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Technical experts in the wrong position as project managers

It is an issue in many sectors and a real problem, especially in health and MINT professions: the shortage of skilled workers. When technical experts are absent or overburdened, innovations and the solution of technical problems often fall by the wayside and quality is impaired. In the long term, this can mean that companies are no longer competitive, orders are lost and they have to accept a loss of turnover. Companies can make a significant contribution to easing the situation through the targeted deployment of their specialists and a clear separation between project management and project management.

When Frank Kempken*, a mechanical engineering graduate, starts his working day, his calendar is usually already filled to the brim with meetings. He works as a technical expert for an automotive supplier and is faced with a dilemma every day: in addition to his technical tasks, he is also entrusted with the project management of a current development project - a task that has nothing to do with his technical qualifications. This leads to a constant conflict of priorities and resources for him: he constantly has to decide in which area he wants to invest time and both areas require a lot of attention in different ways. So one subject area is always given too little attention. In the long run, this means a strain that can damage the project.

* Name changed

In view of an already tense labour market situation, it is therefore quite surprising that many skilled workers have to take on this double burden of specialist and management tasks. Thanks to their high level of competence in their field, their superiors also consider them to be good project managers. "For example, the best programmer is then simply made a project manager or team lead," explains Hauke Thun, PM expert and managing director of the House of PM. "A high level of technical competence does not always mean a high level of leadership competence, because this requires different qualifications". The main reason for this is a wrong understanding of the role of project manager. Only rarely is a distinction made between technical project management and project management, although an employee must meet completely different requirements in order to manage a project competently.


Raise skilled labour potential

However, even if the specialist entrusted with project management has good management skills, one problem remains significant: he or she is only available to a limited extent for specialist questions, as he or she is additionally burdened by project management tasks. This means that they are no longer able to contribute their coveted know-how to the full extent. In addition, specialists in the role of project manager often find it difficult to separate the roles themselves. It is not uncommon for a project management specialist to get bogged down in the detailed discussion and solution finding of technical issues instead of ensuring that tasks are delegated and stakeholders are involved. Clear alarm signal: Meetings are often overrun under his moderation and the agenda is still not completed.

The expert's recommendation is to avoid complicating the work of professionals with additional tasks, if possible, so that they can invest sufficient time and energy in their actual field of expertise and make full use of their expertise. Otherwise, both the specialist area and project management often suffer. And the consequences of a lack of resources ultimately translate into project delays and budget overruns.


Too much expertise can also be disturbing

In many cases, it is therefore advisable to separate the specialist and PM areas. However, decision-makers often shy away from specifically deploying project management specialists and prefer to assign management tasks to a specialist. The reason: The opinion often prevails that a non-expert cannot simply manage a project because he or she lacks the necessary know-how. Hauke Thun remembers: "When I was introduced as project manager for an important DSL project, I was asked what experience I had in the DSL sector. My answer was: I don't have a clue about it, and I don't need one to get the job done right. The decisive point was a different one, namely that the company had to introduce a new product and that different stakeholders and service providers, shop and logistics providers had to be brought under one roof. "And that is exactly what project management means to me," says Hauke Thun. "My job was to set up the structures and provide tools so that we could successfully manage this complex project construct. For this I do not need any technical expertise as a communications engineer."

Particularly in the case of large projects, it is usually more appropriate to separate the technical and management areas, because here the project managers do not need specialist knowledge to successfully control the project. "Those who focus exclusively on project management ask completely different questions than the technical expert: What is the return on investment (ROI) and what is the business model? What are our commercial goals and do we always have them in view," explains PM expert Thun. "If these strategic decisions are not taken into account, more money is often spent in the end than initially planned". If external experts are only called in when the project is in trouble, the project manager quickly gets the feeling of being demoted. It is therefore much more beneficial for the overall climate in the team if a distinction is made from the outset between technical and management activities and the employees are deployed in the role that suits them.


Holistic approach pays off

In this context, the management level must consider which team members are interested in and suited for management tasks, regardless of their professional skills. Those who want to implement their projects successfully must also give project management the appropriate status in the company and plan strategies for this - also in the personnel area - with care. Often a "wrong choice" only becomes apparent when a company systematically introduces a project management methodology. When introducing a PM methodology, it is therefore advisable that the HR department is also involved in the process. They can develop and advise on suitable job descriptions and career paths if employees decide to return to a specialist position. Not everyone is interested in a leadership role.

A typical counter-argument for role separation is the supposedly insufficient budget. At first glance, many companies assume that they cannot afford to set up a project manager position that is not related to their field of expertise and therefore integrate project management into the department.

Especially for small companies with a manageable number of projects per year, there is often no extra budget available. For smaller projects, separation may not always be necessary, but often, and especially for larger companies, the investment in the PM area pays off in the long run. In this way, resources are used optimally and roles are distributed according to competence and interest. In this way, an organization can sometimes realize more projects because it can fully utilize the know-how of its specialists.


Guideline for role separation:
Organizing project management in tandem!

Warning signals that make it clear that the specialist as project manager needs relief from a project manager (PM):

  • The effort estimation and resource planning shows a significant overbooking of the project manager.
  • If status meetings are regularly scheduled for very long periods of time and are often overrun, this is an indication that the details are being discussed in a technically excessive manner.
  • The project manager also assumes the role of a sub-project manager or work package manager. In this case, there is a risk of bringing forward the technical tasks and holding technical discussions in status meetings.


What tasks should the PM take on / how can he support:

  • The project manager takes over structural tasks such as structuring the project and creating schedules, communicating the status internally and externally, tracking the status, organising and moderating meetings, while the specialist project manager takes care of technical discussions, supporting team members in terms of content, preparing decisions in terms of content and, if necessary, technical work packages.
  • As a sparring partner, the project manager offers the project manager a "guard rail function" so that he does not get lost in technical details.
  • The project manager trains the project manager in basic aspects of project management to speak a common language and to clarify the benefits of project management.



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