A friend of mine, James Huggins, asked this question about project managers being subject matter experts.
“While they don't need to be SMEs, how much DO they need to know about the context, culture, processes, technology, etc.?
As an example, can ANYONE be head of FEMA? Or does it need to be someone with a background in disaster recovery?”
What an excellent question! And one I’ve been considering in the context of FEMA leadership.
In my previous posting, I said that a project manager should be leading the FEMA efforts for disaster recovery. I believe that good project managers have all the skills and knowledge necessary to COORDINATE, COMMUNICATE, AND LEAD.
But is that enough? Should a project manager also know the detailed requirements of disaster recovery in order to lead FEMA?
I’ll share one of my earliest project management experiences to answer those questions.
As an engineering co-op student, working my way through college, I worked as a civilian for the US Navy. In our command, we tested aircraft weapons and weapon delivery systems. I was put in charge of testing the side loads for a weapon that was mounted under the wings of Navy aircraft.
I was very pleased to get this assignment. It showed that the engineers I worked with trusted my judgment. I was also very scared. I didn’t know anything about side load or testing it.
I started out my first project meeting by telling the very experienced, active duty personnel that I didn’t know anything about what we were going to do. I also told them that I needed their help – not only to have a successful project, but also to learn. I reminded them that I was a student, and part of my work was learning engineering.
The rest of the meeting went very well. Each SME stepped up to my request and contributed the information I asked for. By the end of that first meeting, we had a work breakdown structure (every task required), a schedule, and action assignments.
Throughout the rest of that project, each of the SMEs would come to me with information that I needed – both on a project level and on a technical level.
So the short answer to my friend’s question is: ANY GOOD PROJECT MANAGER COULD HEAD UP FEMA.
The caveat is: Assuming the SMEs work at FEMA and want to do the best possible job. And are willing to work with a project manager who admits what she/he doesn’t know.
My only example is Elizabeth Dole as head of the American Red Cross. What do you think?
To find out more about James Huggins, visit his websites at: