Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Does a PM need to understand the technical level of the project subject?

This was always a question playing on my mind throughout the time I spent as a consultant.  My specialist subject was Lotus Notes/Domino and I was at the top of my tree.  Throughout my career, there was not a problem that I could not solve with assurance and conviction.  People often tested me, but I would often indicate a possibility of three solutions to the problems they faced.  At the technical level, there was not anything I did not know.

Jumping out of the technical work stream and into the Project Management stream was a very difficult choice.  I had a very technical background from my university days, where I studied for a Computing For Real-Time Systems degree, which was a unique course in England.  More than 200 students started my degree and only 30 of us passed.  I then moved into Lotus Notes/Domino in 1999 and stayed with the technology for more than 12 years.  It took me 3 years to decide that I was ready to move out of the “doing” and into the “delivering / facilitating” career path.

I often wonder, now that I am three years into my career as a Project Manager, of the various options for me to pursue.  I have been heavily dependent on the Lotus technologies and want to break out of this trend.  I have stepped into Infrastructure Project Management, which is a subject that I am enjoying.  It is a fairly new challenge, but in the three years that I have been working within this domain, I have learnt a lot and can start to lean on previous experience.

Does a Project Manager need to be an SME?  I feel that the Project Manager needs to have a basic understanding of the technology used in the development of the deliverable.  For example, I would not know the technology required to build a power station, I would not understand the requirements, the dependencies, the pre-requisites and the order in which to build the facility.  However, I have never built a Trading Application, but I am sure that with my foundation in software development (and infrastructure), that I would be able to have the amount of knowledge to be able to successfully deliver a project.

To what level of understanding does the Project Manager need?  The Project Manager has a role to deliver the project deliverable.  It is not the role of the Project Manager to be caught up in the micro-management for the development of the solution.  The Project Manager needs to understand the work breakdown structure, understand the times and the deliverables and needs to ensure the resources are in the right place at the right time.  The Project Manager should look to use the Project Team’s resources to the maximum affect, which will mean ensuring that the team remains motivated, understands the constraints and understands what and when to deliver.  The Project Manager will not be able to understand every detail within the delivery of the solution, but needs to understand who can deliver.  In Information Technology, we have multiple teams that specialise in a single discipline and these teams usually have to be coordinated to deliver our final product, which is down to the skills of the Project Manager to facilitate.

Is having Project Management skills enough?  I do not think just having the Project Management skills is enough.  I think the Project Manager needs to understand the environment, the industry and the technology that the project is being executed.  I refer back to an earlier point where I mentioned that I would not know how to build a power station, however I would know how to deliver anything in an IT based environment, for example building the data centre for the power station.

I often want to contradict the paragraph above in saying that I feel that I could run any project in any industry to deliver any project.  I feel that with the right technical experts around me, I could deliver any project, for example, I could run a building project, if the architects, planners, builders, foremen and tradesmen around me were on-board and could help with the fine details.  I would not know what facility to build first, but an experienced foreman would know, which means that the WBS and plans could be created with help from the whole Project Team and then executed by the Project Manager.  That sounds no different to any project, as I feel that the Subject Matter Experts should always provide some input into the plans.  However, past experience tells me that there are some Project Managers who run projects without any idea to the technology or subject area, which often lead to the failure of the project.

I would suggest that the most important skill required to run successful projects, in addition to a basic knowledge of the project environment and domain is Communication.  This is the fundamental skill of a good Project Manager.  Communication skills need to cover both writing and verbal interactions, but also need to include the softer skills such as motivation, mentoring, influence and leadership.  As a Project Manager you need to be confident in what you do and say and need to ensure your belief in the project radiates to your Project Team.  Everyone in the team has a part to play in the delivery of a successful project, but it is the Project Manager’s role to ensure that all of the team work cohesively to maintain moral and result in a positive outcome.

To summarise, I would recommend that a Project Manager has a suitable background and knowledge in the arena where they are running the project.  The Project Manager must be able to rely on the Subject Matter Experts for the design and build, but should not rely on them to run the project, monitor the plans/progress and deal with the issues.  The Project Manager should know enough to understand when something is poorly estimated and should have the knowledge to challenge the SMEs for other solutions to issues that arise.

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