Monday, May 25, 2015

Does a Project Manager Need to be a Technical Expert?

Does a project manager need to be a technical expert to manage a technical project?  The answer is an unequivocal, “Maybe!”

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.


  1. Ray, your last paragraph sums it up well. The worst disasters i have seen have involved a manager with little, or no, understanding of the physical processes needed to achieve the goal. That such a one did not have, or did not trust, those who did have the needed knowledge, doomed the project from the start. This has also resulted in the inability of the corporation to remain viable through the "Domino Effect" as the same principle trickled up the management chain.
    Conversely, one of the best situations in which i was ever involved utilized a manager with no expertise in the field. He had no problem admitting such, had a firm understanding of the management practices needed, and leaned heavily on his reliable sources to guide his decisions where they involved actual production process. I wish i had seen a lot more like him along the way.


    1. Tag: PM202A55. Let me share all of you about #5 Tips for Project Management Success,, I hope you enjoy it

      1. Plan your day using time management techniques

      As a project manager, time management skills are essential because you are dealing with a wide range of tasks that demand a quick turnaround time. Planning your day will go a long way in keeping you organized and increasing your productivity. Assist your task planning by using project management software which helps you track the work of you and your team.

      If you are not very tech savvy, a simple to-do list can also be a great organizational tool. Prioritize your most important tasks by putting them at the top of the list and less important ones at the bottom. Having a visual plan of your daily tasks helps to keep you on track and aware of time.

      Related post: Free ebook 104 secrets to become a great project manager

      2. Include stakeholders in important project conversations

      While you will have plenty of responsibilities regarding the project, don’t neglect your clients.

      Good communication is essential is keeping both parties informed of project progression, curtailing scope creep, and apprised of changing requirements. Some clients may have different expectations when it comes to communication, so make sure to establish the frequency and type of communication (like emails, phone calls, and face-to-face conversations) at the beginning of your project.

      Establishing communication expectations early helps alleviate stakeholder uncertainty about communication frequency and delivery.

      3. Regularly communicate with your team

      Daily team communication helps keep misunderstandings and unclear requirements under control. Keeping your team informed in every step of the project is essential to project management success.

      For example, a study published by Procedia Technology found that good communication skills were the cornerstone of project management. The study examined over 300 “construction project managers, architects, construction managers, engineers and quantity surveyors” and their successes and failures on various construction projects.

      4. Anticipate project setbacks

      Even the best-laid plans often go awry.

      Remember that even with a high amount of planning and attention to detail, your project may still encounter some challenges. Pay attention to complaints from stakeholders or colleagues, and other warning signs, like a missed deadline or cost overrun, that there may be a problem.

      Preventing a crisis will keep your project running smoothly, save you a lot of time, and keep you, your team, and your stakeholders confident in progressing with the project.

      Unfortunately not every complication can be avoided. Crisis management skills are essential for dealing with the unexpected. Project managers need to be flexible and pragmatic. Improvise and make sharp decisions when needed.

      Related post: 92 free project management templates

      5. Stay focused on the details

      A common problem project managers encounter is having the project aims not aligned with the organization’s objectives. A great project manager will strategize a plan for the project to lead back to the overall success of the business.

      Know your project’s scope by heart and avoid wandering outside of the project’s requirements. It’s too easy to get lost in minor details and forget what your focus is, so a well-planned project scope is essential for success.

      And final, you should use KPI to measure effectiveness of the project, here are full list: 76 project management KPIs