit seniors and managers act as engagement managers; or,
  • Someone from your operations team takes on the role of process manager

The Project Management Institute is an excellent resource for project management skills training, standards, tools, and templates.

The key is to have well-defined project, engagement and process management roles, even if you need to have hybrid roles filling the gaps without adding to your overhead. Taking a step back to look at the context allows your team to apply project management skills in a way that’s tailored to meet the needs of the situation at hand.

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