Eight to Late

Sensemaking and Analytics for Organizations

Are project management skills generic?

with 4 comments

Jack’s a good friend of mine. A few days ago we were talking about this and that, when the conversation veered to project management:

“By the way, ” he said, “we’re looking for a new project manager for the CRM project I told you about last week. Would you know anyone who might be interested?”

“What kind of person are you looking for? Do you want someone with significant PM experience or do you want a CRM expert?” I replied. I have this annoying habit of answering a question with several questions.

We went back and forth a few times and ended up drafting out an advertisement for the position.

Let me ask you now: what do you think is more important for a project manager – domain knowledge (i.e. expertise in a specific subject area ) or project management skills and experience? 

My opinion? Although some domain knowledge is helpful and perhaps even important, many key attributes of a good project manager are skills which are applicable across a wide range of industries. I’ve thought so for a while, and this paper which I reviewed in an earlier post, appears to strengthen my position. After all, if practices are generic, skills should be too.

I set about performing an (admittedly unscientific) survey to see if this is indeed so. Here’s what I did: I looked at several online job postings for IT project managers. On sampling ten of these at random from a well-known local job site,  I found that many advertisements listed similar skill and experience requirements. Below I list the skills and attributes that appeared most frequently in the advertisements surveyed (frequency of appearance in brackets). 

  1. Communication skills (8) 
  2. Problem solving / analytical ability (6)
  3. Vendor / stakeholder management (6)
  4. Ability to work under pressure (6)
  5. Negotiation skills (5) 
  6. Understanding of project lifecycle /  methodology (5)

Note that I’ve incorporated similar attributes into a single point – e.g. Exceptional written and oral presentation skills and Good verbal and written communication skills have been combined under Communication Skills.

It is interesting that domain knowledge  does not appear in the list. This attribute came in just under the cutoff mark, with four ads specifying  it as a requirement. What’s even more interesting is the skills and attributes listed above are generic – i.e. they are applicable across projects in any domain.  So, my survey, for what it’s worth, indicates that the answer to the question posed in the title is, “Yes, the most important project management skills, as determined by what employers look for, are indeed generic.” 

Written by K

April 19, 2008 at 11:52 pm

Posted in Project Management

4 Responses

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  1. Hi Kailash,

    A thought-provoking post. Thanks for the results of your survey. My two cents:

    I wonder if you would get similar results looking for construction project managers. My gut feel is that specific domain knowledge is pretty high up the list in those job postings. And regardless of what a posting says, I wonder who actually gets hired for these positions. All things being equal, I suspect that domain knowledge becomes the deciding factor. Little weaker in PM but have domain knowledge? I bet domain knowledge trumps.

    If nothing else, I want a project manager that has an awareness of the risks that face information technology or other projects where specific process or product knowledge is important. Too many executives I have seen assume that IT projects are like contruction projects where one welder, pipefitter, or carpenter will work as well as any other. They don’t seem to grasp that process knowledge is different from job to job and company to company and replacing a lost resource is not like replacing a trades craftsman.



    April 22, 2008 at 12:15 am

  2. Mike,

    Thanks for your comments.

    You’re absolutely right: a project manager needs both domain knowledge and PM skills.

    My survey indicates that the most valued PM skills – as determined by surveying IT job ads on a specific site – are generic. That is, the skills are not technology specific and hence applicable across a range of domains. This does not, however, diminish the importance of domain knowledge for project managers.

    I found it interesting that domain knowledge showed up so low on my survey. I suspect this is because I restricted the survey to an IT job site, where a certain level of technology-specific knowledge might be taken for granted by employers.





    April 22, 2008 at 5:56 pm

  3. Kailish,

    Thanks for the reply. I have worked for two great project managers that had virtually no background or domain knowledge specific to IT. They were incredibly bright, had a broad background, listened extremely well, could formulate just the right question and demanded an understandable answer, and were able to make decisions when they were called for but weren’t afraid to consider issues that might make them reverse a prior decision.

    Two data points doesn’t say much but they do add anecdotal evidence to your survey results. These two managers were effective managing IT projects with the above generic skills.




    April 25, 2008 at 1:15 am

  4. Mike,

    Thanks for your response. From a practitioner’s perspective, it is always good to hear of real-life stories of PMs who were able to work successfully in unfamiliar domains.





    April 25, 2008 at 10:54 am

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