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Do Project Managers Have to be Technical SMEs?

© Diana Lindstrom All Rights Reserved

Now that I’ve taken a European-type holiday, I’m back. A lot has happened in the world during the holidays – and since. Joining the billions of people across the globe, I am saddened by the loss of life caused by the tsunami in the Indian Ocean.

Back to project management.

Do project managers have to be technical subject matter experts (SMEs)? Is it better for a project manager to have expertise in managing projects? Or is it better for a project manager to have expertise in the technical requirements of the project product?

This question is often debated in project management circles. It’s also hotly debated at the senior executive level. Each one of us has an answer based on our own experiences and knowledge.

My answer: Project managers do a better job of management if they are NOT technical SMEs.

You may be shocked or stunned with this answer. So let’s look at the reasoning behind it.

When I’m managing an engineering design project, I pay close attention to the electrical requirements of the project. I spend time reviewing the details of the electrical design including the types of drawings, the exact specifications, and the drafting standards. The role I take on is that of final reviewer of the electrical design, or technical SME.

While I’m spending time and energy reviewing the electrical design, I am not spending time planning and executing the project. Now, I’m as fond of 70-hour work weeks as the next person, but there’s no reason for me to spend this additional time as a technical SME. I already have at least one on my project team.

By adding a layer of review, I’m also telling my electrical SME that I don’t trust him/her. Why else would I take the time to review everything he/she’s already reviewed?

And what about those times when my comments are directly opposed to the assigned SME’s comments? The engineer who’s actually producing the design gets frustrated – and rightfully so.

So now I have three people on my project team who are frustrated – the design engineer, the technical SME, and me. And all for no constructive reason. It certainly doesn’t help the project.

When I manage a project where I am NOT the SME in any technical area, I spend my time and energies doing the planning and executing of the project. I interview the technical SMEs in order to plan the project. I spend much more of my time educating stakeholders about the project. My priority becomes communicating with my team. I monitor the project more closely. All of this leads to a more successful project – on time, within budget, all stakeholders happy. So I am the project manager SME.

Now the question becomes, do you want a full-time project manager, or a part-time project manager? If the answer to that question is that you want a part-time project manager who is also a technical SME, then you must not want a successful project.

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