GPM First


How much technical knowledge does a project manager need to have?

In Roles | 2 comments

When working on IT projects, it sometimes helps when the project manager knows a bit about the subject! But equally, I have experienced projects where the project manager knew nothing about the subject, but a lot about people. Which do you find most effective?


  • Richard Newton
    By Richard Newton

    A topic that there has been much debate about over the years. To help the discussion here is my view.

    Like most things, I think there is a balance to be found. The core expertise of a project manager is in project management. Basically, project management is a generic skill set that can be applied to all projects. It's easy to conclude from this that project managers don't need subject matter expertise. I think this is the wrong conclusion. Project management may be generic, but projects are not. Projects are unique and operate in very varying contexts.

    So for me, the answer is that a project manager has to have sufficient subject matter expertise to operate in that context. What does that mean? I think it means things like sufficient expertise to understand the fundamental concepts and language used by the project team and which are required to manage that work. That does not mean that the project manager needs to be an expert , but they do need to be able to interact with and have productive conversations with the experts in the project. A complete lack of subject matter knowledge makes the project manager inefficient, and also can lead to a lack of confidence in the project manager by the project team. (On the other hand too much expertise can lead to the project manager trying to do too much of the work, rather than managing it!)

    It's great if a project manager knows a lot about people - projects in the end are about getting people to do things, and having a good understanding of the human dimensions of projects is important to being a competent project manager. But I believe this is a separate dimension to project management than the experte versus non-expert debate.

  • David Shannon
    By David Shannon

    While largely agreeing with Richard I have a slightly different take.

    In PA Projects Division, years ago, we were asked to team up with our IT technical colleagues to help deliver large complex information system projects. None of us project management consultants were IT knowledgeable, many of us being civil engineers by training. However, by applying our PM expertise we transformed the delivery of complex IT projects and raised considerably the reputation of PA such that combined IT/PM teams became the norm for such projects.

    Some years later I led a team designing a standard 50-bed hospital for the Iraqi Ministry of Health. I knew nothing of hospital design, in fact never having even been a patient in a hospital. Aided by subject matter experts, the design was completed in the most trying circumstances, to time, to a demanding specification and to a very tight budget.

    The moral of these and similar examples is I believe that it is not necessary for the project manager to be a subject matter expert, or even knowledgeable. What the project manager should have however is sound expertise in at least one discipline. This enables the project manager to know how to ask probing questions of experts, to tell when the person being questioned is bluffing and to distinguish facile conclusions from well supported argument. These management skills are, I believe, transferable across sectors.

    Lastly, as project manager one should always be empowered to call in extra help if one feels out of one's depth on a topic. Indeed this ability is a sign of professionalism, not of weakness.

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