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Industry Specific Knowledge: Is It a Key Factor to Being a Top-Performing Project Manager?
By Gary Hamilton, Gareth Byatt, and Jeff Hodgkinson

Imagine the following scenario: your organization has identified a strategic project, crucial to its long-term future. You need a top-class, experienced project manager to maximize its chances of success. What do we mean by “experienced”? Does it mean knowledge specific to the industry in which you operate, and/or something else? This is the question we have asked ourselves.

Whether industry-specific knowledge is important to being a top-performing project manager is often debated in the program and project management community. There are many discussions on the pros and cons of being a “specialist vs. a generalist” project manager, which is a similar question. We don’t profess to have all the answers – far from it; instead, we hope to provide some perspectives to help you think about the relevance of industry knowledge to achieving high performance in project management.

We have posed this question to a number of our peers. We would like to thank them for their time; their names are at the end of the article. You will note that, as well as writing about the specific question of industry experience, we branch into important related areas.

“Industry experience” means what, exactly?

By industry experience, are we talking about functional domain experience (e.g., in areas such as accounting, HR, business transformation and the like) or are we talking about technical industry experience (e.g., knowledge of financial markets trading, pharmaceutical development, construction projects, aeronautical projects and so on)? This is our starting point. You need to consider the specific skills required for the project, and which specialists will be on the team with the PM. For example, on a business transformation project, the PM will need knowledge on handling organization change management. Is industry expertise of the organization introducing the internal transformation changes critical? Important, yes, but, in this case, probably not vital. However, when a project is focused on delivering technical outcomes such as implementing a financial trading platform, building a new oil refinery or constructing a new building, the PM’s industry knowledge and experience – particularly for large, complex projects where you need a “top PM” – is likely to be sought after. So here is a question for you: would an experienced, top-class construction project manager be good at managing an important functional-specific project to change accounting processes? The answer is that it depends. And a key dependency, which we shall look at later in this article, is the composition and skill-set of their team. If the PM has the right skills and is partnered with good team members, why not? We’ll explain our thinking about this in the rest of the article. The specific role and responsibilities of the project manager for the project in hand will determine how much industry experience is required. If the organization’s model is for PMs to be very much hands on, a certain amount of knowledge will be expected. It is likely that their formal education will reflect this (that is to say, PMs in technical roles probably have a technical education background relevant to the work they now manage).

Whether you know the industry or not, you must understand the organization you work for and “how it ticks”.

This brings us onto our next point. Consider the business transformation example above. To be a top-performing PM, a good understanding of the business or organization for which you work is necessary; indeed, it is expected from you.

Let’s look at three scenarios. First, the seasoned project manager who has worked in an organization for a long time, and managed similar projects: they have formed many relationships and have built up their delivery track record. That’s straightforward. Second, the PM who joins an organization, and knows the industry they operate in well will apply their industry knowledge to create trust and gain respect from their stakeholders. The third situation is the PM who was worked on a variety of projects, and is new to the organization and the industry. How would they get on? One thing is certain – they will need to get up to speed on what “makes the organization tick” very quickly.

In all three examples, the top-performing PM must take an interest in what the organization produces and how they do it – their principles, ethos of work, etc. Whether the PM is a full-time employee, a contractor or a consultant, their stakeholders will judge their level of commitment partly on how much care they show to the organization. Therefore, any top-performing PM must invest the time to do this.

What “organizational assets” exist to help the top-performing PM?

Having historical information on projects, such as detailed performance data and lessons learned, will help any project manager get “up to speed” with the needs of a project, but a top-performing PM needs to go further than that. They must apply “smarts” to understanding what exists, and that means tapping into the network of people who can influence and help the most. If the PM is new, a mentor can provide valuable direction. If this has not been suggested to you, actively seek a mentor who is well-respected in the organization, particularly one who knows a great deal about that organization and the industry.

Do you focus on setting up a platform to achieve benefits? One of the people we asked, an experienced leader of project managers, pointed out that a top-performing project manager must always maintain focus on the core project benefits – the reasons that the project exists. And these reasons will become apparent once the project is delivered. As we have discussed in previous articles, it is not enough to deliver a project “on time, on budget and to expected levels of quality”. Benefits are realized after a project is completed, and the project manager needs to lay the groundwork for that to occur. A top-performing PM must focus very clearly on the key benefits, which will become apparent through understanding the organization.

Can you surround yourself with the best people on the team? As Jim Collins writes in his book, Good to Great: “If we get the right people on the bus, the right people in the right seats, and the wrong people off the bus, then we’ll figure out how to take it someplace great.”

As a project manager, you need to ensure that you get the right people on the bus, and that you set them up to succeed. Whether you have industry experience or not, if you do not have the right people on your bus, or they do not gel properly, your project will be compromised. Top-performing PMs always devote a lot of time to setting up the right team. On very large projects, the PM will be particularly focused on their “Leads” (clearly, they will not be able to personally select each person on a project involving hundreds or thousands of people). It is important that their organization gives them the opportunity to have the best core team, which depends on the organizational structure they work within (strong or weak matrix or functional). In some circumstances, PMs are told who will be on their team; in these situations, they have no control over how much experience their team members have. If you have the right people on your team, they will ensure that everything is appropriate to the project’s needs, and they will do what it takes to make it happen. Can you better influence things if you have experience in the industry? Maybe, but whether you have it or not, you need to know how to ask the right questions.

What do we mean by “asking the right questions”?

If you have industry experience, you will be comfortable in asking specific questions and being involved in the workshops, meetings and various forums to ensure the scope, budget and schedule are appropriate. However, you should guard against getting into too much detail if it means you replicate what your team members are already doing. If you are not familiar with the industry in which you are working, you need to be good at asking the right questions to get the “full story”. This requires experience, insight and a thorough understanding of project management practices.

Does our question keep us coming back to communication and leadership skills?

The elements for consideration that we have pointed out – all-around industry experience, understanding an organization, leveraging experience, delivering benefits, having the right people on your team and knowing how to ask the right questions – are all related to communication and leadership skills. We are talking about being savvy and earning the respect of others. If you are not on top of things, then regardless of your industry experience, you will struggle to have the elements necessary for project success.

What kind of challenges do you seek as a PM? Here’s another question. Are you driven to work in different industries, or do you prefer to be a specialist in one industry? Different project managers have different perspectives on this question. Both routes can lead to success.

In conclusion, and going back to our original question of “is industry experience required to be a top-performing PM’, we have looked at a number of elements. How much industry experience is required is one of several factors to consider, and is probably influenced by whether the project they are undertaking is a functional project or a technical project. It is also influenced by the level of authority the PM has in their team selection and management. In an organization where project teams exist in a weak matrix with control resting with functional managers of resources, the PM will have less power. If they cannot select their team, they will find it more challenging if that team does not have good industry knowledge, and they will need to “cover” for this. What is clear from our discussions with our peers is that top-performing project managers need finely tuned communications and leadership skills to succeed with their team and their stakeholders. Watch those that are good at this in action and you will see how they work.

Gareth Byatt, Gary Hamilton, and Jeff Hodgkinson are experienced PMO, program, and project managers who developed a mutual friendship by realising they shared a common passion to help others and share knowledge about PMO, portfolio, program and project management (collectively termed PM below). In February 2010 they decided to collaborate on a five (5) year goal to write 100 PM subject articles (pro bono) for publication in any/all PM subject websites, newsletters, and professional magazines / journals. They have been translated into Arabic, Czechoslovakian, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and Russian and published on websites in 23 countries including Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Italy, India, Jamaica, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nigeria, Pakistan, Panama, Poland, Russia, Trinidad, Turkey, UK, USA, and Sri Lanka. Their mission is to help expand good program and project management practices by promoting the PM profession, to be a positive influence to the PM Community, be known as eminent influencers of PM practices, and in earnest hope readers can gain benefit from the advice of their 65+ years of combined experience and expertise and include the expertise of co-authors who write with them on certain articles and subjects. Along with writing articles, each also champions a role in the overall writing program collaboration process:

  • Gareth manages all requests for additional guest author collaborations
  • Gary manages the article development tracking and readership metrics
  • Jeff manages the article distribution and new readership demographics

Each can be contacted for advice, coaching, collaboration, and speaking individually as noted in their bios or as a team at: Contactus@pmoracles.com

Gareth Byatt is Head of the Group IT Portfolio Management Office for Lend Lease. Gareth has worked in several countries and lives in Sydney, Australia. Gareth has 16+ years of project, program, and portfolio management experience in IT and construction. He can be contacted through LinkedIn.

Gareth holds numerous degrees, certifications, and credentials in program and project management as follows: an MBA from one of the world’s leading education establishments, a 1st-class undergraduate management degree, and the PMP®, PgMP®, PMI-RMP®, & PRINCE2 professional certifications. Gareth is currently a Director of the PMI Sydney Chapter, he is the APAC Region Director for the PMI’s PMO Community of Practice and he chairs several peer networking groups.

He has presented on PMOs, portfolio and program and project management at international conferences in the UK, Australia, & Asia including PMI APAC in 2010. Email Gareth: Email Gareth: gareth.byatt@gmail.com

Gary Hamilton has 16+ years of project and program management experience in IT, finance, and human resources and volunteers as the VP of Professional Development for the PMI East Tennessee chapter. Gary is a 2009 & 2010 Presidents’ Volunteer Award recipient for his charitable work with local fire services and professional groups. He has won several internal awards for results achieved from projects and programs he managed as well as being named one of the Business Journal’s Top 40 Professionals in 2007. Gary holds numerous degrees and certifications in IT, management, and project management and they include: an advanced MBA degree in finance, and has the PgMP®, PMP®, PMI-RMP®, PMI-SP® , CAPM®, Project+, PRINCE2, ITIL-F, MCTS, MCITP, and SSGB professional certifications. Email Gary: Gary@PMOracles.com or contact him through LinkedIn.

Jeff Hodgkinson is a 32 year veteran of Intel Corporation, where he continues on a progressive career as a program/project manager. Jeff is an IT@Intel Expert and blogs on Intel’s Community for IT Professionals for Program/Project Management subjects and interests. He is also the Intel IT PMO PMI Credential Mentor supporting colleagues in pursuit of a new credential.

Jeff received the 2010 PMI (Project Management Institute) Distinguished Contribution Award for his support of the Project Management profession from the Project Management Institute. Jeff was also the 2nd place finalist for the 2009 Kerzner International Project Manager of the Year AwardTM. He lives in Mesa, Arizona, USA and volunteers as the Associate Vice President for Credentials & Certifications and the Agile CER (Chapter Engagement Representative) for the Phoenix PMI Chapter. Because of his contributions to helping people achieve their goals, he is the third (3rd) most recommended person on LinkedIn with 555+ recommendations, and is ranked in the Top 60 (currently 54th) most networked LinkedIn person. He gladly accepts all connection invite requests from PM practitioners at: www.linkedin.com/in/jeffhodgkinson.

Jeff holds numerous certifications and credentials in program and project management, which are as follows: CAPM®, CCS, CDT, CPC™, CIPM™, CPPM–Level 10, CDRP, CSM™, CSQE, GPM™, IPMA-B®, ITIL-F, MPM™, PME™, PMOC, PMP®, PgMP®, PMI-RMP®, PMI-SP®, PMW, and SSGB. Jeff is an expert at program and project management principles and best practices. He enjoys sharing his experiences with audiences around the globe as a keynote speaker at various PM events.

Email Jeff: jghmesa@gmail.com or at: phxpmicredentials@yahoo.com

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