A healthy discussion started this week in a LinkedIn group regarding the heavy emphasis placed by hiring managers on domain expertise for project management positions.
Such debates reveal highly polarized views.
Some say that a competent project manager should be capable of managing any type of project. The skills required to facilitate alignment in the definition of a desired end state and to harness the creativity of a team to achieve that outcome don’t require intimate knowledge of the underlying subject matter. Not surprisingly, this view tends to be common among project managers. PMI has also incorporated domain expertise in their project management talent triangle alongside traditional hard and soft skills.
Speak with team members, project sponsors, or project managers and you will be regaled with at least one tale of the horrors which befell a project when the assigned project manager lacked domain expertise.
As I’ve written previously, some domain knowledge is valuable to enable a project manager to have sufficient basis to trust his or her gut when presented with a recommended path of action. It can also help establish an initial connection with team members who may have never worked with the project manager in the past.
Excessive domain expertise increases the potential for a project manager second-guessing or undermining the role of team members or even neglecting project management responsibilities in favor of delivering scope. It can also create blind spots – the more we know about something, the less we are open to accepting that we don’t know everything. Finally, creativity comes from diversity – a project manager who only has had experience in one domain may have difficulty thinking outside of the box.
So what influences the perceived importance of domain expertise?
Expectations of stakeholders
The more positive the experiences they have with a given project manager, the less importance they may place on that factor. If the majority of stakeholders have withnessed a project failure which they attribute to insufficient domain expertise, its importance will increase. If they have never been part of a project which was successfully managed by a project manager who lacked domain expertise, that will also reduce their confidence.
If a project manager is able to assemble a team with all of the domain expertise required to successfully deliver approved scope, there will usually be sufficient subject matter expertise to enable the necessary checks and balances to generate good, well-challenged outcomes. Unfortunately, paucity of required skills resulting from financial constraints or from excessive multitasking means that the project manager is expected to have domain expertise to compensate.
While we can’t control this reality, what we can control is how we react to it – fish where the fish are biting.