One of the never-ending debates in the world of Project Management pertains to this question, “Does a PM in IT need to understand the technical solution?”. This question was asked in one of the LinkedIn groups, PMI Credentialed PMPs. There are many variants to this question but at the root of all this discussion is this question, “Who will successfully manage the project, a Project Manager with great Project Management Skills but average technical expertise or a great technical expert with average Project Management skills?”
Project success is dependent on many factors and only one of these is the expertise of the Project Manager, albeit a critical one. Having said that, let us look at the choices. Actually, there are only two real choices if you disregard the no-brainer ones. The no-brainer choices are at the two ends of the spectrum; a PM with great technical & great PMing skills and a PM with average technical & average PMing skills. You hire the former and not the latter, obviously. So, the decision comes is tricky and difficult to make when your two options are: average PM with outstanding technical skills vs outstanding PM with average technical skills. Choosing from one of these choices has divided the project management community into two camps.
Belonging to one camp or the other is purely based on real-life, personal experience. As with all experiences, this experience is also subjective especially in the absence of any well defined metrics or thorough exercises in learning the lessons from the success/failures in the project. Naturally, the easy way out is to attribute project failure to the project manager and so the skills of the PM are now under scrutiny. Based on your assessment of what skills were lacking in the PM, you put the blame on those lacking skills. This experience, when repeated makes your bias stronger and you now start belonging to one camp or the other.
I said bias because no one starts with a blank slate. Most people are not scientific in their approach and so come to this question with a bias. If you can understand your bias and look at the issue scientifically then you will get to the answer on your own.
The answer that I have got after much analysis is that a smart, hard working and diligent Project Manager with outstanding Project Management skills has a greater chance of helping a project to succeed than the other way around. Let me explain with an example.
As we all know, Michael Jordan, came out of retirement for the second time to play for Washington Wizards. Actually, MJ was hired as a President to run the basketball operations and instead of running the operations, he decided to play but did not take the Wizards to even playoffs. What does this all have to do with our topic of Project Management at hand? Everything.
You can draw parallels to this incident in the project management world too. If a PM is tied to his technical area and has been a superstar before then making him the leader of the project may cause the PM to jump in to fix technical issues, more often than not. Even MJ could not help his team but many technical experts think they are ageless superstars and jump in. In the basketball world, MJ had to resign his job as President of basketball operations to start playing so someone else can run the operations but in the PM world, the PM will try to do both and you can very well imagine the outcome. (I know of a project that is currently in the exact situation. The BAs, developers and testers have given up on this PM who is trying to do it all )
Conclusion: An experienced PM would have developed strong project management skills running technical projects successfully and during his/her experience would have figured out a way to communicate technical risks/issues in the most effective manner. So, in my honest opinion, a successful PM with strong PMing skills is one of the best things that can happen for the success of a project.