Over the years, I’ve listened to a lot of project managers argue that you don’t need in-depth business or industry knowledge in order to successfully manage projects. However, I don’t recall ever seeing anyone who was not a project manager making that argument. If you take a look at requisitions on any of the internet job sites, I think you’ll see that just about all of them stipulate experience in a particular problem domain or line of business. If there’s a software company that’s looking for someone with experience managing civil engineering projects, I’d bet that they’re developing software for that target audience and want a subject matter expert, rather than someone to manage their software development project.
Just this week Michelle Symonds posted her thoughts on the subject, and asked the critical question: “[D]o project managers who have reached their current role [based on their experience in the business area or industry] have any greater success than a formally trained professional?” Unfortunately, she doesn’t try to answer it – she simply states that “[I]t can actually be a disadvantage to get too involved in the detail of individual tasks and activities.” I won’t disagree, but I will point out that “uninvolved” is rarely acceptable to those sponsoring the project, or the stakeholders, or the project team.
Try walking onto a construction site and announce that you’re qualified to manage construction of this mixed-use tower because you’ve successfully led software development projects. You know a lot about team building, and risk management, and planning and managing tasks, and dealing with stakeholders. Or go into a pharmaceutical firm and tell them you can shepherd their new drug through clinical trials and on to production, because you’ve previously built roads and bridges. Or tell the folks at Microsoft that you can manage development of the next version of Windows because you led development of a very successful new recreational vehicle for Winnebago.
Projects are about the products that they deliver, and what they mean to the people who will benefit (or not) from those products. You can’t deliver a significant product in a business or technical domain unless you understand enough about that domain to communicate with the stakeholders. That includes the external regulatory authorities who will drive many of the tasks and deliverables. That also includes the “downstream” stakeholders, such as the people in manufacturing, or support, or marketing, or maintenance, or any number of functional areas. Sure, you can probably learn all that stuff, but the subject matter experts can learn to manage projects; they’ve done so for as long as people have been organizing to conduct “temporary endeavors.” And they can probably learn it more quickly than someone who’s managed the build-out of a network of cellular telephone towers can learn what’s needed to replace a payroll system.
Note that this phenomenon isn’t limited to project managers. For some reason, former pizza company CEO Herman Cain decided he had the experience needed to be President of the United States. He didn’t make it through the interview process.