From time to time in project management workshops, someone will ask if a project manager needs to have domain experience to be successful on a project. Based on what I have seen over the years, my response is yes, but not for the reasons you might expect.
A good project manager, particularly for large projects, should not be the person doing much of the work on the project, but rather should be the person coordinating the efforts of the project team. She will make sure the right people are at the table, the right conversations are had, the right information is captured, and that the team has the best path forward to completion throughout the project.
From that perspective, I believe the primary value a project manager brings to the project is an understanding of the value of collaboration, and the tools and techniques to bring out the best in the team. This is entirely domain independent, and from consulting experience, I know that these tools can be brought to bear by an outsider from the domain successfully.
Granted, one of the reasons this works is perception – coming in as a high-falutin’ consultant, there is an expectation that I’m the ‘expert’ in this PM stuff, and people will tend to pay more attention to what I have to say.
Even more so if I have an airline ticket in my pocket. I’m sure if I made an arrangement with a consultant in Toronto to swap clients and spend our lives on planes, we would each immediately have a more respectful set of engagements.
But that’s another story, and that doesn’t help a PM that is an internal team member. Why does that PM need domain experience?
Two reasons. The first is that to be successful, there needs to be a high level of trust built up between the PM and others on the team. While we all have different starting points in terms of how deeply we trust others, having domain experience tends to increase that trust right out of the gate, whether it is warranted or not.
The second is important until a reasonably high level of trust has been built up. There is always a balancing act when we try to decide how long we think it will take to do something on the project. We don’t want to be too aggressive (well, effective project managers that understand the distinction between a target and an estimate don’t anyways), and we don’t want to be too laid back, either.
A project manager with domain experience is going to be able to more easily see when expectations are falling too far from reasonable. In a good sense, they can help the team make defendable decisions, and in a not so good sense, they can tell when someone is trying to pull the wool over their eyes.
I don’t see either of these as insurmountable in a project environment, but particularly for an internal project manager without domain experience, they can certainly grease the wheels. A bit of street creed can go a long way. – JB