The Project Manager As Specialist (or Generalist)

If you’re serious about developing a career in project management (as opposed to being an “accidental” project manager, who got stuck managing a project that happened to coalesce in your immediate area), you should probably form a mental model of the role a project manager should play in a project team.  How should a project manager add value?  The answer should (hopefully) drive your professional development plan.  While there are probably a number of dimensions to contemplate, for the moment let’s consider the continuum between specialist and generalist.

The specialist endeavors to become a master of the processes in her niche.  She knows every variation, can argue the pros and cons of different techniques, and has passionate opinions on the efficacy of most of them.  As a result, the specialist has great faith in both theory and practice, and has little patience with sloppy practitioners.  Her professional development focus is on continually expanding her knowledge and experience in her specialty.  She belongs to every professional society in her area of expertise, and reads everything they publish.  The specialist sees herself as a producer.  She agrees with Paul Simon’s take on the One-Trick Pony: “He’s got one trick to last a lifetime, but that’s all the pony needs.”

The generalist endeavors to become acquainted with the inputs to and products produced in his niche.  He probably doesn’t think of himself as a Renaissance man, but he’s got a passing familiarity with the vocabulary and key techniques of a number of fields, and how they fit together to produce a result.  As a result, the generalist has a broad view of the level of effort required to produce a complex product, and has little sympathy for those who “discover” requirements in the middle of execution.  His professional development is about breadth more than depth.  He’ll join a professional organization, but subscribe to “The Economist,” and tap CSS feeds from sites representing a dozen different disciplines.  The generalist sees himself as a facilitator.  He quotes Peter F. Drucker, “A manager is responsible for the application and performance of knowledge.”

Of course, if you’re building your career as an IT project manager, you might think you’ve already specialized, but that’s not necessarily the case.  IT projects run the gamut, from custom software development, to packaged software and SaaS implementation, to infrastructure, to maintenance, to ESI and e-discovery, to any number of other desired end results.  So you might envision yourself as a specialist in a certain sort of project management, such as Agile methodologies or data center construction.  Or you might see yourself as an IT generalist who specializes in project management, or an IT project management generalist who knows a lot about a particular business domain.  The continuum is pretty broad, and there are a lot of good seats.

Once you have a mental picture of how you want to add value in future projects, devise a career strategy, and a plan to get there.  Look at alternatives, cost them out, and conduct your ROI calculations.  Set specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, time-specific goals.  Identify the risks, talk to your stakeholders (manager, significant other), and set a budget, for both money and time.  Then select your vendors, put together a work breakdown structure, and set up a schedule.  Because we’re all project managers, here, right?  And our careers are just one more project we need to make successful.

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About Dave Gordon

Dave Gordon is a project manager with over twenty five years of experience in implementing human capital management and payroll systems, including SaaS solutions like Workday and premises-based ERP solutions like PeopleSoft and ADP Enterprise. He has an MS in IT with a concentration in project management, and a BS in Business. In addition to his articles and blog posts, he curates a weekly roundup of articles on project management, and he has authored or contributed to several books on project management.

2 thoughts on “The Project Manager As Specialist (or Generalist)

  1. Dave, you took an interesting approach at presenting this. I read the first part and found myself mumbling to myself. Yep, Yes, OK, Sure. I guess I’m a specialist.

    Then I continued on to read about your defined generalist. Yep, Yes, OK, Sure. Damn, I guess I’m a generalist as well!

    I then realized, like so many things, I am a blend of the two. Depending on when I where I have been in my career, I’ve had to leverage one over the other. But, I’ve never ignored one for the other. Both have always been present and I’ve had to look for a balance.

  2. Yup, we’re (nearly) all a mix of both. And your position on the continuum may change over time, even from one project to the next. But if you have a vision of where you are, and maybe more importantly where you want to be, it makes it easier to figure out how to get there. If we have to earn PDU’s, we might as well earn PDU’s that help us meet our goals.

    Thanks for the comment!

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