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I've been asked to manage a team working on a project with which I am only marginally familiar. Getting more familiar with the project (desired outcome, expected timeline, etc) won't be a problem, but the technical work the team members are doing is outside my area of expertise. I've never done the kind of work they are doing on this project, or worked with the technologies in question (although I do have some experience in similar areas).

I know they are all capable in this area, and I'm confident in my abilities to manage a team where I'm familiar with the technical work and have been in the positions of the team members before, but I'm not sure how that will translate to leading a crew where I don't fully understand all of the technical details.

(How) can I effectively lead the team if I don't fully understand the technical details of the project?

  • 3
    This probably falls into there are entire books dedicated to the subject. Do you have a specific problem you are facing or is it just the feeling of intimidation of a first time manager? – IDrinkandIKnowThings Jul 9 '12 at 20:14
  • What's the specific problem you're running up against? This is a bit broad without a specific sticking point – Rarity Jul 9 '12 at 20:32
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    I'd like to know if you're managing the team -- the actual human beings -- the project -- e.g. as a project manager with all the responsibilities that entails (and often not also managing the people ) -- or some combination. That would go a long way toward finding the "specific problem" that @Rarity mentioned. – jcmeloni Jul 9 '12 at 21:14
  • My advice: if you don't understand the tech, but trust that they do, let them do what they do. Get out of their way. That's the ideal manager. :) – DA. Sep 7 '15 at 17:53
  • +1 because im glad to see a non technical boss thinking about this issue - its a very common problem. – gburton Sep 7 '15 at 22:56
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Well the good news is that you trust the capabilites of the people working on the project. That makes it significantly easier. You know project management, so you know how to keep them on track as far as budget and deadlines, etc. When they want to do something you don't understand, ask questions. You want to feel more up to speed on the subject, so make sure you aren't questioning their judgement but rather trying to educate yourself.

Where the biggest problem comes in is when you need to make a choice when two (or more) of these people disagree about what to do. In this case, I recommend that you have them do a formal decision analysis where each rates what they want to do against the criteria that you determine (hours to develop, performance, etc.) Then once you have those ratings, go take a quick look around the Internet to see if they are relatively correct. Once you have a rating for each choice for each possible criteria (and you determine the relative importance of the criteria based on project needs) then it is usually easily to see which is the better choice. Have them bring their analysis to a meeting and discuss so each side has a chance to shoot holes in the other's argument. But make them keep it civil.

             Weighting  Plan A      Plan B  
Criteria       factor   Score   Total   Score   Total 

Performance          4    3      12      4       16

Maintainability      3    3      9       4       12

Development Speed    3    2      6       2        6

Security             5    5     25       1        5

Total                           52                39

After you know the people better, you will have a feel for who is usually right, then you may give some extra credence to what that person wants to do, but remember, no one is right all the time and automatically picking George's solution over Simon's every time will make Simon resentful. So truly listen to both and choose based on the criteria you give them.

  • Best phrase I've learned for the issue in paragraph 1: "Show me enough so I can explain the issue to the project sponsor / budget person when they ask about it." You just made it really clear that this is not a criticism, but an honest, collaborative question with a business need behind it. You've just told the person that you respect their knowledge and plan on using it. – Wesley Long Sep 4 '15 at 19:50
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When managing a technical team you certainly do not have to be fluent in the technology - you need to manage the project, not the technical details of finishing it.

This means you need to understand the project outcome, timeline and budget concerns, and understand enough about how the team will achieve these. Your job is to facilitate - help them achieve the goals (within the allocated time and budget) - there is absolutely no need for you to be conversant in the technology in order to get things done.

Your description of yourself tells me that you are a technical person - you will be able to tell whether someone in the team is trying to pull the wool over your eyes and should be able to tell whether estimates are reasonable or not. You already have a leg up on non-technical managers in this respect - and many non-technical manager are more than capable to deliver a technical project, as they focus on their role as facilitators.

What I am trying to say here is that you should leave the technical decisions to your team and balance those with the other goals and requirements of the project.

3

Let's take the perspective of this situation as more of a blessing than a problem, by way of giving you the chance to hone your managerial skills. The better manager you are, the less you need to know anything about the technical details of the work being done. What's more, lack of technical knowledge could prevent (unconscious) micromanagement on your side.

So let's go through the checklist:

a) project structure - "Getting more familiar with the project (desired outcome, expected timeline, etc) won't be a problem" - fine;

b) human factors - any conflicts or tension between team members?/ enthusiasm level?/ any obstacles stealing out of productivity?/ do people feel appreciated and rewarded?/ is work interesting and inspiring?/ do people see possibilities for professional growth?/ etc - you do not need any knowledge on the technical side of things to cover any of these;

c) quality control, decision making - well, come think of it, is it your job to have the final say on important decisions or is it to organize work in such a way that your team competently solve things among themselves (thanks to the mechanisms you have set up for them)? Is it your job to personally proof-check quality of work or is it to organize your people in such a way that they competently monitor, check and correct each other's work (thanks to the mechanisms you have set up for them)? A great manager should create the infrastructures/ the medium/ the soil/ the environment for the right events and let them happen on themselves rather personally act on them.

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    I have to disagree with point 3, it is the pm's job to make decisions espcially when multiple team members disagree. – HLGEM Jul 10 '12 at 15:31
  • I admit that. There should be a single party to have the final say. In most cases even if that's not the best decision, it's better to have a bad decision rather than waste time on endless arguments. But a project manager can do a lot to design decision-making processes which help reach correct decisions most of the time, without unnecessary disagreements. In that case he would rarely have to assume the role of an arbiter. – drabsv Jul 11 '12 at 18:34
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You can do 3 things:

  • Get educated as quickly as possible. Buy a book and read it. This should give you the general terminology, ideas, etc.
  • Ask for help/clarification along the way. As the manager/team leader/supervisor, part of your role is to ensure that everybody understands what is going on. The way to do that is to ask for clarification along the way. There's no shame in it, and people will have more respect for you then if you try to BS your way through.
  • Whatever your role is on the project, do it VERY well. If your job is to harness political support in your organization for the project, be darn sure that the political support is there. Don't try to do everybody else's job, because you'll only end up cheesing everybody off.

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