5 Reasons Engineers Need to Develop Project Management Skills

August 15, 2017 by Christian Knutson, P.E., PMPChristian Knutson, P.E., PMP

Here’s a lesson I’m thankful I learned early in my career:  successful engineering projects rely more on non-technical skills than technical skills.  It’s not that the technical skills aren’t important – they are.  One can’t design a building without knowledgeable, skilled structural, MEP, and fire engineers.  An airplane isn’t safe unless there are skilled aeronautical engineers involved.  You can’t rely on the quality of electricity unless there are smart electrical engineers involved.

The project a skilled engineer might be working on, however, won’t be successful unless there is an equally skilled project manager involved leading and managing the engineering project.

Think I’m wrong?  Project Management Institute’s (PMI) 2016 report The High Cost of Low Performance: How will you improve business results? cited that $122 million was wasted for every $1 billion invested due to poor project performance. Other studies from Gallup and Harvard Business Review report equally grim statistics for project timeliness, cost overruns and scope creep.  For those familiar with project management basics, you’ll quickly recognize these as the infamous project management triangle.

While there are smart, talented engineers involved in engineering projects that go sideways, why do these projects still fail?

 Because engineering projects aren’t just about technical issues and rational factors, they are often more heavily influenced by non-technical and emotional factors.

I know that my undergraduate work in civil engineering didn’t include any courses on project management, let alone communications or leadership.  While I did have an engineering economics course, I recall that it was more about net present value calculations and internal rate of review, than it was about cost estimating, earned value management and how to develop effective cost controls for a construction project.

My project management skills were learned through on-the job training, or OJT. Most engineers who move into project management roles get there via the OJT path. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, however, if it isn’t bolstered with legitimate study of project management fundamentals, then it can become a bad thing in the right situation.

I gave little thought to the study of project management until fifteen years into my professional engineering career. In an attempt to give my career skills a boost, I began studying for the Project Management Professional (PMP) course. Only then did I begin realizing that my OJT project management skills were inadequate in terms of the processes, procedures and general vernacular necessary to deliver successful projects. While I wasn’t a slouch in managing a project with regards to scope, schedule and cost, I was lacking in my ability to visualize how leadership, communications, strategic guidance, and even personal emotion, factor into the management of said project.

Engineers who think they don’t need to care about developing their project management skills will one day run into a situation where technical and rational means of solving a problem won’t work.

The technical/rational skills of engineers are useful for solving technical or rational problems on engineering projects, such as cost estimation and adjustments, forecasting, quality assurance or scheduling. These skills aren’t useful, however, when dealing with problems linked to project team members or stakeholders.  The reason should be obvious: project team members and stakeholders are humans or groups of humans.  Humans aren’t always rational, they tend to be emotional. So, the technical/rational approach to many issues faced in project management won’t always work.  In some situations, they will never work.

Spending time on project management skills development may be the last thing you want to add to your already busy schedule.  With the normal churn and demands of life and work, you’re likely not jumping up and down to throw another requirement on to the calendar.

However, I’ll give you two specific reasons engineers may want to reconsider priorities and extend the effort to develop project management skills on top of the on-the-job training or organizational project management training:

I don’t simply mean climbing the engineering firm latter to partner or VP. Even if you aren’t interested in a leadership position in an engineering firm, you must continue to advance your career via advancing your skills. Engineers already know that maintaining one’s engineering mojo requires consistent study, reading of trade journals, and attending training courses.  Each of us does this to advance our career by advancing, or growing our skills.

William S. Boroughs had something to say about consistent growth: “When you stop growing you start dying.” If you s...

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