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My team and I have been working on a web product that is targeting businesses. Usually we can deploy the product to any client within 4 weeks, we call this a single client engagement and is by itself a project that needs a project manager.

This is a product team (5 members), and the team members are very agile and can play different technical non-technical roles, i want as much to engage the team members to the different aspects of the product cycle, the design, implementation and delivery. I used to have one project manager who handle all the client engagements but now im thinking of decentralizing this role and assigning future client engagements to different team members depending on their load and availability and this team member would be the owner of this engagement.

The idea is to expose the product team to the clients as possible and give them experience in the project management part. Is this realistic, would it make any sense to do this kind of decentralization in the real world, is someone else doing this?

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TL;DR

The core of your question seems to boil down to the following:

I used to have one project manager who handle all the client engagements but now [I'm] thinking of decentralizing this role and assigning future client engagements to different team members...[T]his team member would be the owner of this engagement.

When I parse this, it really seems to be two related questions:

  1. Is project ownership the same as project management?
  2. Can project management responsibilities be handled by technical team members?

The answer to the first question is "no." The answer to the second question is "maybe, but it's generally a bad idea."

Project Ownership vs. Project Management

Managing a client engagement is not quite the same thing as managing a project. While the roles may be related, they are distinct. In fact, some frameworks such as Scrum draw a distinction that places the Product Owner in the role of stakeholder management and championing the product, while the Scrum Master manages the project's process.

That doesn't mean the rest of the team never interacts or interfaces with the client. In fact, the principles behind the Agile Manifesto explicitly state that:

Business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project.

The division of roles is primarily intended to ensure that the project's process is managed cooperatively, while still controlling for scope creep and lost productivity related to interrupt-driven management. This division is often remarkably effective.

With that in mind, I'd take the position that asking members of your technical team to manage the business interface with the client is an inherent conflict of interest. While it can work, it's certainly not considered a best practice.

Who Should Have Project Management Responsibilities?

The second half of your core question implicitly assumes that project management is a hat anyone can wear. While it's certainly true that some technical leads are more than capable of managing a project, it can also be a recipe for failure for several reasons.

Firstly, a key aspect of project management involves applying controls to a project. This creates an inherent conflict of interest for anyone who is simultaneously responsible for both delivery and process control. This is the same separation of duties concern that leads responsible organizations to separate finance and IT from internal audit: asking the fox to guard the hen house is simply a poor strategic decision.

Secondly, project management is a separate profession for a reason. Turn the question around: could you expect your middle managers to write code as effectively as your hands-on developers, or your CEO to sort mail as efficiently as the mail room clerk who does it every day? No doubt there are developers with cross-functional skills who could make great project managers, but in general you will see a higher level of efficacy by ensuring the role is filled by someone who has sufficient skill and experience to handle project management responsibilities as routine.

With the foregoing in mind, I would recommend getting your developers as involved as possible in the project management process, but would leave the functional responsibility for project management with one or more dedicated project managers. Greater transparency and engagement within the organization could certainly lead to a more cohesive and cross-functional project team, but your mileage will almost certainly vary.

  • thanks for ur detailed answer, what if this client engagement is very standardized, I mean the client sends us A and B and we send them C and D, so there no difference in scope between projects so the interest of conflict u mentioned is very reduced – Yehia A.Salam Feb 19 '14 at 6:19
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    @YehiaA.Salam Standardized projects may reduce the level to which the project manager needs to apply controls. This may reduce the conflict. Project Management and delivery are very different roles. You may want to consider the capabilities and interest of your team members. When working in multiple roles, I find it important to switch roles while considering things. The skill is in balancing the roles. It may be better to have someone manage a project they are not delivering. – BillThor Feb 20 '14 at 3:55

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