Tag Archive for: project skills

Selecting the right leader for a project, change initiative, or innovation drive is akin to choosing the captain of a ship. The decision will impact the project’s course, success, and crew morale. In this article, we delve into the factors that organisations consider when appointing leaders and argue that professional project management skills often outweigh subject matter expertise.

When discussing with clients how a project should be staffed a common starting point is the relative importance of Subject Matter Knowledge vs. Project Management Skills. Many organisations may not have experienced project management resources immediately available so will look to their current business team in the assumption that if the person knows the business or business area well, they will be able to get the project over the line. Sometimes this is because of the perception that someone from the business is immediately available or not wanting the hassle or cost of having to go externally to find the right company or person.

This is understandable, as having a project lead with deep domain knowledge can lead to a better understanding of functional intricacies. Also, internal candidates benefit from familiarity with organisational culture and people and are often ready to go without having to go through a period of selection and embedding. However, it is important to remember that business expertise alone doesn’t guarantee effective execution, and people already inside the business don’t normally have deep knowledge of every department and function, may have pre-existing biases and a tendency to perpetuate existing practices, and are often expected to manage the project in addition to their full-time role.

Organisations often consider cost as an important factor too. In many cases, bringing in an external resource will be seen as an additional cost. This can be a false economy as a good skilled external resource should be able to get the project over the line more quickly and efficiently than an unskilled internal resource.

Project Management Skills

Whilst there may be some projects that can be run effectively by an SME, we believe that for the vast majority of projects, the lead’s Project Management Skills are more important than their subject matter knowledge. A project lead needs to be able to:

  1. Have a holistic view: see the big picture, balancing scope, time, and resources.
  2. Manage Risks: anticipate and mitigate risks, ensuring smoother execution.
  3. Manage Stakeholders: navigate diverse personalities and conflicting interests.
  4. Adapt: lead regardless of domain expertise, adapting to various projects.
  5. Lead: motivate teams and foster collaboration.
  6. Drive: both the capacity and expertise to drive the project forward.

The SME still has an important role to play, but we suggest that they fulfil this role best as a part of a project team led by a Project Manager. The project manager ensures effective execution, whilst the SME provides domain-specific insights. This also allows the SME to do the job on a part-time basis so that they can continue to focus on the day-job too.

While subject matter expertise is essential, professional project management skills play a pivotal role in successful project delivery. Organisations should prioritise leadership abilities, adaptability, and holistic thinking.

Actually, it’s yours. Yes, there might be a project or programme manager – and other project colleagues like business analysts or project officers – but once you are on the project team there is a collective responsibility to deliver. Whether you are a sponsor, a business stakeholder, or a team member assigned to represent your business area, you will have responsibilities as part of the project team.

However, it might not always be clear what those responsibilities are, and it is the job of the project or programme manager – and more experienced team members – to help and guide you, particularly if this is your first time on a project. Projects are a team effort and everyone has an important part to play.

Whether you join the project from the beginning or part of the way through, there will be some things that you need to know (and if you don’t get told, ask):

  • What is the purpose of the project; what problems will it solve, what are the key outputs, and what does success look like?
  • What is the project lifecycle; what are the project stages and/or phases and what are the timeframes? Are you involved all of the way through?
  • How will the project be managed on a day-to-day and week-to-week basis, e.g. project meetings, steering committees, etc.? What will your time commitment be?
  • What will you be responsible and accountable for; what activities do you need to undertake and what are your deadlines?

The activities you need to undertake might be wide-ranging – reading regulations, documenting business processes, specifying requirements or management information, providing subject matter expertise, and testing systems are all good examples. It is important that you are clear on everything that you will be involved in.

Every member of a project team should know what is expected of them, even if it takes a few weeks to make sure that the initial roles, responsibilities, and activities are all agreed upon and understood. They will also evolve as the project progresses, so the communication and clarification should never stop.

But my current role is already full-time!

Sometimes individuals are seconded to project teams on a full-time basis if the project is large enough, but more commonly project activities will be alongside your current role. That can be challenging because you will have responsibilities to your current role and to the project, both with activities that need to be done and with deadlines that need to be met. Managing both is one of the main challenges when you are working on a project.

Structure, planning, and management support (both project and line) maximise the chances of success. Once you understand the project meetings or workshops you need to attend and the activities you need to undertake, make your best estimate of how much time you need to allocate to the project. You are assessing whether you have sufficient time to meet your project responsibilities alongside the responsibilities of your day job.

If you do not believe that you sensibly can do both, then you need to discuss this as soon as possible with both your line manager and the project manager. Or maybe you feel that you don’t have the right skills and experience to fulfil the project role. Human nature and business pressure might mean that this is a difficult subject to raise, but you do not want to put either your day job or the project at risk. Perhaps the project manager can redistribute some project responsibilities to make it more manageable, or perhaps some of your day-to-day responsibilities can be backfilled. You won’t know until you ask or escalate your concerns.

For any project, you need the right project team members with the necessary skills, experience, and capacity. It is the responsibility of everyone on the project team to make sure that happens – and to be open and honest about where they can (and can’t) contribute to that.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about whether the size of the organisation matters when undertaking a project. My son asked me this when considering implementing a GIS mapping system as part of his Master’s degree. The other thought-provoking question he asked me was ‘could I do the implementation’? Roughly translated, I took this to mean ‘can a project manager work on any project?’

My instinct was to say “yes”, but like any good project manager, I wanted to consider the evidence for such a statement.

What is the role of a project manager?

The job of a project manager includes these four broad areas:

  1. Assuming responsibility for the delivery of the whole project
  2. Employing the relevant project management knowledge, tools, techniques & processes to meet the project requirements and deliverables
  3. Engaging and managing stakeholders
  4. Leading and guiding the team, noting that project teams often include people who don’t usually work together, people from different organisations and across multiple geographies, and sometimes with different systems, cultures and aspirations

Whilst specific responsibilities may vary depending on industry and project type, a project manager is broadly defined as someone who leads the project, working closely with all stakeholders, doing everything from ensuring clarity around the scope of work, educating individuals, project coordination, planning, and managing the timelines, scope, budgets and deliverables associated with the project.

What are the skills required of a project manager?

It’s very common to think about things like project planning, governance, organisation, and reporting. But the project manager is also a communicator and leader, motivating the team, making decisions, resolving conflicts, and solving problems.

Essentially anything you can think of that a manager or leader should do, then the project manager should have to do that too.

So, are project management skills transferable?

Yes, I would say project management skills are transferable, but the value add comes in the experience of the sector and types of projects.

I’ve worked in financial services for my whole career so I can turn my hand to managing projects related to Investments, Lending, Banking, Cards and Mortgages. But what about other industries? Well I know I could project manage the build of a piece of furniture (🗎 by David Hamilton), and I could most likely project manage the renovation of a house (although I probably wouldn’t be as effective as others more experienced in that area), but I feel I would struggle to project manage the complete development of a new office block.

Whilst the principles of project management are applicable for all of these, it is the value of understanding the subject matter that makes a difference. Certain skills can be applied regardless, for example around governance, planning & scheduling, resourcing, budget management, benefit management, and communication. But there are other elements where you really need to be a Subject Matter Expert (SME) such as Requirements gathering, and the identification & understanding of the severity of Risks, Issues and Dependencies.

And then there are some skills that sit in the middle such as Business case completion, understanding Regulations, Testing, Training, and Tracking & Monitoring. You can manage these but unless you understand the subject matter, you’ll probably be a bit slower & less efficient.

There are other aspects that impact too. Every client is different, so every approach is different. This makes every project very different from the last and the project manager needs to be able to adapt.

Does a project manager have to understand all aspects of the project?

To be a successful project manager you should have the right tools and know-how to choose which tool to use for which project. Being a good project manager doesn’t mean knowing all the answers off the top of your head. It’s how you find and provide the answers that makes you valuable as a project manager.

The project manager doesn’t have to understand every task to the extreme degree. For example, if a development task is assigned to a specific programmer, you don’t have to understand the code the programmer uses or how they write that code. If you have a team of strong Business Analysts then you can rely on them for the detailed knowledge, and you can rely on the business SME’s to give the business view. However, a word of caution on relying too much on the business. If the PM has worked in the area before and knows the business, then they are much better prepared to ask the questions that need to be asked. On the other side of the coin, if all you know is the task basics and how it affects or relates to other tasks in the project, that could be enough.

My conclusion was that the skills are transferable. But in considering who is going to be the project manager you will want to weigh up the balance between project complexity and risk of the project against the experience and knowledge of the project manager in that specific line of business. Or considering this another way, how much the project manager needs to hit the ground running and how far you would be prepared to potentially sacrifice on time, cost and quality of the project delivery.