Do Project Managers Have to be Specialists?

Some think that anyone can be a project manager as long as they have deep knowledge of the subject matter

3rd November 2014

It was over the course of the perennial argument about the pros and cons of Agile methods and ScrumMasters that the topic of Project Management methodologies reared its ugly head again. As always, the debate split into two camps, those who thought that anybody could manage a project provided they had a sound grasp of the subject matter and a rudimentary knowledge of Gantt charts, and those who thought that Project Management was a skill that required training, specialization and experience.

Now let me state that although I have worked with a great many Project Managers and I have managed a great many projects, I am not and never have been a Project Manager. To be classified as such is to suggest a degree of formal training and an adherence to methodologies and standards of a profession. The question is: to what extent does the absence of formal training or the enthusiasm to study Project Management methodologies, determine the capability of an individual to be a Project Manager?

This is a tough question and will no doubt polarize opinion, but here is how I reached mine:

A lot of people suffer from what I call “The Man Friday Syndrome” and “The Invisibly Low Bar” and if we are to improve the quality of Project Management then rather than focus narrowly on Project Management we should talk about organizational behaviour. In other words, let’s focus on principles and not on the rules that should derive from them.

The Man Friday Syndrome refers to the fact that in almost every organization, people will be asked to do a job not because they are in some way best qualified to do it and not even because they are free to do it, they do the job because they are the person that the individual assigning the task could assign the task to. This is how a Software Developer with no qualifications for the job ends up being a Project Manager - because the head of Software Development needed something to be managed.

You might say that you understand how this works in Software Development and it is quite appropriate in that environment, but if the head of Sales and Marketing needs something managed then he or she will do exactly the same. The head of Sales and Marketing will do this even if the task at hand requires the skills of a genuine IT professional. This is why Project Managers find themselves facing off with their client’s Secretary, who has no qualifications whatsoever for the job other than a direct line to the boss for speedy decision-making and a rudimentary sense that things need to be organized on a timeline!

By itself the Man Friday Syndrome can be very painful for those who face the fallout of the sub-optimal results it delivers. Put it together with The Invisibly Low Bar and you have a recipe for disaster. The Invisibly Low Bar is concerned with the Rules For The Establishment of Excellence, of which Rule No 1 for establishing excellence is that you before you start thinking you are good at something you need to compete with the best in your field. Think you are quick? Race Usain Bolt. Think you are smart? Argue with Stephen Hawkings. Think you are good looking? Stand between Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.

As a CTO back in the dot com days, the thing that always got me was when people would tell me how great all the members of their software dev teams were. “These guys rock” was the usual trite remark about a team who were delivering their bug-ridden code a month late. I would look at this group of callow youths who had only been working for a year, had no other industry experience and had never competed with real genius in their lives. I would then have to bite my lip so as not to ask the obvious ‘if they rock then why are they here working for you?’

If you are not an enthusiastic specialist who lives and breathes your working world then you invariably don’t know where the bar is set, ergo you are almost certainly not as good as you think you are and probably not very good at all. If you are a Man Friday who does not know where the bar is set... Yes, you are likely to be significantly under-achieving without even knowing it, and that is dangerous.

I used to think I was a good Project Manager until I met some real Project Managers. I used to think I was a good Software Developer until I met some real Software Developers. I used to think I was handsome... no, I’ve never been that deluded. Man Fridays and Invisible Bars beset organizations on a daily basis, which is why so many things are a mess. Once you look at the world this way the answer to the question about trained, specialist Project Managers seems obvious, and you already know what I think. It seems to me that there is only one more question left to answer, which is: is there a cost to operating with a Man Friday, or can we just say “so what if he or she is not a ‘proper’ PM, it’s just a job?” Well, I take my car as an example. If I had to, I could probably swap out my gearbox if it broke. It would take me a couple of weeks at least and I think I’d get my wife to start the engine while I hid in the cellar the first time it was started again. Or I could just go to work, do what I’m good at, earn a decent living and pay for someone to do it in a day. Hmmm..... Maybe the polarity of opinion on this one should be heavily weighted one way.

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