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The Leadership Pendulum

One of the trends I’ve noticed over the years has been the growing importance of the Project Management role. When I first started work more than 20 years ago, many projects were lead by a Technical Leader rather than a Project Manager. Today most projects have a dedicated Project Manager.

The change is likely a reflection of the fact that many past failures could be attributed to poor planning and control. While appointing a dedicated Project Manager has clear benefits, we need to be careful that we are not introducing unintended side affects.

In a case of the pendulum swinging too far, in some organizations significant problems can now be traced to a lack of technical leadership. While Project Managers bring organizational skills, in many cases they don’t have the in-depth technical knowledge needed to effectively plan the project (establish scope, understand requirements, estimate, etc) or to ensure the project’s technical success. In such cases, strong technical leadership is still a requirement.

Technical leaders perform a number of significant functions. As well as making key technical decisions they provide essential technical input into the planning process, they ensure the end-to-end integrity of the solution, they identify the technical tasks needing to be done and they act as the vital interface between the development team and the Project Manager. In addition, a good technical leader oversees the work of the rest of the team to ensure that appropriate technical level quality standards are being maintained.

Unfortunately in some organizations the role of the technical leader has been diluted to the point where Project Managers are attempting to cover these functions themselves. Sometimes those assigned the key technical roles have simply abdicated their leadership responsibilities assuming the Project Manager is “the leader” and in other organizations the Project Manager has been given responsibilities that encompass both Project Management leadership and technical leadership. Where Project Managers lack the technical skills to do that role effectively the chances of errors, omissions and serious quality flaws are dramatically increased.

My experience has been that projects require both technical and project management leadership. Where one or the other is weak, significant problems are likely to arise. If those weaknesses are too pronounced, then project failure becomes an ever increasing probability.

2 Comments on “The Leadership Pendulum”

  1. #1 Robert Wood
    on Sep 22nd, 2008 at 12:51 am

    I agree, and have certainly learned this the hard way. But I don’t think engaging a technical lead is a silver bullet.

    I’ve found that the organization’s culture can confound this approach at times. In my experience, when engaged, not all technical leads rise to the challenges of the project and yet the onus is still on the PM to deliver a quality project. As a result, the PM is often forced to acquire more and more technical knowledge. On the face of it, this might be good, but it further undermines the need of a technical lead, resulting in an iterative, downspiraling circle: the PM acquires more and more technical knowledge, fewer and fewer situations require a technical lead, and technical leads get less and less experience in this demanding role.

    There are other, perhaps better, solutions to this dilemma than I’ve described above. A stronger PM, for example, might push the technical lead into the role that he/she should be fulfilling rather than let him/her get away with less; or the organization could require their technical leaders to be responsible on a par with their PMs.

    But I venture that the problem I’ve described is far from uncommon.


    Thanks for the comment. You are correct, there is never a silver bullet. The key however is to be aware of these types of dynamics so you can address the issues before serious harm is caused. There are of course many other issues that can harm a project and we will cover more of them in future blog posts … – Rob Goatham

  2. #2 S. Richman
    on Oct 2nd, 2008 at 10:55 am

    Never a truer word written:

    “…My experience has been that projects require both technical and project management leadership. Where one or the other is weak, significant problems are likely to arise…”