Do subject matter experts make good project managers?

An argument that comes up from time to time in project management circles is on the question of whether having expertise or knowledge in a particular area makes you a better manager of projects in that area.  For example, if you spent years during your career as a carpenter on house-building projects, could that make you a better project manager on house-building projects?

That idea certainly has intuitive appeal.  It would seem to make sense that if you have specialist, even expert, knowledge about something you would obviously manage a project better that touched on that expertise.  You would be able to find solutions to technical problems more quickly, understand the details of any issue to a greater degree, advise others on the project team the best order for activities to take place.

Unfortunately, I just about completely disagree.

The counter argument (to which I subscribe) is that a project manager’s core skillset should be, well, um… project management.  That is, delivering a set of agreed objectives within the constraints of time, cost and quality.  And here’s the interesting bit – if the role of the project manager is to focus on delivery according to time, cost and quality then having specific expertise in an area can actually become a distraction.  A hindrance in fact.

Consider my earlier statements: You would be able to find solutions to technical problems more quickly, understand the details of any issue to a greater degree, advise others on the project team the best order for activities to take place. All well and good, except for the fact that none of those things is key to the success of the project manager.  Good project managers recognise that, in order to continue being good project managers, they cannot possibly become an expert in all those fields in which they might deliver projects.  A typical project manager could quite conceivably deliver half-a-dozen projects over the course of just one year.  It would be surprising, wouldn’t it, if the PM were an expert in six different disciplines?  And subsequently dropped them in favour of six different disciplines the following year…

If you do have expertise in an area, the danger comes when you get drawn into issues based on your knowledge.  It is an appealing thing for the former engineer to start delving into the engineering aspects of the problem, rather than letting the current project engineer figure it out whilst you worry about how the budget will be affected. It is a mistake as well, to assume you know better than your assembled project team, just because you have managed a similar project before.  Every project is different, being delivered in a different set of environmental circumstances, by different people, for a different set of reasons.

Project managers need experts to focus on the things that require expertise.  You should absolutely have someone on your team who does have expertise in the area.  And you should rely heavily on them to use that experience to present options and solutions throughout the project. This in turn allows the project manager remains focussed on delivery.

There’s a reason that there isn’t a Prince2 for web developers, or an APM for civil engineers.

Even where a project manager has carved out a specialism of sorts – a software development project manager, for example – I would argue that their success in delivering projects in that specialism comes in spite of, not because of, their knowledge in that area.  Because if you are regularly delivering projects successfully, it is because you have been managing the time, cost and quality aspects well; keeping a close tab on your risks; keeping your stakeholders informed and happy; motivating your team; and any of the other activities associated with project management.  But note, none of them – not one! – requires you to have subject matter expertise in anything other than project management.  There’s a reason that there isn’t a Prince2 for web developers, or an APM for civil engineers.  It’s because the principles of project management apply universally.

Whilst I recognise there may be some small benefit in having familiarity with an area – you might know some of the acronyms of the trade, you maybe have some lessons learned already in your back pocket – I really don’t believe they create such a significant advantage.  A good project manager should, of course, spend time understanding the area they are working in.  They should absolutely take an interest in it.  Gosh, it would be a dull career indeed if we weren’t interested in the things we delivered.  But don’t confuse interest or expertise in a subject with an ability to deliver.  They are completely different things.

As a final observation, I notice that hiring managers frequently make the same mistake.  They will say, “we need to find someone with experience in aerospace projects/FinTech projects/flugelbinder projects*/retail projects/etc., etc., etc.” rather than saying “we need to find someone with demonstrable project management experience across a range of challenging projects.”  Surely if you have the latter, the former is pretty redundant?  And if you hire someone who has only delivered projects in a specific area, you lose all the benefits of cross-pollination – the PMs who steal the best bits from all the areas in which they have delivered.

At least, that’s what I think.  Where do you stand on the debate?  Is it better to have an expert for a project manager or an expert in project management?  Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

*Although, notably, people with flugelbinder experience typically leave project management for a career in hospitality management.

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