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Changing Industries in Your Project Management Career
By James Clements

Over the course of my project management career I have changed industry twice and have had many more minor changes of sectors inside those industries.

I want to recount some of the techniques I’ve learned to apply in these two major and several minor changes and at the end of this article I’ve outlined 7 Tips to help if you are considering doing just this.

I should note, that whilst I have changed “industry”, in both instances, the core or fundamental practices used to execute the projects stayed largely the same, ie. there was always a connection to ships/marine/heavy industry/construction and I think this is worth any would be industry hopper considering.

Changing both industry and the underlying technology that are utilized to execute the projects is a big ask and probably one that could possibly be looked upon negatively by recruiters.

That said, I’m sure it can and has been done, I’d love to hear from anyone that has successfully (or not) achieved this.

My first move was from Commercial Shipbuilding and Repair into Defense Warship Repair & Upgrade.

While we still worked on ships, the “Defense Industry” is a completely different kettle of fish, obviously much more stringent in requirements of structure, hierarchy and traceability both technically and financially and most Defense Industry people are ex Military, so culturally very different.

Later I would move into a Defense & Industry Alliance PMO where there was still the warship familiarity plus my newfound knowledge of how the defense industry operated, but now with the inclusion of Combat System software development and change, this was another (big) step into new and unfamiliar territory.

10 years after that initial move, I moved my project management career both Internationally from Australia to Dubai as well as Industry, moving into Oil and Gas, I will address the International move in a separate blog post soon, focusing on the challenges in project communication and collaboration this presents.

Within the Oil & Gas Industry, I became involved in Floating Production Storage & Offloading (FPSO) Modules and systems, Offshore Production Platforms and later changed to Offshore Drilling Rigs and dabbled in Renewable Energy as we sought business outside the O&G Industry during the downturn after the GFC.

In doing this I made some mistakes, had some wins, walked into some very poor projects which is difficult on top of the new industry challenges, so with this in mind I’ve listed what I think are the 7 most important things I’ve learned and that I would advise anyone changing industries to consider:

  1. Learn about the industry and company.

    Before you even walk in the front door, get on the internet, find out about the industry, company, management, clients and products, start getting into the right head space, the learning curve is going to be steep, start asap.

  2. Go back to the basics.

    As far as I recall, calendars and money don’t change with each industry. So when you can, sit down and have a look at the project basics like the contract, the schedule and budget and what they are forecasting before you even try to understand the product in detail. Better still get someone to walk you through them and the last couple of project management reports and if you see anomalies you would question previously, question them again.

    Your lack of knowledge at this point is actually a good thing. You can look “at the numbers” in an unbiased or clinical way because too many times when we are too close to a project, we look at anomalies but make excuses about why they are acceptable when they shouldn’t be.

  3. Good (Project) Management practices apply across all industries.

    Regardless of whether you are managing a project for a non profit to sell raffle tickets or putting the next satellite into space, good solid people and management practices work in all industries and projects. Do not let your nervousness at being in a new position and industry send your common sense compass off track, if it was wrong in your last position, it’s most likely still wrong in this new industry. I’ve occasionally buttoned my lip when I’ve seen something wrong, only to regret it later when it went totally off track, speak up, but do it diplomatically!

  4. Ask to be shown.

    Once you’ve met the project management team and the other managers in the organization, systematically go around and ask the project team to walk you through their portion of the work, learn about the product and the processes to deliver it, start building your knowledge, you’ll learn a lot about the status of the project at the same time. Note: Don’t think that you need to know everything about your project, your knowledge will grow in time, initially get a broad overview and find out who to go to to answer any questions that arise, people love to help.

  5. Have more questions than answers.

    You should be a sponge in the first few weeks, asking open ended questions, prompting and finding out what’s going in your projects, what are the norms in the industry and company you work for, get a feel what’s going on and how things work.

  6. Meet the client straight away.

    I remember one of the hardest things I found changing industry is meeting the client. Everyone wants to look professional, knowledgeable and switched on in front of the client. You are not going to be this person straight away so don’t try. Ask your boss to take you to see the customer or ring them as soon as possible, say hello, tell them who you are, that you’re just getting a feel for the project, don’t know too much yet and make a date to meet in a week or so. This buys you some time to get a feel for the project before you sit down with them for some serious discussion.

  7. Don’t be a Bull in a China shop.

    I’ve seen many people come to new companies, projects and industries and straight away say “At XYZ Company we did it this way!” or “That isn’t right, I know a better way!”. You may be right, but a lot of the times you’ll be wrong and if you’re not wrong you’ll get everyone off side with that approach. There may be regulations, conventions or constraints in this new industry you are not aware of that dictate why a certain process or practice is being done the way it is. Better to ask why things are being done the way they are, if you have a better way, ask if it would work, be diplomatic about it until you’re absolutely sure.

James Clements, MBA, MPD has been managing, directing, winning projects and developing project management processes in diverse industries around the world for the past 20 years. You can contact James via his website here and you can read more from him on his blog.

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