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I'm new to this Stack Exchange community and am currently working in a large project (> 15000 staff hours) in the public sector. As the only subject matter expert on the team (6 members in total) I'm supposed act as the professional "lead" on the implementation of the project (as per my job description), yet have no formal decision making authority, or much input, for that matter, on the contents of the project plan, i.e. the nature of and the way in which tasks are to be completed. I've not worked in a project of this size before.

The project manager, who is not a subject matter expert and has a PRINCE2 certificate, decided (together with the project sponsor, who has limited availability for the project) on which tasks were to be included in the project plan (subject to approval by the project board, which seems a rather formal step).

I was not consulted on how most tasks were to be implemented yet find myself having to pick up the pieces of decisions that the project manager with no subject matter expertise largely dominated.

I also find that tasks in the project have been rigidly scheduled from the outset without an understanding of how they align in detail with the project's goals. On that note, the project initiation documentation (including the project's goals) was only completed 7 months after the project team had been appointed and the project plan designed. There seems to be no flexibility at all to incorporate new understanding on tasks and their benefits to the project's goals and no strategic thinking around the rationale for tasks is evident. Instead, bureaucratic forms abound and seem to stifle attempts to re-evaluate initial approaches that were taken based on limited understanding.

Questions:

  1. How, in general terms, are projects, which by definition are not operations, to cope with new learning and understanding that emerges during a project and who might be best qualified/suited to make subsequent decisions on the project? It increasingly appears to me that non-subject matter experts cannot safely make decisions on their own (for all intents and purposes) in this context.
  2. What's the role of strategic thinking in projects in general? How can tasks be scheduled in detail without a good/thorough understanding of how they contribute to the project's goals? What's the rationale of deciding how to execute a task in detail without this understanding and what flexibility might there be in projects to account for new learning?
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    Sadly, this is a common setup for predictive projects. Some boss and project manager estimate and build detailed plans, without consulting with those that actually do the work. They will figure it out later, somehow. What's important is to get the project, not how they will run it. With some luck there is enough padding in the estimates and enough risk buffers for the team to have a real fighting chance when picking up the pieces. If not, this project will be 2 times over schedule, and 3 times over budget. But it's a public sector project, so it's fine. Taxpayers will pay for it.
    – Bogdan
    Sep 5 at 11:07
  • So many red flags. My advice is: run.
    – Sarov
    Sep 7 at 13:21
  • Please edit the question to limit it to a specific problem with enough detail to identify an adequate answer.
    – Community Bot
    Sep 7 at 13:21
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This is a difficult one to answer because there could be a lot that is not being said, however, based on what you are saying here is some guidance.

TL;DR

Projects are temporary organisations to deliver value and they run best on collaboration and influence. The best way to work with the project team is to ask them how can I better support the project outcomes and what do you need from me?

Whilst this might seem like a capitulation, in reality, it is simply setting aside any ego and focussing on delivery. It's a leadership behaviour even if you don't lead.

Breakdown

Let's talk candidly about what is happening here.

  • You are working in a PRINCE2 environment which stands for Projects in Controlled Environments.
  • You feel like project plans have been created without the necessary input from you as the Subject Matter Expert
  • Those plans now partially fall to you to deliver
  • That is upsetting (and understandably so)

Project Management

The thing about a PRINCE2 project is that it will often have significant governance and with that, comes a lot politics and manoeuvring. It is not supposed to be like that but it often is because reporting is so crucial and so many stakeholders are involved in the governance.

It is likely that your Project Manager is under considerable pressure to produce estimates for time and/or cost which may be unreasonable.

There is only so much pushback that a Project Manager can offer to the governance and stage gate process before they will be seen as a blocker and potentially removed.

So it is easier for a PM to marginalise the scope aspect of the Project and let those details come in later.

A PM will do this because they often have leeway to change the dates and times later in a project (as much as 10% variance) so by pushing something out now, they are hoping to pass a stage gate and then deal with the consequences later.

Therefore, your key activity is to understand what pressures the Project Manager is under and then offer to support.

This will benefit you in the long run because it allows you to influence more of the project management process and ensure the scope is not demoted below time and cost.

It might feel like theatrics and the truth is, it is.

The big risk is if your Project Manager is nothing like I described and they genuinely are not respecting your role (which happens) but failing any other evidence let's give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they moved quickly not out of spite but out of pressure.

Take the PM for a coffee and ask how you can support them getting through the governance process with an accurate scope.

Hey, how are you? I know you had produce something for the project plan, I was wondering if there is any chance to influence that? I have some ideas about the scope and might better help us hit the project outcomes. Happy to help support you in the governance process as well..

Emerging Requirements

It sounds like you are beginning to explore the idea of Emerging Requirements.

Essentially, you know that not all features can be known in advance and that some have to emerge through feedback from customers and stakeholders and testing.

Your Project Manager may or may not have experience of this. In particular PRINCE2 does not have a huge overlap with emerging requirements because significant portions of the project are documented up front. Emerging requirements are much more likely to found in a project aligned with the Agile values published in the Agile Manifesto for Software Development.

That may or may not be a fruitful conversation with your PM but I suspect it will not be.

However, it is worth thinking about you reflect emerging requirements in the project, on the plan and as a set of tasks to be accomplished.

You

A lot of this will come down to ego and right now I am certain you feel like you have been disrespected and that you are angry you may have to deliver something that is not in line with your vision or expertise. You might feel like walking off and asking for another project. All of that is understandable but you can also take a different path.

The easiest way to build a scope change is to spend some time with the team to outline your idea and ask them

How might this fail?

You take them on a journey through your thinking and ask them to tear it apart with the Project Manager. Again, put your ego aside and let them come round to your way of thinking naturally.

The form of words you might use are

Is there something there we can work with? As a customer I think some of these features might have advantages or benefits.

Projects move forward in small steps, not huge evolutionary leaps so even getting some of your ideas into the plan is a victory and sets the conditions for even more collaboration.

If you think the current scope is not delivering the outcome, commit to it for a short while and then ask for a retrospective with the team to review how effective it is.

You can find guidance on retrospectives here.

I can say this honestly, in both PRINCE2 and Agile, I have seen more Subject Matter Experts be bounced from a project than I have Project Managers because they cannot balance the correct amount of firmness and collaboration. You need to sell, not tell.

I don't know how senior you are but as I have moved up in seniority in organisations I have noticed that the best leaders and team members respond to project problems with a very calm and disarming manner even when they are furious.

I sat with a Director of RS Components once who I knew played as a defender in a football team before his corporate role. It is a position which requires considerable strength and shouting. I asked how he remained calm even when projects were off track and he simply said

'I tailor my approach to the environment'.

Your ultimate aim here is to get the best possible healthcare outcome from this project but it can only be done by bringing the sponsor and the PM on board with your ideas.

Summary

  • Empathise that other roles in the project are under pressure
  • Offer to support and in doing so influence the scope
  • Pitch your ideas to the team for critique
  • Remain positive
  • Influence is key
  • PRINCE2 can often be a bit of manoeuvring and quite often project politics is in the background and SME's and the team have no idea
  • Remain calm and friendly
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There are many different, necessary expert types to run a successful project, not just the single technical expertise that is part of the substantive work being performed. The larger the project, the more different types, including several technical types, that are likely required. It is interesting that you report being the only subject matter expert in the room.

There are a ton of reasons why a leader may marginalize some on a team. Some of it can be due to an insecure leader. A lot can be due to the marginalized individual's performance: they are not the expert they think they are; they cannot express their expertise in the proper way; they cannot navigate the politics; and/or they introduce other threats to performance.

In my experience, the latter prevails in majority of the cases. When an insecure leader is present, a talented expert will eventually get around them. I've watched that time and again. However, I've mostly watched experts get marginalized due to their constant digging of their own grave secondary to distracting work behaviors.

The fallacy is that people have to tolerate an expert no matter their other distracting or poor performing behaviors because of their expertise...like a Dr. House syndrome or something. In fact, I think most leaders would gladly walk away from an expert simply because the costs and risks outweigh the benefits.

I am not suggesting you're that type of expert but the claim that you are the "only SME" is a maladaptive indicator. Suggest looking inwards before looking outwards.

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  • The project runs in the healthcare sector and I'm the only person in the project team with a healthcare background. This is recognised by the project manager. The project sponsor is a subject matter expert and has decision making authority, however also very little availability for the project. She is not a member of the project team per se. This background information and your experience with "insecure" leaders aside, I'm not sure I agree with your ready endorsement of "marginalising" project team members. Also, I'm missing in your answer a clear reference to the questions I posed above.
    – YoZF
    Sep 5 at 18:54
  • @YoZF, I am not "endorsing" marginalizing employees. I am explaining why that might occur. It is not uncommon to exploit an employee's strengths and doing what you can to minimize impact from weaknesses. That's quite normal. I took issue with your premise of the question; therefore, providing an answer to your questions seems...wrong. Sep 5 at 20:55

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