Project Management

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Topics: New Practitioners, Resource Management, Schedule Management, Scheduling
What is different when a project manager does or does not have intimate experience with the details of the project itself?
This is a basic question for discussion. For example, resources are often managed by a subset of the users of that resource e.g. managing the schedule, inventory of supplies, purchases, enforcing rules/guidelines, etc. as opposed to a formally trained expert in management that has less connection to the particulars of the project.
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A PM who lacks intimate knowledge of the project doesn’t truly control it; such PMs can usually do little more than collect statuses and report progress to higher ups. They may task others with managing many of the core PM functions - such as schedule, communications and risk management. While it’s important to entrust team members, without careful coordination between these various project facets problems nearly always arise. I believe this is one of the primary reasons projects have such a high failure rate.
Moreover, the less a PM knows about the project they lead the less faith team members and other stakeholders will have in the PM, which considerably erodes a PM’s ability to influence them. While PMs can’t be subject matter experts in every facet of a project, they should understand the significance of everything that is being done, and why each thing is important.
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1 reply by Adrian Carlogea
Sep 10, 2018 5:28 AM
Adrian Carlogea
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I agree with you Eric almost entirely. In IT I think many if not most of the PMs don't really understand the details of the projects that they manage and I am not talking only about the technical details but also about the details related to the functionality of the products or of the services that are about to be produce/delivered.

This is a consequence of the fact the project manager in IT in many cases is not an IT worker that progressed to project management but a specialist, SME if you want, in project management.

I disagree with the fact that this situation is responsible for the high failure rate of projects. Such PMs ca perform the core PM functions but they have to ask a lot of people for information and they would never know if the information that has been provided is reliable or not. In other words these PMs must blindly trust others and they can't judge things by themselves. If the information provided by others is reliable then the project can complete successfully.

I have also seen a trend: many companies pair PMs with technical leads or project technical managers who are experienced SMEs that also have some project management training. The technical leads manage the project teams and help the PMs with non-technical issues related to project management.

What's funny is that in order to be assigned as a technical lead you need a lot of experience as a SME while in order to be a PM less work experience is needed. I once met a young lady, fresh graduate in her mid 20s, managing a project with a technical lead in his 50s. The technical lead had a much more senior position than her and was at a much higher pay. Needles to say that the technical lead was perceived as the leader by everybody and she was more like a project secretary.
Do you mean domain knowledge Beverley? PM's don't necessarily need to have an intimate knowledge of the product/service specialty delivered in the project, but it always helps. That's what SME's (subject matter experts) are for.
Sep 10, 2018 1:52 AM
Replying to Eric Simms
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A PM who lacks intimate knowledge of the project doesn’t truly control it; such PMs can usually do little more than collect statuses and report progress to higher ups. They may task others with managing many of the core PM functions - such as schedule, communications and risk management. While it’s important to entrust team members, without careful coordination between these various project facets problems nearly always arise. I believe this is one of the primary reasons projects have such a high failure rate.
Moreover, the less a PM knows about the project they lead the less faith team members and other stakeholders will have in the PM, which considerably erodes a PM’s ability to influence them. While PMs can’t be subject matter experts in every facet of a project, they should understand the significance of everything that is being done, and why each thing is important.
I agree with you Eric almost entirely. In IT I think many if not most of the PMs don't really understand the details of the projects that they manage and I am not talking only about the technical details but also about the details related to the functionality of the products or of the services that are about to be produce/delivered.

This is a consequence of the fact the project manager in IT in many cases is not an IT worker that progressed to project management but a specialist, SME if you want, in project management.

I disagree with the fact that this situation is responsible for the high failure rate of projects. Such PMs ca perform the core PM functions but they have to ask a lot of people for information and they would never know if the information that has been provided is reliable or not. In other words these PMs must blindly trust others and they can't judge things by themselves. If the information provided by others is reliable then the project can complete successfully.

I have also seen a trend: many companies pair PMs with technical leads or project technical managers who are experienced SMEs that also have some project management training. The technical leads manage the project teams and help the PMs with non-technical issues related to project management.

What's funny is that in order to be assigned as a technical lead you need a lot of experience as a SME while in order to be a PM less work experience is needed. I once met a young lady, fresh graduate in her mid 20s, managing a project with a technical lead in his 50s. The technical lead had a much more senior position than her and was at a much higher pay. Needles to say that the technical lead was perceived as the leader by everybody and she was more like a project secretary.
The first thing a project manager must do when she/he is assigned to a project is performing elicitation activities. It does mean to take knowledge about all related to the domain the initiative belongs to, the business, the stakeholders. In my case we use the CMU SEI process related to elicitation and tools like Zachman Framework row 1 as a checklist to take into account what we need to know before start working on the initiative.
I agree with Eric that PM should work closely with team and should have control over the project by having the minutes details/status with him. He should guide and direct the team and its not required to have total knowledge as SME. But project failures are due to many reasons where PM work on multiple projects ( 4-5 mid size project) and same with team member's leading to poor team work and accountability.
Simply put, if PMs don’t know what’s going on in their project they can’t possibly manage it, and this almost inevitably leads to project failure. As Adrian noted, a PM who needs to rely entirely on SMEs can never be more than a Project Secretary, someone who can only take notes and schedule meetings while the Subject Matter Expert (SME) actually manages the project. This arrangement causes project failure because the SME usually lacks the ability to manage communications, resources, schedules, risks, and many other skills needed to guide a project successfully. PMs who have no idea what is happening in their project don’t realize how poorly these aspects of project management are being performed, so they don’t see issues looming until it is too late. Due to their lack of knowledge these PMs must then rely on the SMEs whose lack of project management skills caused the issues in the first place to fix them. The SMEs lack the skills to analyze and resolve issues, which causes more problems. This results in a ‘failure spiral’ that nearly always dooms a project.
PMs must take it upon themselves to gain a functional understanding of their projects at the very least. It requires extra work, but it’s necessary. I work in the Information Technology field, and when I start a new project I usually have no knowledge about the technology being used. I start by researching the technology on the Internet. This gives me a high-level overview about how the technology is utilized, and generates questions I then discuss with my SMEs. This simple methodology enables me to gain enough knowledge to gauge whether the actions suggested by the SMEs can help or hinder the project. This is important because Technical SMEs often focus more on ‘cool’ solutions rather than the ones that best meet the project’s objectives, so the more knowledge they possess the more capable they are of guaranteeing the project moves forward.
Usually, SME are conscientious personality type and would like perfection in their efforts in a very specific area. PM has larger responsibilities and must decide on SME's level of engagement to meet project objectives.PM must possess domain knowledge to successfully engage SME.

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