How much technical training does a project manager need?
Although project management skills translate to many application areas, technical knowledge of the field is necessary for success. But how much and what kind?
by John P. Sahlin, PMP
AS A PROJECT MANAGEMENT consultant, I have encountered organizations with narrow definitions of project management; definitions that basically describe a projectized functional manager or a technical lead—project managers who are directly involved with product development and who are more like the technical expert on the team, with a few scheduling/reporting responsibilities.
This definition of project management caused me to reevaluate my resume. Do I have the technical expertise to be a project manager in today's world? I do not have a technical degree, but I have significant management training, including trial-by-fire training in project management. A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge describes a relationship among general management techniques, project management techniques, and application area knowledge (technical skills), but does not discuss the depth of technical knowledge a project manager must have in order to be successful.
With the wide array of industries making use of project management, it is unlikely that there will be any consensus on the depth of technical knowledge required. Despite this, a few general rules apply across all application areas.
Never Tell Your Team How to Perform a Task. By setting and prioritizing the project goals (milestones, control gates, and so forth), you are telling the members of your team what needs to be achieved. Leave it to the technical experts to decide how to accomplish the tasks. If we have learned nothing else from countless hours of team-building exercises, we should learn that a group can brainstorm more effectively than an individual. It follows that leaving the how to the technical team is likely to result in an option you will not have considered by yourself.
Leaving the technical direction decisions to the experts does not hamper your ability to manage. In fact, by decentralizing the technical issues, you improve your ability to manage. We are limited in the amount of information we can control. By passing the technical decisions to the technical leads, our energies are available to focus on the project's strategic goals.
Know What You Don't Know, and Know the Sources of That Information. The most important lesson you can learn in project management is that you can't know it all. Knowing the limits of your knowledge is invaluable to a manager. By recognizing your limits, you can focus on the all-important task of identifying the sources of this knowledge.
These sources can take the form of media or members of your team. When identifying these sources of information, you must also consider the availability and veracity of those sources.
“I Don't Know” Is an Acceptable Answer. In project management, unlike school, there is a penalty for guessing. By guessing, you endanger your reputation, as well as that of your entire team. By refusing to admit the limits of your knowledge, you risk the success of your project. More important, you risk losing the respect of your team. The leadership aspects of project management are often ignored, but integrity is your No. 1 ally in organizations where you may not have direct authority (i.e., functional or matrix organizations).
An important corollary to this rule is: Never answer the same question with “I don't know” twice. If you don't know the answer, find out what the answer is and don't forget it. You can greatly improve team morale by showing the team that you are willing to learn and that you are enthusiastic about the project. Ignorance is forgivable, laziness is not.
Learn as Much as Is Practical. While no one expects you to be the expert in all fields, you should be able to speak intelligently about the technology involved with your project. You should be able to explain to your sponsor (or customer) why it is beneficial to choose a particular course of action. You may also have to make decisions based on reports from your technical experts. In order to weigh technical options, you must be able to understand them.
The downside of training is that it takes you away from your duties. When deciding what technical training to pursue, ask yourself if it will help you manage your team on your next project. If the training is unlikely to have any bearing on future projects, it is probably not worth taking you off your current project to pursue. Your primary responsibility as a manager is to lead your team—not to be the single point of contact for technical issues.
Know Enough to Avoid Getting “Snowed.” It is a sad fact of human nature that we try to cover our faults or failures. We are tempted to conceal our blemishes with technical jargon and statistics. A project manager needs to have enough technical knowledge to weed through the numbers and derive the true meaning of the reports.
An example of this issue is Earned Value reporting. I remember my first Quarterly Progress Review on a contract with the U.S. Navy. I was representing the government project manager. The contractor building the system was giving an EVA presentation to the government project manager. Everyone's eyes glazed over as the cost control expert rattled off a series of figures and acronyms. During a break, one of the contractor's engineers asked me to explain the presentation his company had just given. I showed him that given the current performance figures (about 70 percent CPI and SPI) it was mathematically impossible to achieve their goal of 92 percent CPI and SPI by the end of the project. He looked at me and said, “So you're telling me that we're lying to you.” I just smiled.
These rules are not peculiar to project management. In fact, they are an application of general leadership skills I developed in the Navy. Little attention is paid to the leadership aspects of project management. Perhaps this is because the word leadership makes many of us think of Patton and his tanks, or Farragut at Mobile Bay. But leadership is not unique to the military; we can lead our project teams without being “command and control” martinets.
The best definition of leadership I have ever heard is the “art of getting people to do what they don't want to, and making them think it was their idea in the first place.” Project leadership is the subset of project management that deals with interpersonal communications and relationships. This set of skills is used throughout the project lifecycle and in all process groups defined by the PMBOK Guide.
As project managers, we spend our careers communicating—with our team, to our customers, and with upper management. Our interpersonal communication skills are vastly more important to us than our specific technical knowledge. If we can successfully lead projects in one application area, we could take the lead in projects in other areas. A project manager in a software firm could make the transition to construction management with a relatively short learning curve by focusing on his or her ability to lead the project team to success—the technical skills are secondary.
Recommendations for industry
Moving into the next century, organizations need to redefine the term project management. The project manager must become more than a technical lead, enabling organizations to leverage the wealth of experience and leadership skills that can improve their quality, efficiency, and “bottom line.” In order to adopt the practices of project management, organizations need to place more value on the leadership (nontechnical) aspects of project management.
A PROJECT MANAGER DOES NOT need intense technical training. It is more important that project managers hone the leadership and management skills that are common to all application areas. ■
John P. Sahlin, PMP, is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and is the manager of training and consulting at Project Control, an international project management consulting and software company in Annapolis, Md.
Reader Service Number 5068
PM Network • May 1998