I often get asked whether it is better for a project manager
to have good people skills, process skills, or be a subject matter expert. My
answer might surprise you. First of course, the more experience, knowledge, and
skills a person has, the more likely it is he or she will be successful. In
other words, the perfect project manager would probably have a combination of
strong people and process management. He or she would also be an expert in the
actual technology and business area of the project.

But if you are in the position of prioritizing project
management candidates, I would rank people in the following order.

  1. Project
    management process skills
  2. People
    skills
  3. Business/technology
    skills

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Here’s my logic: The main responsibility of a project
manager is to manage the processes associated with project management. This
doesn’t mean that project managers must do all this work themselves. For
instance, there may be an entire team of people helping to create the Project
Definition and workplan. However, if something goes
wrong, the project manager is accountable. Once the project starts, the project
manager must successfully manage and control the work, including issues
management, risk management, scope change management, communications
management, etc.

Therefore, I think the key to being a good project manager is understanding the processes associated with managing a
project and then proactively applying the processes on the job. Further I have
observed how the following combinations of skills worked and did not work on a
project.

  • Good process skills and weak
    business/technology skills
    . The project manager may not be able to
    perform activities outside of project management, but that’s what the rest
    of the team is for. One concern is that this type of project manager may
    not be able to validate quality, but that’s okay. The project manager
    needs to have a process in place to manage quality and validate that the
    process is executed. I believe a pure project manager can win in this
    situation.
  • Good process skills but weak people
    skills
    . This can make a project much more difficult for team members,
    but I think that very good process skills can still make the project
    successful. A good project manager can keep a project on-time and
    on-budget, which will go a long way toward keeping up morale. I believe a
    pure project manager can win in this situation.
  • Good people skills but poor process
    skills
    . This is the project manager that’s a nice guy but doesn’t
    quite know what he is doing. These types of project managers have
    difficulty on projects. Everyone likes them, but they’re not successful.
  • Good business/technology skills but
    poor process skills
    . This happens all the time. People are placed into
    the project management role because of their strong technical skills or
    strong business knowledge. Unfortunately, the traits that make a person a
    strong technologist usually don’t translate directly into the project
    management arena, and this combination is generally a recipe for failure.

I truly believe that having good project management process
skills can make up for deficiencies in people and technology/business skills. I
have seen many examples of successful projects utilizing pure project managers,
and many instances of the technologist and the “good guy” failing miserably. Is
your experience different? If so, post a note and let us know what your think.