The Project is About the Product

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.

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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 is About the Product

  1. Dave,

    I can agree with you up to a point. When making a radical industry shift, then your relevance drops way down. I know I couldn’t walk into a building site and be a lead project manager, that’s to far from what I’ve done.

    Then I have to part ways with you on this one. I’ve worked in high tech for twenty years. Most of that was software. In my last job I went for a hardware job and I pitched myself as the person who could bring the team together. I didn’t know word one about hard drives but I knew project teams and product development process. I ended up helping that company make a multi hundred percent improvement in product throughput.

    I can’t go into construction PM, without a big learning ramp up, but I can take my skills into a lot of industries with no loss of effectiveness. I think people skills are the new frontier of project management.

    Thanks for making us all think on these subjects.


  2. Thanks for the reply, Joel. I agree that there are some leaps across domains that can be made by some practitioners. We’re not all stuck in our own rut. But you’re an exceptional practitioner. I also agree that people skills are the key to success, in any domain.

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