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Technical Competency for Project Managers – Valuable Asset or Source of Risk?

A question that is frequently asked in online project management communities is “How critical or valuable is it for a project manager to have detailed subject matter expertise or technical competence related to the scope of their projects?”. 

To clarify, I am not referring to business or process knowledge – I believe that a PM has to have a good understanding about how the deliverables of their projects will be used and they should have sufficient process awareness to help identify the project and business risks that may reduce benefits realization upon project completion.

Here are a few of the obvious benefits to having “hands on” knowledge and experience.

  1. The ability to help with brainstorming possible solutions to issues as well as the ability to contribute more extensively to risk identification, analysis and response
  2. When the team gets into a crunch, the ability to “pitch in” and keep the schedule on track.
  3. Better ability to validate effort estimates from the team
  4. It can ease the process of earning respect from team members
  5. Avoiding the risks related to “I don’t know what I don’t know”

However soft skills don’t usually increase from having technical competence, and yet, these soft skills are often the biggest source of challenge for PMs.

Beyond this concern, there are other risks to be aware of:

  1. We often default to giving higher priority to those tasks that we are most comfortable with – especially when we are under stress.  For a novice PM, this could mean focusing on “hands on” technical work and neglecting core PM activities.
  2. Whereas a PM with limited technical experience is likely to seek knowledge from subject matter experts, a technically competent PM might simply make an assumption based on past experience – since no two projects are the same, what was applicable in one situation may not be applicable in another.  In addition, unless the PM is making an effort to remain technically “current”, their knowledge might be obsolete which increases the potential for poor decision making.
  3. There is an increased likelihood of deliverables micro-management or for technical “head-butting” with team members.

With constraints forcing organizations to “cut corners” when staffing project teams, a PM is often expected to perform multiple roles.  While this approach can increase the value the PM brings to the organization and is one way of introducing someone to their first PM role, it presents risks that a PM should be aware of and should manage through consistency and self-awareness.

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