Does The Project Manager Need To Be A Specialist?

Paul Naybour

Project ManagerQuestion
“To be an effective Project Manager it is essential to have knowledge of the project topic – only civil engineers can be PM’s for civil engineering projects”

On the Yes side of the argument
Do Project Managers need to have specialist technical knowledge? I would argue that they do. That is not to say that they need to understand the minutiae of the detail but a good solid background experience and a broad knowledge of the technical products will turn a so-so project manager into an excellent one. I have spent thirty years running projects of various shapes and sizes but mainly in the software and services industries. Should I be appointed to a similar sized construction project? I will be able to do it, eventually, but it will probably cost more, be riskier and a lot more stressful for all concerned. A project manager with experience and knowledge of the job in hand will be able to

  • Hit the ground running, they will be able to formulate plans, build a delivery coalition and be able to understand how efficiencies and excellence can best be achieved
  • Have credibility amongst the team and other stakeholders. This may exist in someone new to the discipline but it would be a brave client who commissioned a new nuclear power plant from a firm whose project managers were excellent at software projects and nothing else
  • Converse sensibly with contractors and others about the problems that they face and help to convert these into a sensible contractual solution
  • Identify and predict major risk areas with far more effectiveness than someone without these attributes, this will save time, money and too many ‘blind alleys’.

There are dangers of course, the primary one being that of the PM who simply has to get involved in all the detail, slowing things down, duplicating effort and not extracting the best for the team. There are also grave dangers where too much experience and knowledge mean that we keep re-inventing the problems of old and get ‘stuck in a rut’. Like most things it is a balance, whilst some knowledge is useful for the reasons identified above, too much knowledge can get in the way,

On the No side of the argument

So now I’m intrigued. Was the manager of the T5 project an expert in luggage conveyance systems or an expert in modern building methods. Or thinking on, perhaps they were an expert in aviation transport logistics or even retail outlets. For that matter, expertise in restaurant management or even anti-terrorism security may be of the essence.
The answer, of course, is that it doesn’t matter.
Only the simplest of projects involve just one technical discipline or topic. By far the majority of projects have a myriad of such specialisms and to imagine that the only person who can manage such projects is someone with recognisable expertise in all of them is clearly ridiculous. Apart from any other considerations, which project could afford anyone with this many qualifications?
Project managers manage projects. They do not manage departments, or teams of individuals, sharing the same expertise. If they did then they would be “Functional Managers” and as students of organizational theory can explain, these resemble “Project Managers” in the same way that chalk resembles cheese.
The management of projects is about the management of the overall objective. It is about delivering the big picture by bringing together all the pieces that make up that picture. By necessity the role requires a broad perspective, sometimes referred to as a “helicopter view”, of the overall endeavour. The management of individual specialisms relates only to how these individual “pieces” fit together and involves defining their input, asking after and supplying the necessary support and interfaces they need, and then verifying that they have completed the work satisfactorily. The minutiae of how individual specialists achieve their objectives is something the project manager is drawn into at her or his peril. Not only is it an impossibly big task for all but the simplest of projects but it involves “landing your helicopter” and all the narrowing of perspective that this entails.
In fact, such a scenario is a common cause of strife within projects when the technically expert Project Manager concentrates only on those project elements that coincide with their own technical discipline. It ensures some project elements are neglected whilst upsetting the specialists in question who resent being micromanaged.
The full story of T5 is yet to be written but it does seem that the teething problems were not due to technical failures within any discipline mentioned above. The failure seems be associated with a failure to recognize the need for training of staff. There was a piece of the jigsaw missing: the sort of thing that stands out only when viewed from above. And while you are in your helicopter, “any sign of my suitcase from up there”?

2 thoughts on “Does The Project Manager Need To Be A Specialist?”

  1. Dear PP
    As I recall T5 was an unmitigated disaster.
    Joking aside I am not sure there is a simple answer to this question. My observation is that if you lack an understanding of the industry, domain, customer and end user for a project’s outputs this puts you at a disadvantage. That noted you I dont think you need to be a specialist in the functional area.
    Perhaps a better question is do Functional managers and specialists need be equipped with project management skills. My Answer is a resounding YES.
    My experience as a Training Manager on major projects in the defence and IT sectors is that it is important to have PM experience and skills so that you can challenge both experienced & inexperienced PMs using their own language and techniques. It helps if you also have lots of experience.
    I have 13 years working across these types of projects in Industry but I am aware that I also very aware I have gaps in my PM knowledge.
    Hope to fill these and I am looking at options to do so. As a Training Professional I would commend you for developing a no of ways and paths for people to learn the skills and knowledge.

  2. Hi Adrian,
    Great post! Your readers may well be interested in an APM debate on this very point on Thursday 17th September in Reading.
    I’m speaking against the motion that “This house believes that: You can’t project manage a Tube upgrade unless you know the difference between a bullhead and a flat-bottom.”
    All welcome!

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