Selecting the right leader for a project, change initiative, or innovation drive is akin to choosing the captain of a ship. The decision will impact the project’s course, success, and crew morale. In this article, we delve into the factors that organisations consider when appointing leaders and argue that professional project management skills often outweigh subject matter expertise.

When discussing with clients how a project should be staffed a common starting point is the relative importance of Subject Matter Knowledge vs. Project Management Skills. Many organisations may not have experienced project management resources immediately available so will look to their current business team in the assumption that if the person knows the business or business area well, they will be able to get the project over the line. Sometimes this is because of the perception that someone from the business is immediately available or not wanting the hassle or cost of having to go externally to find the right company or person.

This is understandable, as having a project lead with deep domain knowledge can lead to a better understanding of functional intricacies. Also, internal candidates benefit from familiarity with organisational culture and people and are often ready to go without having to go through a period of selection and embedding. However, it is important to remember that business expertise alone doesn’t guarantee effective execution, and people already inside the business don’t normally have deep knowledge of every department and function, may have pre-existing biases and a tendency to perpetuate existing practices, and are often expected to manage the project in addition to their full-time role.

Organisations often consider cost as an important factor too. In many cases, bringing in an external resource will be seen as an additional cost. This can be a false economy as a good skilled external resource should be able to get the project over the line more quickly and efficiently than an unskilled internal resource.

Project Management Skills

Whilst there may be some projects that can be run effectively by an SME, we believe that for the vast majority of projects, the lead’s Project Management Skills are more important than their subject matter knowledge. A project lead needs to be able to:

  1. Have a holistic view: see the big picture, balancing scope, time, and resources.
  2. Manage Risks: anticipate and mitigate risks, ensuring smoother execution.
  3. Manage Stakeholders: navigate diverse personalities and conflicting interests.
  4. Adapt: lead regardless of domain expertise, adapting to various projects.
  5. Lead: motivate teams and foster collaboration.
  6. Drive: both the capacity and expertise to drive the project forward.

The SME still has an important role to play, but we suggest that they fulfil this role best as a part of a project team led by a Project Manager. The project manager ensures effective execution, whilst the SME provides domain-specific insights. This also allows the SME to do the job on a part-time basis so that they can continue to focus on the day-job too.

While subject matter expertise is essential, professional project management skills play a pivotal role in successful project delivery. Organisations should prioritise leadership abilities, adaptability, and holistic thinking.