If you asked a roomful of TechRepublic members to comment on the merits of project management skills and project managers, you would get a passel of opinions:

  • Because of their general lack of technical knowledge, project managers should pull together experts and leave the technical details to developers.
  • Project managers on technical projects need sufficient technical knowledge to make sensible decisions.
  • Project management techniques aren’t always necessary for smaller projects.
  • The majority of project managers have no experience in the technology industry.

In a recent column, I described a letter I received from Paul, a TechRepublic member who questioned the value of project management in general and project managers in particular. The column has elicited more than 70 responses in support and disagreement from members.

Paul conveyed two ideas:

  • Project management processes are mostly a waste of time and are used as an excuse for not getting the project work done.
  • Since project management itself has little value, project managers themselves provide little value. Project managers spend most of their time defining and enforcing processes and not enough time focusing on the work.

I would like to think that there is a lot of value to project management and in those who utilize the skills, but some people have a hard time seeing how the proper use of project management processes could provide value to a project, because they’ve had negative personal experiences with the misapplication of the discipline.

I thought Paul was pretty opinionated, as were many of the people who posted discussion comments. Here’s a rundown of comments from members and what my experience suggests to me about their viewpoints.

All in agreement, say “aye”
One of the first comments was from a member who had experiences similar to Paul’s. Calling managers “clueless dolts” that lack the most basic technical and social skills, Rogue Jesse stated that they are quick to assign blame but more than willing to take undeserved credit. Another member, kroels, partially agreed with Paul and noted that, in some organizations, the project management process seems to be more important than the actual product being built. I’m sure many people agree with these comments.

From my perspective, these beliefs could come about for two reasons. First, some project managers aren’t very good at what they do. Some of them struggle because they don’t have the proper skills, while others choose to play the blame game and try to take credit for others’ work.

Other project managers become lost in project management procedures and allow the process to take precedence over the project. None of these are good practices, and a team member who has seen practices like this would no doubt be affected.

Secondly, I’ve observed that some people prefer little or no management structure in general. I consider myself a decent project manager and staff manager. However, I’ve worked with people who had a problem with me and my management style. They didn’t like being accountable for dates or having to ask about due dates or send me a status update.

This didn’t mean they were bad. Many of them were good people and superb technicians. But it was a struggle for us to work together on the project.

In the other corner
Other members took exception to Paul’s comments and his attitude. Two of them wondered whether having a person like Paul on the team was one reason the project manager failed.

I’ve found that a person who is negative toward project management and isn’t a team player may be part of a self-fulfilling prophesy; the project manager is undermined and then fails—just as the employee predicted. When I was younger, I ran into a person who was constantly negative toward the project he was working on. In discussions with this person, it appeared that every manager associated with the project was incompetent and that he was the only person with the answer.

He didn’t take his concerns to the managers—he spent his time complaining with coworkers. Eventually, the project started having difficulties. I wondered whether the time and energy spent complaining was distracting the team members enough that they were causing the activities to run behind. Were they causing the problem that they were blaming on the project manager?

How project management should be perceived
Many members took the opportunity to provide their opinions on the value of project management, when it is applied correctly to projects. TechRepublic member sysdev said “real project managers…add value to a project,…get it done on time and within budget, and make sure it is maintainable when in production.” Another member, tmcgregor, argued that a project manager is like a general contractor. He or she needs to utilize appropriate project management procedures and tools to obtain budget approvals, set up the workplan, resolve conflicts, and mitigate risks.

A general theme for those advocating the value of project management is that the processes must be tailored for the size of the project. Elaborate processes that are employed on small efforts lead many to question the value of project management. Sometimes, this overuse of process is the result of a project manager who hasn’t mastered the art of scaling the processes to the project size. Occasionally, that overkill is a result of organizational standards that leave both project managers and team members questioning the value they’re providing.

This is a concern that all project managers should constantly be on the lookout for. When I worked at Coca-Cola, I knew of at least one project that seemed to implode under too much process and not enough action. The project went on and on, and everyone seemed very busy. However, many of the team members were active on internal deliverables and building elaborate project management procedures.

After a year, the project was cancelled; senior management realized that very little external value was being delivered. When I spoke to the team members, they all agreed that it was a bad experience.

Does the project manager need subject matter experience?
A side discussion grew from a comment I made in my column that I would rather have a project manager with good project management skills and no subject matter experience than one with subject matter experience and no project management skills. Obviously, the best situation is to have both, but what if you could only have one or the other?

Several suggested that I framed the question in black-and-white terms. They said that, by definition, an experienced project manager will have picked up a lot of business skills and could learn new ones quickly. In the same respect, any subject matter expert would have worked on projects before and would have some level of project management skills.

A number of members, including vincent_mcguire, agreed with me that the project manager should focus on his or her strengths and leave the technical details to his or her teammates. TechRepublic member bsherman has seen people promoted into project management ranks because of their technical skills, and many times with minimal training. This can be a setup for failure.

My experience is that this is a common cause of failure. I’ve known many superb technical people who weren’t very good project managers. First, there is sometimes an assumption made that a strong technician should naturally be a good project manager, and so the person doesn’t receive the necessary training. Second, many people prefer the technical role, and their inclination is to continue to work in that capacity, even when they’re assigned to the project manager role.

Third, even with the best of intentions, strong technicians don’t always have the planning, analysis, communication, and people management skills to be effective project managers. Of course, many strong technical people end up becoming strong project managers. But it’s not a given.

Listen and learn
I believe that given the variety of experience among IT professionals, a healthy discussion about what the “proper use of project management processes” means for projects of varying sizes and complexity would give you a spectrum of opinions. For some people like Paul, the personal negative experiences are too deep. They’ll ultimately need to be on a project on which the processes were put to good use to see the value.

For the rest of us, this is a reminder to constantly be on our toes to make sure we’re providing value and applying processes appropriately. We might have been heroes yesterday, but we could be only one bad project away from being “clueless dolts.”

Tom Mochal is president of TenStep, Inc., a project management consulting and training firm. Recently, he was Director of Internal Development at Geac, Inc., a major ERP software company. He’s worked for Coca-Cola, Eastman Kodak, and Cap Gemini Ernst & Young. Tom has developed a project management methodology called TenStep and an application support methodology called SupportStep.