A few weeks ago, I wrote about whether the size of the organisation matters when undertaking a project. My son asked me this when considering implementing a GIS mapping system as part of his Master’s degree. The other thought-provoking question he asked me was ‘could I do the implementation’? Roughly translated, I took this to mean ‘can a project manager work on any project?’

My instinct was to say “yes”, but like any good project manager, I wanted to consider the evidence for such a statement.

What is the role of a project manager?

The job of a project manager includes these four broad areas:

  1. Assuming responsibility for the delivery of the whole project
  2. Employing the relevant project management knowledge, tools, techniques & processes to meet the project requirements and deliverables
  3. Engaging and managing stakeholders
  4. Leading and guiding the team, noting that project teams often include people who don’t usually work together, people from different organisations and across multiple geographies, and sometimes with different systems, cultures and aspirations

Whilst specific responsibilities may vary depending on industry and project type, a project manager is broadly defined as someone who leads the project, working closely with all stakeholders, doing everything from ensuring clarity around the scope of work, educating individuals, project coordination, planning, and managing the timelines, scope, budgets and deliverables associated with the project.

What are the skills required of a project manager?

It’s very common to think about things like project planning, governance, organisation, and reporting. But the project manager is also a communicator and leader, motivating the team, making decisions, resolving conflicts, and solving problems.

Essentially anything you can think of that a manager or leader should do, then the project manager should have to do that too.

So, are project management skills transferable?

Yes, I would say project management skills are transferable, but the value add comes in the experience of the sector and types of projects.

I’ve worked in financial services for my whole career so I can turn my hand to managing projects related to Investments, Lending, Banking, Cards and Mortgages. But what about other industries? Well I know I could project manage the build of a piece of furniture (🗎 by David Hamilton), and I could most likely project manage the renovation of a house (although I probably wouldn’t be as effective as others more experienced in that area), but I feel I would struggle to project manage the complete development of a new office block.

Whilst the principles of project management are applicable for all of these, it is the value of understanding the subject matter that makes a difference. Certain skills can be applied regardless, for example around governance, planning & scheduling, resourcing, budget management, benefit management, and communication. But there are other elements where you really need to be a Subject Matter Expert (SME) such as Requirements gathering, and the identification & understanding of the severity of Risks, Issues and Dependencies.

And then there are some skills that sit in the middle such as Business case completion, understanding Regulations, Testing, Training, and Tracking & Monitoring. You can manage these but unless you understand the subject matter, you’ll probably be a bit slower & less efficient.

There are other aspects that impact too. Every client is different, so every approach is different. This makes every project very different from the last and the project manager needs to be able to adapt.

Does a project manager have to understand all aspects of the project?

To be a successful project manager you should have the right tools and know-how to choose which tool to use for which project. Being a good project manager doesn’t mean knowing all the answers off the top of your head. It’s how you find and provide the answers that makes you valuable as a project manager.

The project manager doesn’t have to understand every task to the extreme degree. For example, if a development task is assigned to a specific programmer, you don’t have to understand the code the programmer uses or how they write that code. If you have a team of strong Business Analysts then you can rely on them for the detailed knowledge, and you can rely on the business SME’s to give the business view. However, a word of caution on relying too much on the business. If the PM has worked in the area before and knows the business, then they are much better prepared to ask the questions that need to be asked. On the other side of the coin, if all you know is the task basics and how it affects or relates to other tasks in the project, that could be enough.

My conclusion was that the skills are transferable. But in considering who is going to be the project manager you will want to weigh up the balance between project complexity and risk of the project against the experience and knowledge of the project manager in that specific line of business. Or considering this another way, how much the project manager needs to hit the ground running and how far you would be prepared to potentially sacrifice on time, cost and quality of the project delivery.