To more fully answer this question we need to understand the primary responsibilities of the project manager on a technical project. The Project Management Institute defines the Project Manager role as, “The person assigned by the performing organization to lead the team that is responsible for achieving the project objectives.” Two phrases jump out of that definition, “lead the team” and “achieving the project objectives.” Let’s examine each of those and see where that takes us.
Lead the Team
There are hundreds of definitions of team leadership. They each emphasize various personal attributes and skills of the leader. I am going to focus on three that I believe are very important in the project management context, trust, communication, and decision-making.
For trust to grow between a project manager and the project team, two things must exist, integrity and relationship. The project manager must build a relationship with the team members and stakeholders and that relationship must be grounded in integrity. If the project manager does not have a relationship with the team members, he or she must quickly develop one. In building that relationship, the project manager and the team must be honest with each other in order to build trust. Through that relationship building the team will come to understand the strengths and weaknesses the project manager brings to the team.
So how does technical expertise impact trust? The project manager should not pretend to have expertise they don’t have. When the true level of expertise is discovered by the team, they will conclude they have been lied to and that project manager will never regain their trust. The project manager must be comfortable saying, “I don’t know.” By the same token, with the development of a relationship based upon integrity, the team will gain confidence in the project manager.
Communication is vital in project work, both within the team and between the team and project stakeholders. Normally, the project manager leads the communication activities of the team.
When a project is highly technical, the project manager must be able to communicate about technical issues and progress. While they do not need to be the technical expert on their team, they need to obtain enough technical knowledge to communicate effectively within the team and with stakeholders.
The third element of leading the team is decision-making. Due to the unique nature of technical projects, they are full of decision that must be made by the project manager or the project team. These can’t be pre-determined because the decisions rely on information, designs, and data that are generated within the project. Failure to make timely decisions on a project will lead to delays and overruns. But of course making a bad decision can also lead to delays, overruns, and even project failure.
If the project manager is not technical, they need to establish a clear and fair process for how technical decisions will be made. This process needs to be understood by all team members and it needs to be followed. In some organizations, the culture prefers authoritative decision-making rather than team decision-making. In those organizations, a technical person needs to be in the decision-making role on technical projects.
Achieve the Project Objectives
Since we have already discussed some of the people management aspects of the project, I am going to confine the discussion on achieving objectives to the creation of an appropriate project plan and managing the risks to the project during planning and execution. In order to have any level of confidence that objectives will be reached, a plan is needed. However, since we are talking about technical projects, there is inherently a level of risk in the use of the technology that must be proactively managed in order to achieve the objectives.
Project plans on technical projects will typically include design activities, test activities, analysis activities, and documentation activities. There are often numerous tasks in each of those categories. In order to accomplish those tasks, technical expertise is required. However, if there are team members who have the expertise and are assigned to the tasks, there is no need for the project manager to have the expertise. The larger concern is the project planning.
The creation and maintenance of a project plan is the responsibility of the project manager. When an organization has project templates for technical projects that include estimating guidelines and lessons learned from other projects, the project manager does not need to be a technical expert. They can rely on this information. However, if those don’t exist, the non-technical project manager will need to rely on the team members to provide that insight. If the team is inexperienced, they should not be assigned a non-technical manager. If the team is experienced and the project manager is able to quickly build trust, he or she does not need to be a technical expert.
The final point of discussion is risk management. A major portion of a project manager’s job once the plan is in place is to monitor the project to identify and resolve risk and issues that will prevent the project from achieving the objectives. An informal survey that I did with about a dozen experienced project managers indicated that they spend two thirds of their time managing risks and issues. Their goal is to catch and resolve them when small so that they don’t become big.
The project manager should be relying on his or her team members to identify risk issues in their area of expertise. The project manager then helps to resolve those and seeks to identify risks or issues from outside the project along with risks or issues on integration within the project. Technical expertise is definitely an advantage when identifying and resolving risks. Although if the project team is experienced and there is a lessons learned database or other project histories available, a non-technical project manager can manage the project risks.
So what is the bottom line? If there is an established and robust project management methodology and the project team is comprised of experienced experts, a non-technical project manager can be effective as long as they quickly build trusting relationships with the team. If those are missing or if the organizational culture demands an authoritative project manager – they need to also have technical expertise.