Does a Project Manager Need To Be an Expert on the Project Matter?
A project manager review financial documents with a member of her team.

Hiring a project manager (PM) can be a big investment. But, if an upcoming project will have a critical impact on your business (such as the implementation of a change in technology or workflow), it’s wise to hire a PM that will guide that transformational project.

Once you decide to hire a project manager, the next logical step is to identify suitable candidates for the position. As you do so, it’s important to address an interesting question that may come up: Does a project manager need to be an expert on the specific project matter he or she will be overseeing? While technical proficiency isn’t mandatory, it can be advantageous for certain projects. Here are some factors to consider when evaluating project management candidates:

Expertise Is a Plus, but Soft Skills Are Essential

At the end of the day, the most important skills a project manager can possess are “soft skills,” such as the ability to clearly set and communicate the scope of a project, an aptitude for active listening, and a knack for motivating team members to fulfill their assigned roles. In addition, PM-specific soft skills are key, including organizational ability, planning ahead for unexpected setbacks, and effective time management.

Project managers with exceptional soft skills can be successful in their roles, even if they don’t possess the depth of technical knowledge that other team members have. Consider this scenario: a financial services company wants to migrate its financial records to a new database. How could a new PM with no data migration experience successfully guide this project to its completion?  

The answer: By asking a lot of questions. For example, the PM could ask each data migration company under consideration questions such as:

  • Why are you the best company to handle this project?
  • What does your analysis indicate are the top five risks on this project, and how can we prevent them?
  • How does your budget align with your work breakdown structure?

When the PM needs to make technical decisions, some key questions to ask may include:

  • What are the three best ways to handle this situation?
  • What are the pros and cons of each option?
  • How would each decision affect the risk of the project?

The point is, an exceptional PM should always be open to expert opinions, even if they already have a strong technical knowledge within the project’s industry. PMs should constantly be asking questions, gathering data, and exploring different options — skills which may not be technical in nature, but are certainly critical to a positive outcome.

Expertise Can Shorten the Gap Between Discovery and Implementation

While soft skills are absolutely essential for effective project management, a PM with technical expertise in the project matter will enjoy definite advantages over one with no industry-specific experience.

The biggest difference is that prior experience can more quickly bridge the gap between discovery and implementation. Taking the scenario mentioned above one step further, imagine that the PM does have prior experience in data migration. If so, they should already have an idea of which questions to ask a prospective data migration contractor (e.g., Have they worked with SQL databases before? What’s their plan to prevent data loss during transfer? etc.). It will also be easier for the PM to anticipate potential risks and take steps to prevent them.  

Look for a Project Manager Who Uses a Methodology That Aligns With Your Current Processes

Another factor to consider is which methodology a prospective PM is comfortable with — or whether they can toggle back and forth between different approaches. Moreover, does their methodology of choice align with what your organization is already doing in terms of project management? For example, if your company has used the Scrum methodology for years, it may be disruptive to bring in a PM who’s only comfortable with Kanban.

All things considered, it’s usually the course of wisdom to bring in a PM with previous experience managing projects similar to yours. A project manager who’s only worked on one or two projects at the same company may not know which questions to ask or which methodologies to use. They could come in with the idea that they’ll tap into their previous experience and get the job done that way, instead of presenting multiple options for your consideration.

Tailoring Project Manager Expertise: Full-Time vs. Project-Based Roles

Do you plan on adding someone to your project management office (PMO) on a full-time basis, or as a shorter-term consultant? The answer to this question may have a huge impact on your final hiring decision.

If you’re looking for a temporary, project-based hire, then you will likely want to prioritize individuals who possess deep subject matter expertise relevant to the project at hand. This type of candidate will bring a comprehensive understanding of project intricacies, enabling effective decision-making, risk mitigation, and resource allocation. Their in-depth knowledge will allow them to navigate unique complexities and ultimately drive a successful project home.

On the other hand, when considering full-time hires for your PMO, you may want to focus on seasoned professionals with a wealth of project management experience. By prioritizing strong project management skills over subject matter expertise, your PMO can effectively oversee various projects, ensuring consistent delivery of high-quality results across the organization.

What We’ve Learned About Project Management

At The Doyle Group, we’ve learned from experience that a project manager with both exceptional soft skills and strong technical expertise can be a priceless asset to your company. For instance, if you’re using an external vendor to help you implement technology, you need someone to verify that they’re giving you what you asked for. A PM with industry-specific expertise can serve as an “insurance policy” that ensures the successful delivery of an impactful project.

Moreover, when companies bring in an expert as a project manager, the project tends to be delivered on time and on (or under) budget. Expectations are met, and unknowns are avoided. In a sense, this type of PM acts as a key component in a system of “checks and balances.” The PM guides you and protects your business throughout the duration of the project, which provides you with peace of mind and confidence in a positive outcome.

If you’d like to learn more about how a project manager with industry-specific expertise can benefit your business, and how you can identify the right one for your open position, reach out to our team at The Doyle Group today.

Please Enter Your Email Below.
Join our mailing list to get access to exclusive content
Download the New Hiring Guide