Can Good Project Managers Manage any Project?

Posted by Kevin Brady on Fri 10th July 2009 at 01:43 PM, Filed in

    Related Articles

A friend of mine Dominic Fenton recently posed the following question:-

When you are invited to PM an infrastructure project and you are not familiar with the infrastructure componentary i.e. contemporary middleware systems such as Websphere Enterprise Bus, what do you do to ensure Solutions Architects, Security Architects and alike, do not pull the wool over your eyes?

This is a common dilemma faced by most project managers at some point in their career. Some 20 years ago I thought the answer to this question was:-

“become a specialist technician yourself or make sure the projects you manage are all within your technical domain knowledge”.

Surely how else can you keep the finger on the pulse and gain the respect of your delivery technicians etc.

Well this view changed quite quickly when I went for a project management interview some years back at a well known consultancy called PA Consulting.  At the interview I was shown pictures of various projects /programmes they were running in a variety of industries ranging from chemical engineering to construction and of course my technical domain speciality IT. I was asked if I was assigned to manage the construction of a “chemical cracking plant” in the Middle East would I be able to run this project. I knew the answer they wanted to hear grin  YES.
Subsequently I did some work for PA and discovered very quickly why YES is the right answer.  It became clear from PA’s record of project and programme success and comparing this with the backgrounds of their respective project and programme managers that having a solid understanding of project and programme management best practices and an ability to mould and adapt these to the unique features of each and every project /programme is all you need to make any project a success. Fact!

This is easy to say perhaps and more difficult to do. So what are my top tips for running a project or programme where you have little if no relevant technical domain knowledge compared to your delivery team but want to keep a grip of the project and drive it towards success:-

  • Be Honest - Make sure you tell your team at the beginning that you’re the best PM and that this is your skill set and you have proven capability in this area. Tell them of previous projects where you have succeeded especially if they are diverse from a technology perspective.
  • Use Bottom-up Planning - Make it clear that you will be using bottom up planning. The team will specify the project plan task breakdown structure and estimate their own task durations and efforts required to achieve these tasks.
  • Develop Bottom-up Plans as a team - Point out that bottom up planning will be undertaken as a team so peer to reviews of estimates will be an integrated aspect of the planning process for all involved.
  • Use work package management techniques – This is recommended in PRINCE 2 and it is key to making sure you receive actual updates on planned tasks on a weekly basis.
  • Reasons for Work package Slippages feed into the project issue log for discussion at a team risk and issue meeting LINK. The risk and issue management team meeting is a place where peer to peer review of slippage issues can take place and ideas can be swapped about how to mitigate their effect.
  • Product Descriptions Help - Make sure you use product descriptions for all documentation and make sure documents are peer to peer reviewed against these descriptions.

If you follow project and programme management best practices and take specific notice of the sixe points I have detailed above you can run any project because the technicians specify their own work and are challenged through seamless peer to peer or team review of these estimates and their eventual task outcomes at all parts of the project and programme management process. This recipe is the key to success believe me grin

However, if you are a JFDI manager (Just F**KING DO IT) where best practice and process is an anathema   in true .com style then unless you have technical domain knowledge equal to the technicians you are managing you are going to be in deep “ dooo” very quickly. JFDI is characterised by top down planning (manager knows best what you need to do) and without relevant technical domain knowledge you are going to find giving instructions and planning other peoples tasks on an hour by hour basis frustrating and potentially explosive. Tell an experienced technical expert what and how to do their job without being an expert in their field is almost bound to lead to high octane office argument.

I hope this answers your question Dominic?

Good luck


This entry has been viewed 943 times.


As you suggest the answer is YES, If and Only IF (IIF) there is a solid set of capabilities in managing projects.

I work primarly in the aerospace and defense business, where the technology is wide and varied. But core processes of developing a Plan (strategy for success) and the Work Packages needed to implement that Plan can be extracted from the subject matter experts by someone with skills it elicit that information.

Posted by Glen B. Alleman  on Sat 11th July 2009 at 12:13 AM | #

Thanks Kevin, I have a new assignment on the horizon which will see me working in areas of technology not previously traversed. Will let you know how I go and I think the bottom up planning and product descriptions stand out for me.

Posted by Dom Fenton  on Sat 11th July 2009 at 06:30 AM | #

I think Glen is right. To make a project run with little domain knowledge of the technology you are trying to implement you are going to be in trouble if your project management skills are not the best.

Posted by Kevin Brady  on Wed 15th July 2009 at 08:27 PM | #


Please feel free to submit relevant comments to this entry but note: inappropriate or purely promotional comments may be removed as will be personal abuse and defamatory remarks. Reasoned debate and substantiated critique on the topic in hand is encouraged and welcomed. Email addresses are never displayed, but they are required to confirm your comments.


Email address is required but will not appear publicly:

Add your comments below:

Remember my personal information for next time

Submit the word you see below:

60 + 1 =