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Technical skills vs. managerial skills: The essential skills for successful management of projects


Does a project manager need to have technical skills or managerial skills in order to be successful, or a combination of the two? Which skills do they need in order to be selected? What about relationships and credibility with team members and subject matter experts?

These were the topics of debate in a recent community discussion on the APM website, with contributors from a range of sectors including construction, IT and social development.

The following question lies at the heart of this debate;

“Why can’t project managers be allowed to concentrate on managerial matters and project management process and techniques, while their consultants, assistants and subject matter expert team members handle the technical matters?”

Almost all of the participants highlighted the relevance of technical skills for project managers, to some extent, if only to secure roles in the first place. Some highlighted that sufficient technical skills can be acquired relatively quickly. Others pointed to the value of having a skilled project manager with an objective outlook – such a person could rise above the detail. Examples were shared of where technical skills were of value, whether it was to contribute to the project itself, or to ensure that project managers had credibility with their teams.

Why should project managers have technical skills anyway?

Let’s start with the question of what the idea of ‘technical skills’ really means. It was suggested in this discussion that it expands beyond subject matter expertise such as in information technology or construction, through to an understanding of particular sectors and organisations. For example, it may be important to have an understanding of the kinds of contracts that are used in the construction industry, because that can be where the biggest and most expensive pitfalls lie.

One contributor described how a shift from the IT sector to the construction sector led to a feeling of uncertainty, particularly with dealing with challenging situations where problem solving was required. That experience made it clear to him that it was essential that a project manager should have some technical understanding and background.

Perceptions can change too. One of the contributors found himself revising his opinion. At one time he thought that the pure application of robust project management tools and techniques, coupled with a sceptical and open minded approach could see you through any type of project. Now he feels that technical skills do count for something;

“I know from experience that when you deliver a project in a formerly unfamiliar discipline, all things being equal, you'll do it better second time than the first time.”

A Fresh Pair of Eyes

A number of contributors highlighted the value of having a project manager who can apply a fresh pair of eyes because they were not deep technical experts. However they tended to qualify the circumstances under which that would work. The project manager would need to be very capable, they said. Or they would have to have some level of related skill. Or they would need to be leading a strong team of technical experts. If those conditions were met, then there was acknowledgement that there were benefits in having a non-expert leading the way. One contributor described one project that they had led where they were not an expert, and needed to learn on the job;

“As I was learning, I asked many questions and challenged some of the choices the team were making on a daily basis. As a result, we gradually changed some of the working methods and managed to cut 20% of our budgeted cost. I have always thought that the fact that I had no prior experience in [that area] had helped us”

Managerial skills are important too…

Although there was a strong sense of the importance of technical skills, it was clear that simply having technical skills was not enough, and might even be an obstacle. As one contributor put it; 

“I have had the "pleasure" of knowing some highly technically competent professionals who have been put in charge of projects because of that knowledge. However they could not manage the project for toffee, for the love of the detail.”

Another person highlighted scenarios where highly technical people with little project management skills struggled to develop terms of reference for suppliers. Then they struggled to manage suppliers in the delivery of their contracted work. They made it clear that it is not just a focus on outcomes that allows results to be delivered, but a management of the processes to get you to those outcomes.

At the furthest extreme, one of the participants was of the view that technical and managerial skills should not be combined at all;

“Technicians need technical skills, managers need management skills. Decide if you are a project manager or project technician.”

Credibility and skills development

The question of exploiting the skills of subject matter experts, and of being credible to them was raised. In the construction sector, one contributor described the importance of relying on experts like quantity surveyors, architects and engineers. At the same time they needed a level of technical understanding as a project manager. He made the following point;

“It gives the team more confidence as a check and balance when the PM has some background in the field. It's like a PM really knowing what they’re asking for rather than just being a conduit for communication.”

Another person made the point that as a project manager they often make a significant contribution to the products being delivered on the project, particularly when reviewing deliverables. A project manager without those technical skills can’t make that contribution, unless they seek to build those skills as part of preparing to lead the project. Indeed many of the project managers contributing to this debate described how they had worked on increasing their technical knowledge when taking on a project in a new area. One project manager, operating in social development projects, pointed out that it was relatively easy for them to understand a new project area, and within a week or so, they could apply project management skills to that new area.

There was a sense that whatever about the reality of whether technical skills are truly needed to deliver successfully, a recruiter will tend towards candidates with subject matter expertise. If faced with a choice between two equally capable project managers, it seemed that a recruiter will select the candidate with relevant technical expertise;

Surely, as a client, you will sleep better knowing you have someone that can understand the entirely of the project and formulate a plan that avoids the pitfalls than to have someone who is limited in their overview but great at fighting fires.

Editor’s Comment

My view is that a strong project manager can take on all but the most specialised projects. However we must develop an understanding of the sector, the business issues and the specialist skills as quickly as possible. Without that we will be unable to connect with stakeholders or truly ensure that the expected outcomes are delivered. Critically we will be unable to facilitate the identification of pragmatic solutions to problems, or have the flexibility to identify opportunities when they present themselves. To restrict ourselves to mechanical application of project management processes and tools would be to severely constrain the value we can bring to our projects. We need to be ready to deep dive when the requirement presents itself, and be able to stand up to subject matter experts who feel that deep diving is an invasion of their territory.

That raises the question of how we develop our understanding when we are in new territory. We need to get better at transferring knowledge, as well as better at taking advantage of the facilities already out there. There are white papers, special interest groups and linked-in groups galore out there. And if all else fails, there will always be someone who will be prepared to share their insights over a cup of coffee, a pint of beer or a bite of lunch.

Edited by Jean Gamester. With contributions from Comfort Enahoro-Parry, Andy Nichols, Pascal Martin Daguet, Rob Farahar, Dr. Manasa Dzirikure and Patrick Weaver.

About the Editor

Jean Gamester is Director of Semaphora Consulting, delivering business change and personal development for organisations and individuals. Her background includes leading teams, programmes and projects in a range of sectors including local government, telecommunications, utilities and healthcare. Contributing author to the BCS book ‘Management Skills in IT’, she is an award winning public speaker. Jean is currently serving as District Secretary for Toastmasters International, supporting members across the UK and Ireland in the development of communications and leadership skills.