January 3rd, 2011

If Kent Nagano doesn’t play violin, then why should a Project Manager be technical?

The project manager as symphony orchestra conductor. You can’t follow anything about the Montreal Symphony Orchestra (MSO) without tripping over Kent Nagano. Appointed musical director in 2006, his contract was recently extended for another three years. Even after my husband and I finally got around to attending an MSO concert, conducted by Mr. Nagano, I remained mystified by what exactly a conductor does. What did a man in a tuxedo waving a baton have to do with the beautiful music that I was listening to? The reason for my fascination was simple: the metaphor of a Project Manager as a symphony orchestra conductor remains one of the most popular and over-used ones. Like this one for example.

Kent Nagano, the MSO's Musical Director

A symphony orchestra conductor? A project manager? Both?

In order to learn what exactly the conductor does, I decided to ask someone who knows. My 14-year old daughter plays violin in her school’s orchestra, under the careful guidance of Mr. T. (And, no, that’s not his real name.) Here’s what she explained to me:

  • The conductor controls the pace of the music (tempo): fast, slow and in between.
  • If you lose your place in the piece, you look up at the conductor, who will help you find your place again.
  • Mr. T plays the cello. But he doesn’t teach the cello, or any other instrument. Each instrument has a dedicated teacher who teaches the students their particular instrument. In the case of my daughter, she has a violin teacher. As she explains to me: “Mr. T doesn’t play the violin very well at all. I mean, he can show me some basic things but, if I really want to get better, I listen to my violin teacher.”
  • Sometimes, during music practice, Mr. T needs to leave the room. “We try to play the piece without him. But, it’s all wrong. Everyone comes in out of order. We need Mr. T.”

The conductor is a Project Manager alias. In case those points didn’t hit you over the head with the essence of project management, let me sum it up for you.

  • Tempo: the Project Manager is responsible for ensuring that all the work starts and ends at the right time. You have to program before you can test, and you need stuff delivered and put together into which you load the program. Before you weld, you assemble, and you paint only at the very end, when you are sure that assembly is complete. And you can’t start testing until everything is pretty much done. Sound like the “planning” process to you?
  • Find your place: We all know that stuff happens: the moment after we have printed out the project schedule, it is already out of date. Customers change their mind, critical team members resign, and suppliers can’t deliver on the date that they told you. As things come up during the course of project execution that threaten the plan, the Project Manager rearranges things so that all team members can still find their place.
  • Subject Matter Experts: Those teachers that specialize in their various instruments are called “Subject Matter Experts (SME)”. Every good Project Manager surrounds herself with SMEs, but knows that, like Mr. T, you don’t need to be one in order for your project to be successful.
  • Leave the room: I have seen what happens on even “small” projects that don’t have a Project Manager assigned to them: chaos. A simple series of events quickly spirals out of control because there is no one overseeing the entire project. Do you want beautiful music? You need a conductor. Do you want your stuff to finish on time, on quality and on budget? Then you need a Project Manager.

And yet we just don’t get it. If you want to have some fun, either in a forum or in real life, ask the question: “Does the project manager need to be technical?” I did just that at a PMI Round Table last year…and ducked. So many Project Managers with technical baggage cling to the belief that because they can challenge their team with “smart technical questions”, they are doing their job. However, smart technical questions are not what make projects successful, it’s all of those “other” things, those 42 processes that comprise initiating, planning, executing, controlling and closing.

The conductor doesn’t play an instrument, but knows what beautiful music sounds like. As Musical Director of the MSO, Kent Nagano clearly understands what it takes to make beautiful music. In the same manner, as a Project Manager, I know enough to have a conversation with a SME, to understand what slipping schedule looks like, to recognize scope creeping out of control. I do this without programming, drawing, designing, testing, painting or welding. And yet, I continue to see job descriptions like this one. Does this sound like a Project Manager to you? Or someone “playing the violin”?

Wrong Project Manager Job Description

Does this sound like a conductor? Or a violinist?

I don’t play the violin, I conduct. I am very clear on what I do for a living. I make beautiful music without playing an instrument. The projects under my watch consistently finish on time, on budget and with satisfied customers. I haven’t “been technical” for many years now. I am hardly special: the same is true for anyone who practices the art of Project Management.

When my husband and I were watching the MSO in concert, we would have found it most preposterous to see Kent Nagano suddenly pick up a violin and start playing it. And yet, so many organizations, even other Project Managers, continue to expect the Project Manager to “be technical”: to program, to configure, to write bills of material, to check drawings for technical accuracy, to be experts in SQL.

But really, when you think about it, this really doesn’t make much sense, does it?

About as much as sense as Kent Nagano playing the violin.

12 comments to If Kent Nagano doesn’t play violin, then why should a Project Manager be technical?

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  • […] Based on the orchestra conductor metaphor, Elisabeth Bucci explains how the project manager can be involved in projects without playing the first role. […]

  • Ryan B.

    Hey Elizabeth, a few comments…..

    All other things being equal with a PMs capability, experience, skill, know-how, etc…..as a Customer I would take a PM who also knows the technical aspect of the project over one that doesn’t. This isn’t to say a good PM needs to be technical, but a technical PM has some advantages for the Customer. For example, in meetings, the PM doesn’t have to answer every question with “I will get back to you on that”, they can actually answer most question right on the spot (gains respect with the Customer and doesn’t spend time going to get the answers). If the PM needs technical resources or SMEs to help with everything, it adds costs to the project, more overlap = more hours, and as a Customer I don’t want to pay for this extra time.

    Ryan B

  • Elisabeth Bucci

    Hello Ryan,

    Thanks for your comment. Not surprisingly, I get this argument a lot.

    Here’s my take on your scenario: where is the rest of the team? Why isn’t the customer “allowed” to talk directly to the Technical Lead or the team member that can best answer the question? If a proper communication plan has been set out at the beginning of the project, then there is no time wasted asking questions of the wrong team member. Any good project manager should be perfectly comfortable defining those lines of communication and enforcing them, if need be.

    The best way to gain the customer’s respect is the ensure that the project is delivered on-schedule, on-budget and on-quality, which is enough to keep any PM’s hands full…

  • Vishal

    So can a very smart IT Project Manager (who is a master of initiating, planning, executing, controlling and closing) replace Kent Nagano. Probably not. Although both are conductors, they specialize in domains that they know how to orchestrate. This domain knowledge is the mimimun reqd for a PM to be successful.

  • Elisabeth Bucci

    Kent Nagano studied music but is not a musician. He’s a conductor. I have a Bachelor in Engineering, but am not a practicing engineer. I’m a Project Manager.
    Yes, the metaphor does work.
    PS I could never replace Kent Nagano, or any conductor, as my daughters are fond of reminding me every time I sing to my iPod.

  • Leonar Tambunan

    If you as conductor doesn’t know how to play instrument, or at least read the music notes, you are dead meat !!
    PM need the baseline knowledge for effective communication.

  • Stephen

    I know it is an old post, but I want to voice out my opinion anyway. A conductor is a CEO, not a project manager, who does not need to be technical, althought it helps. Personally, I have seen both Project Managers who are technical and who are not technical. I think PM who knows the technical underpinnings definitely has the edge. It is a royal pain to have the non technical ones to make them understand the technical aspects of the work undertaken. Without understanding what the project is all about– may not be in great depth but some depth, can anyone be a good project manager? We are not talking about exceptions here. May be non technical project managers with some willingness to learn and curiosity might help. May be it is just my experience. But, I think, it helps to have a manager who has been in the tech person’s shoes. Considering that you have a Bachelor in Engineering, I think you would be a better technical Project Manager in my opinion. Good luck!

  • Hussain

    I do not agree with this article. Currently I am working on a project as a developer, we are three developers, two graphic designers and a project manager. The project manager is basically a Q.A resource and does not have any development or technical background. In such conditions you know what I do?. I just count my remaining days in the company, as I cannot quit before a year.

  • Salman Rafiq

    I am currently going to same stress. I worked as Project Support lead for the last 6 years in the unigue Sports Mangement industry. Now I wanted to fulltime enter Project Mangement and am doing PMP. But when I look for jobs and the requirement, it seems there is no hope for non-techincal Project Managers. Aftr reading the above, I can feel confident that I am progressing right

  • Elisabeth Bucci

    Don’t give up, Salman. More and more industries are realizing that Project Managers don’t have to be technical, they need to (wait for it) manage projects. Good luck!

  • Go west

    I appreciate your arguments. I am MSc in Power and Environmental engineering with experience in sales and proposal management and in project support roles like coordination, subcontract management etc.. Not going into details I have been offer a project manager’s position in industrial automation company – DCS, process automation etc.
    I am very hesitant to take the opportunity as I am afraid that my technical expertise in that field is not deep enough, but on the other hand there are lead engineers who take care of particular technical aspects.

    So do I really have to be so knowledgeable in that area? I guess not. But let’s see when they take me to the middle of the lake, throw out to the water and wait until/ if I reach the shore :)

    Now quoting someone else phrase I have found online:
    “The real test of a project manager is to manage a project outside of their technical discipline. Then the ‘comfort blanket’ of being able to contribute technically is taken away!”

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