Do Project Managers Need In-Depth Business or Industry Knowledge?
By Michelle Symonds
Many people believe that for a project manager to be successful, they need to have not only good project management skills and experience but also previous experience of the business area or industry in which they are working. This view is probably so widespread because they have often, in the past, simply progressed from one role within an organization into a project management role in the same company. Their previous experience is often seen as a bonus and they are just thrown in at the deep end of project management and have to quickly get up to speed with a relevant training course, or worse, no training at all.
But do project managers who have reached their current role in this way have any greater success than a formally trained professional? Or do they find it difficult to remove themselves from viewing the project at a detailed level because they understand the business in-depth but are then prevented from seeing the project from a wider perspective. It can actually be a disadvantage to get too involved in the detail of individual tasks and activities.
A professional project manager will have been trained in a wide range of skills that are transferable across businesses and will have built up enough practical experience to be able to gather the right amount of information about the business in order to understand the needs of the client. After all you wouldn’t expect other professionals such as lawyers or accountants to know everything about your business – they just need to understand enough to do their job properly.
It could be argued that there are some industries where detailed knowledge of that industry is a pre-requisite for a project manager and that may be the case in certain technical areas such as IT but it is not the case for the vast majority of projects being undertaken across a wide range of businesses. An understanding of building and motivating a team, planning and managing tasks, risk and change, and having the skills to interface effectively with a range of employees from senior managers and stakeholders right down to the most junior team member are far more important skills for a project manager to have.
So if you want to develop your career fully and have the confidence and freedom to move into new business areas, organizations, or even industries, then concentrate on developing your project management skills and don’t worry too much about your business or industry knowledge.
Ensure you have the confidence and ability to talk with business heads about defining the goals and objectives of a project, determining the expected benefits and the impact on the status quo, and where the project sits in terms of overall priority within the business. Assist with documenting the detailed business requirements and clearly describing the project by being an effective interface between the business heads and users and the project team who will deliver the end-product.
Then increase yours and the project team’s chance of success by ensuring you document who owns the project, who the stakeholders are and what criteria will define its success. And also ensure you establish a proper communication strategy and that you understand the reporting requirements.
Then you can actually get started with planning and running the project, assessing and managing the risks and establishing a solid change management process.
And, before you start, don’t forget to ensure that enough budget, time and people have been allocated so that the project is at least feasible at the outset.
When you consider all these project management skills that are required you wonder how a project manager would actually find the time to get closely involved with the detail of the tasks – even if he/she did have the relevant business knowledge. Far better to focus on developing yourself as a project professional and gaining transferable qualifications such as one of the APMP accreditations or a PMP Certification.
Michelle Symonds is a qualified PRINCE2 Project Manager and believes that the right project management training can transform a good project manager into a great project manager and is essential for a successful outcome to any project.
There is a wide range of formal and informal training courses now available that include online learning and podcasts as well as more traditional classroom courses from organizations such as Parallel Project Training.