In the Literature
What does the literature have to say about all this? Before getting into that it might be helpful to acknowledge that there are other factors in the selection of the right project manager that contribute to project success. Many authors now consider that more than 60% of project failures are attributable to environmental and contextual factors that are beyond the influence of the project manager. However, this paper will sidestep that issue and look at the simple question: "Given typical environmental and contextual factors that are beyond the influence of the project manager, is it better to have a project manager who is an SME, or one who is not?"
The Project Management Guidelines of the Tasmanian Government provides an overview of the essential components of a project management methodology. In it, and in answer to the question: "What skills does a project manager need?" it suggests:
"A sound knowledge of the principles and practices of contemporary project management should underpin the following skills:
- Common sense and an ability to think logically.
- An ability to work under pressure.
- Good time management and organizational abilities.
- Excellent diplomatic and negotiation skills"
The interesting point here is that there is no reference to technical skills or experience. That suggests that these are not needed for a project manager to run successful projects.
Rob Thomsett, the author of the book Radical Project Management, is inclined to agree by observing that project managers don't need to know the technical details but instead be project facilitators and integrators rather than managers.
However, Johanna Rothman of the Rothman Consulting group believes differently:
"A project manager needs to understand the dynamics behind the work of the project. A project manager for a software project needs to understand
- How people gather and rank requirements
- How to ask if the design is done
- How to evaluate technical risks as well as schedule risks
- What it means to have a configuration management system
- How to use it effectively
- And the results to expect from testers.
"The project manager needs to be able to select from the available review activities and choose the review activities for this project. This does not mean that a project manager needs to know how to do these things in detail. It means the project manager needs to know how to organize the activities of the project so that all of these things happen.
"In addition, the project manager needs to rapidly gain an understanding of the domain, specifically problem-space and the architecture part of the solution-space. If you don't know what problem(s) you're trying to solve with the project, how can you know when the project is done? And, if you don't know the architecture, you can't understand the technical risks. You may not understand all the technical risks, but without understanding the architecture, you don't even know what questions to ask.
"Note that there's nothing about reading or writing code (or tests) in here. While being a developer or tester may help someone learn the dynamics of software projects, being a good developer or tester does not imply that you will be a good project manager. The functional skills are different".
I have spent a number of years as a project manager, working with a team of project managers in the same industry. In my experience, the assignment of project managers to projects has generally been based on availability, rather than suitability to a particular project. Moreover, once a project manager has been assigned, the project becomes 'his to keep' until either the project is finished or he/she resigns. In my experience, there has never been a situation where a more 'suitable' project manager has become available who then takes over while the existing project manager gets assigned to a different project.
In other words, even if the project manager is struggling and the project is not succeeding, the project manager's ability is generally not questioned. Lack of project success is attributed to scope creep, 'difficult users', unfamiliar technology, untrained project team members, and so on. While it may be accepted that the project manager is not competent, that is not considered good enough reason for project failure.
5. Tasmanian government, 2001
6. Thomsett, R, 2002
7. Rothman, J, 2004