Project Management Education

Do Project Managers Need Technical Knowledge?

I have discussed many times before whether project managers need business or technical knowledge, specific to the industry in which they work, in order to successfully manage projects. They could have gained that knowledge either because they performed the business or technical role before becoming a project manager or simply that they have always managed projects in a certain sector. But how necessary is that background knowledge to performing the PM role? Is it vital or a nice-to-have and, maybe more importantly, what do employers think?

 

There are some organisations where project management is a role performed in addition to, or alongside, another main role. So while a project is being undertaken someone might step into the PM role but return to their “real” job once the project is complete. Clearly in situations such as these the PM will have the relevant business or technical knowledge and that can be an advantage.

 

Other organisations, usually the larger ones, have project management as a quite distinct role but may still employ permanent project managers from the ranks or from the same industry or business sector. Some organisations have it as a pre-requisite and will not consider candidates with an excellent track-record if they are not from the same or a similar sector.

 

But is that business or technical knowledge always an advantage or could there be situations where it prevents creative thinking and where it keeps ideas in a narrowly defined space? Where it prevents PMs from seeing the bigger picture because they get involved with the detail, because they understand it, so have an inward looking perspective.

 

Project managers promoted from technical roles may also have difficulty communicating with stakeholders and senior management from the wider project perspective because they have a bias towards the detail or an affinity with the team members.

 

This reminds me of something I read about the pitfalls of being a “nice” boss and how it can be difficult to strike the right balance of authority and friendliness if you have been promoted over your peers; another challenge for some project managers.

 

Fortunately not all employers insist on previous business knowledge for PM roles and there are some companies that value solid project management experience and a fresh perspective above technical skills, but how well that works in practise really depends on the industry of the employer and the previous knowledge of any potential project manager.

 

Projects are central to the business model of so many different types of organisations now that there is a huge variety of project managers with very different backgrounds. It is hard to see how a project manager with a retail background might fit well into an IT project management role but someone from an engineering background would not find it so difficult. So don’t be afraid to move industry if you have good project management experience and credentials and a background in skills that may not be an exact match but where there are common areas and where you have the advantage of bringing a fresh perspective.

Similar Posts:

4 Comments

  1. Burke Jensen from The PM Corner on October 23, 2015 at 10:00 pm

    Appreciate the article. This is something, as you said, that comes up time and time again and your insight is spot on! Thanks.



  2. Jacky Chen on May 26, 2016 at 10:33 am

    Some industry do requires project manager to have the technical knowledge, some may just need to have some common sense. A lot of people do not want to face this fact, simply because whatever PM certification one have will be irrelevant.

    I had seen many PM manage a project without knowing that the project was doom to fail. Simpy because he/she able to see the technical complexity and solution provided by the subject expert was totally wrong, but what can PM do , he has to trust and relying on certain technical the subject matter expert judgment for decision making. In the end, when project fail , the PM still may just said he tried his best at all his means without remorse. At least this is what PM made for.



  3. Paul Naybour on June 10, 2016 at 3:58 pm

    Jacky yes one of the competences of a project manager is to be able to drill into the details of a technical argument and understand it’s validity.



  4. Chris K on May 14, 2017 at 8:21 pm

    Paul Naybour is correct.

    I have seen many ‘box ticker’ (or ‘House wife’/’House husband’ PM’s as I’ve heard in the industry. Ie, someone who somehow got PMP but have no experience of much) PM’s who have no clue of the industry of the project they’re managing and the project delivery is not optimal (ie, always bothering technical resources for very basic/elementary questions for a start) and the PM becomes a one dimensional box ticker (hosting meetings but not being able to offer logical mediation or drive agendas, 100% relying on input from resources and not being able to read between lines, not being able to patch gaps and know what and when to drive from their own experience and knowledge (resources do miss stuff sometimes too).

    The ‘box ticker’ PM gets run by the project. The competent project manager drives and leads the project (with input from key resources). To lead a project from start to end you a vision of how to get there and confidence of how to do it – I believe you need experience/knowldge to call upon to be able to fully do that.

    I am from an IT background. Could I manage a project to build a sky scraper? probably. But it wouldn’t be done as optimally as a PM with a background in Construction/real estate etc.

    I find that the ‘box ticker’ PM’s usually succeed but take a lot longer to deliver optimally/gain respect or give up and end up in a PMO role and not ‘in the trenches or front line’ as a PM.



Leave a Comment