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The Thin Line Between SME and PM

It isn’t uncommon for Subject Matter Experts (SME) to run or lead projects. In fact this tends to occur when the sponsor’s focus is on the conten, of the project. They often don’t really see the value of a separate PM role.

While it is vital to have a subject matter expert or analyst on a project, (as PMs should not be responsible for developing solutions) there are some subtle yet potentially costly risks associated with putting that individual in a dual SME/PM role.

It is human nature to focus our attention and efforts in our areas of expertise and, more often than not, this is what occurs. An SME is more likely to focus their attention on the details around the solution and to then go through the motions when it comes to the PM component of their role. This includes throwing together a project plan, because this is expected of the PM side of their role.

In my time, I have come across many SME built project plans and they contain some consistent findings. One is that the project plan always seems to end on the targeted project completion date, but the critical path cannot be calculated. This is usually because there are few if any dependencies built in. Instead the Start No Earlier Than (I call it the SNET) constraint is abused throughout the plan, obscuring the total slack.

So what? Well, while the solution may approximate perfection, the estimated time, effort and costs are unknown and likely based on a faulty work back plan. The project plan is simply window dressing, there simply to satisfy the sponsor and stakeholders’ need to see things appear to wrap up on time.

What results is often a project that overruns its scheduled time due to poor planning. Key resources, that may also cost dollars (IT resources or consultants), either disperse to other previously committed projects or must charge the extra time against the project, increasing the budget and lowering the return on investment.

In many cases this part of the job is severely neglected in favor of developing solutions. The other risk is that having an SME who is also responsible for the PM function is akin to having the fox watching the chicken coop. The PM role naturally provides the devil’s advocate to question the validity and assess the overall impact to the project’s success when change requests are introduced.

Scope creep cannot be properly managed without having an unbiased second opinion and a true assessment of the impact on the overall plan. This again leads to the perfect solution that will likely meet none of the requirements of the triple constraint. If getting to market on time is a key requirement, you need to have someone whose focus will remain on getting to market on time. SMEs are excellent at what they do which is why they perform this role. Their participation is vital to the project’s success. Excellence and perfection are the undying goals of a SME and rightly so. This is why they are at the table.

A PM’s role is to ensure that ALL of the objectives of the sponsor are being addressed, stakeholder expectations are managed, and that there is a high quality, regularly revisited plan in place along with the proper checkpoints and processes to address the unknown unknowns that tend to crop up at inopportune times.

Not all projects require a PM. As a rule of thumb, if the number of stakeholders and team members is small, the scope of the project is limited to one department (not an enterprise wide project) and time and cost is not an issue, you may be able to manage with a SME/PM. Once the scope of the project grows beyond this, your risks increase significantly unless you have a qualified and experienced project manager running your project.

The PM’s view of the project is much broader than the SME’s and project success means keeping your eye on all the moving parts of the project, including the solution.

Sean Best, PMP is a project management consultant and managing director of CRM Project Management Consulting. His 14+ years of project management experience includes work in the banking, payment processing, telecommunications and software industries. He can be reached at [email protected]