Ideal PM Skills mix

This perplexing question has been a repeated topic of discussion in many forums: Is it mandatory for IT Project Managers to have deep IT Technical skills and Business process/ Domain/ Industry skills in order to successfully execute a project ?

Other variations of the same question could be:

  • Can a Project Manager’s lack of in-depth Technical skills and/ or Business skills be attributed as the root cause for a project’s failure ?
  • Can a Project Manager move from one industry to another, and still be capable of performing effectively? Eg, Can an IT Project Manager move to a Manufacturing or Construction PM function, and perform a corresponding function in that industry ?

I propose that we turn this question around, and look at it from another perspective:

  • What are the project context factors that force the need for Project managers to have deep Business/ Industry skills and Technical / Integration skills ?
  • Would it be possible for the Project Organization to identify and address the impact of these project context factors & thus mitigate the risk of the Project Manager’s shortfalls in Technical & Business skill areas ?

The attached figure attempts to capture the various factors which have impacts on this question:

Factors driving PM Skill needs

  1. Project size: If a project is small, and does not have adequate funding to include in the Project team those Subject matter experts (SMEs) who can effectively address project questions relating to the Project’s Industry context, Business objectives & processes, and Technical platform including integration aspects, then it may be necessary for the Project Manager to perform such functions. Conversely, on a large project, it may be difficult for the Project Manager to have deep insight into all aspects of the Technical platforms & Business domains impacted by the project, and may need specific portions of the project to be delegated.
    Examples for both scenarios:
    (i) An Application maintenance project that involves enhancement of a specific system or application could be project-managed by the Application Manager who may have requisite levels of technical & business knowledge to lead the project from these perspectives. However, as Project size & complexity increases, it becomes less possible for the Project Manager to cover all Technical & Business skill areas on his/ her own.
    (ii) A complex Transformation project may involve integration of multiple COTS (Commercial off-the-shelf) products as well as implementation/ enhancement of multiple business process flows. One Project Manager would not be able to have insight into & keep track of all of these; So specific areas or parts of the project may be delegated to other Project Managers, and PM who owns the entire project may be a Senior Project Manager or Program Manager. In this scenario, the Senior Project Manager is not likely to have all the Technical & Business skills, and may only have insight into a subset. But that would not take away his/her responsibility to own & manage the entire solution.
  2. Business criticality & visibility of the project: This is more of a political issue rather than a “real” factor, but carries significant impact. A Business-critical project may be under close scrutiny by Company Executives, and the Project Manager may have to face a barrage of questioning relating to project progress, expectation mismatches, issues blocking project progress, specific scope elements of interest to special interest groups, etc. If the Project Manager is not sufficiently insightful about all aspects of the project & is unable to respond to the queries in an effective manner (without forever saying “Let me come back to you on this”), then the tenure of the project manager on that project is not likely to be very long.
  3. Project urgency / Schedule flexibility: If the Project schedule is tight & does not permit the Project Manager to have a learning curve, then it is necessary to have a project manager in place who has had prior experience within the space (having executed similar projects in terms of business objectives, technical platform, etc).
  4. Availability of Subject Matter Experts (SMEs): If a Project team includes SMEs in the areas of Technical platform, Development and Test tools, Systems integration, Business analysis, Business process, Industry best practices, etc, and if these SMEs are able to effectively support the Project manager in these skill areas, then the PM can delegate certain responsibilities to the SMEs and take their support where the responsibilities cannot be delegated. For example, if a 3rd Party Vendor is contracted to perform a specific function where the PM does not have adequate skills, then the corresponding SME(s) can perform the function of delivery reviews & status reviews with oversight by the PM.
  5. Executives’ engagement and Expectation management: In any large project, it is quite possible that there are Executive stakeholders with conflicting expectations and priorities. The Project Manager, in this scenario, will need to work with SMEs from the respective teams to arrive at a negotiated agreement on project objectives and implementation approach, and then propose the negotiated agreement to the impacted Executives. On the other hand, if the Project Sponsor and/ or impacted Executives are not effectively engaged on the project, then key decisions may be left hanging and key help needed items may not progress, impeding project progress. In either scenario, the Project Manager would need to be armed with the necessary depth of details & understanding so as to appropriately communicate with and effectively engage the Executive stakeholders.
  6. Business Requirements prioritization: In case of projects where different impacted functions have conflicting or tangential project requirements, it would be necessary for the Project Manager to step up and negotiate an agreement on how the various systems and functions would operate in order to achieve the project’s ultimate objectives. Further, in large projects, it may be necessary to phase out the deployment of various project objectives into multiple stages or deployment cycles so as to reduce risk as well as to give an opportunity for various dependent stakeholders to catch up with the project execution. In such scenarios, it is necessary that project objectives be prioritized so that the various impacted stakeholders have clarity on what is a must-have vs a good-to-have, and what’s a must-have-right-now vs what’s a must-have-but-a-while-later. The Project Manager should have necessary insights to drive this negotiation, or have adequate support from Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) to help the PM drive the negotiation.
  7. Solution Complexity: In case of a complex solution that includes many moving & dependent parts, the PM would need to necessarily have some level of insight into the dependencies, so as to quickly assess impacts in case one or more of the moving parts is held up. Further, in the case of a First-of-a-kind or FOAK solution (eg: projects integrating new COTS or Commercial off-the-shelf products for the first time), the PM would need to have adequate depth of understanding of the FOAK solution, its components, the dependencies, and the risks involved, so that he/she can quickly assess impacts in case of any changes, defects, or component delays.
  8. Vendor Management: If the project team includes vendor(s) who are performing functions which lie on the project’s Critical path, then the Vendors and their work would need to be closely managed, so as to preempt any project slippages. In order for this to happen, the PM would need to have adequate depth of insight into the Vendor’s project plan, interim work artifacts, solution dependencies etc into the overall project solution.
  9. Workplace culture and politics: In a “blaming” organization, scapegoats are quickly (and possibly unfairly) identified for failures. In such situations, there is a natural propensity to play safe. Creativity, productive risk-taking behavior and innovation would drop, and wariness would be the norm. In such an environment, PMs who are not adequately armed with all requisite skills and insight would be a natural scapegoat for any delays or issues, even if trivial.

By assessing their projects against the above factors, and by assessing the ability of the Organization to mitigate any identified risks, Project Sponsors would be able to determine the best direction to take with respect to PM allocation – if the Project needs a Technical/ Business-skilled PM, or if a strong PM without in-depth Technical & Business skills would be able to lead the project to successful completion.