September 28 & 29, 2020 | Virtual
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As a leader, you need to have 3 basic competencies (from Leadership 2.0, Bradbury):
1. provide vision
2. take action
3. get in results
2 and 3 provide ample opportunity to get your hands dirty.
Another view on this from Clausewitz, German general, 200 years ago, about leading in uncertain times.
1. embrace uncertainty, take a bath in it, swim (Panta Rhei)
2. take courageous decisions, the risk level is high anyhow (breathe!)
3. get into the weeds, strategies are never winning on paper but in the field (get your hands dirty)
And from my own experience: even if you have no deep knowledge about a problem, if subject matter experts do not know what to do, they will like that someone calms down emotions and listen to outlandish ideas.
Staying out in a crisis is not an option.
When things go wrong, the PM must take action diving as deep as you can. At least, it is my way of thinking and behave. It does not mean the PM can make a specific activity because she/he could not have the enough knowledge (it is impossible to have complete knowledge about everything). But no matter that, the PM has to find the way to be involved at the maximum detail.
Domain knowledge is one thing - you have to have that to be an effective, credible PM. However, outside of exceptional situations (e.g. all hands on deck!), I wouldn't expect a PM to be actually producing the core deliverables of the project as that might result in their neglecting their primary role.
As with much in the PM domain: It depends.
There is a difference between "help" and "good intentions". Sometimes PMs want to get too involved in the lower level details because that's their background and it's the fun stuff that launched their careers. but we do have to be conscious of not interfering with the team and slowing them down.
If I am a technical expert in some domain where the team has little experience, I might need to provide more oversight of the detailed work. If the team consists of world renowned experts in a field and I'm not one of them, I'm unlikely to second guess/ junior-engineer the experts' work.
Similarly, I might have to sit down with a team and help them develop a detailed level plan if they are technically strong but have little planning experience. With other teams, the technical principals might already have a detailed MS Project plan and I know they will require very little oversight during the project.
Sometimes we must think carefully about how much direct involvement they really need, vs. how much we want to be involved in the details.
For starters in order to be "hands-on" you must have enough experience and knowledge in a relevant line of work related to the project. For instance if we are talking about a project that is primarily in the field of mechanical engineering then you must be a mechanical engineer in order to even consider being hands-on.
If you are not such an expert then the answer to your question is simple: you don't have to be hands-on since you can't be hands-on as you lack the required knowledge. In this case you can't even delegate work as delegation involves being able to do the work you delegate. You can't be a true leader in this situation but just a coordinator or facilitator.
If you do have the proper knowledge then as a leader you must get involved in all the high level technical decision making process and must approve all the high level decisions regarding to the solution to be used.
You must understand what the team members are doing at the technical level but you should avoid going to deep in the implementation work. Only if you are the best technical expert for a certain problem you should step in deeper but this should be just in exceptional circumstances.
The Project Manager's function is to manage the project.
Management: The organization and coordination of the activities of a project in order to achieve defined objectives.
This can be a one-person project (with many hats) where you not only manage the activities you also do the activities. Or, it can be a multi-million dollar project with hundreds of staff across many stakeholders (with the PM with only the management hat). The PM function remains the same - the organization and coordination of the activities of a project in order to achieve defined objectives.
If a person is identified as the project manager that may be only one of many functions. That person could also be, in turn, the purchasing authority, the quality control officer, the engineer of record, a corporate vice president, a husband, a father, the president of the Lions Club, etc. All different roles with different obligations, responsibilities and accountability. Think of the PM as one person with many hats. The nature of the project will define the number of hats.
That being said, a person should do only one function at a time - when you organize and coordinate you are the PM, when you procure goods and services you are the procurement authority, etc.
The PM should manage the project and environment in order to achieve project objectives. This is his/her primary role and responsibility. Depending on the complexity of the project, project management maturity of the organization, etc, it may be required or/and expected that the PM also has other roles in the project - I have seen job descriptions where the PM is expected to do also software development. This can happen in small/medium size projects, where the project management tasks do not require 1 FTE, then the PM can spend the rest of the time in other roles in the project.
For large and complex projects, where the PM tasks require 1 FTE, then the PM cannot spend time on other activities. He/she can even need extra support, like for example a project PMO to help with the project administration.
Jonathan you are correct, it is different for different people and/or project but my personal view is that the PM must be as hands-on as is needed to support the team (within reason of course :) ).
The worse PM you can be is a prima donna who feels that 'this is not my job'. It is really demotivating for the team. A hands-on PM not only motivates the team but is also PART of the team.
Many PMs would not tell you "this is not my job" but they would tell you "I have no knowledge about your work so I can't help you". This is where the team members would no longer consider the PM as being their leader but just the guy who asks them about the status of their tasks.
I agree with you that the PM should be as hands-on as needed but in general he should avoid as much as possible doing the actual work. The leader should be able to do some of the work of his team but as much as possible he should guide others rather than doing the work himself. Only when there is no other alternative the leader should complete actual tasks.
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