I have discussed many times before whether project managers need business or technical knowledge, specific to the industry in which they work, in order to successfully manage projects. They could have gained that knowledge either because they performed the business or technical role before becoming a project manager or simply that they have always managed projects in a certain sector. But how necessary is that background knowledge to performing the PM role? Is it vital or a nice-to-have and, maybe more importantly, what do employers think?
There are some organisations where project management is a role performed in addition to, or alongside, another main role. So while a project is being undertaken someone might step into the PM role but return to their “real” job once the project is complete. Clearly in situations such as these the PM will have the relevant business or technical knowledge and that can be an advantage.
Other organisations, usually the larger ones, have project management as a quite distinct role but may still employ permanent project managers from the ranks or from the same industry or business sector. Some organisations have it as a pre-requisite and will not consider candidates with an excellent track-record if they are not from the same or a similar sector.
But is that business or technical knowledge always an advantage or could there be situations where it prevents creative thinking and where it keeps ideas in a narrowly defined space? Where it prevents PMs from seeing the bigger picture because they get involved with the detail, because they understand it, so have an inward looking perspective.
Project managers promoted from technical roles may also have difficulty communicating with stakeholders and senior management from the wider project perspective because they have a bias towards the detail or an affinity with the team members.
This reminds me of something I read about the pitfalls of being a “nice” boss and how it can be difficult to strike the right balance of authority and friendliness if you have been promoted over your peers; another challenge for some project managers.
Fortunately not all employers insist on previous business knowledge for PM roles and there are some companies that value solid project management experience and a fresh perspective above technical skills, but how well that works in practise really depends on the industry of the employer and the previous knowledge of any potential project manager.
Projects are central to the business model of so many different types of organisations now that there is a huge variety of project managers with very different backgrounds. It is hard to see how a project manager with a retail background might fit well into an IT project management role but someone from an engineering background would not find it so difficult. So don’t be afraid to move industry if you have good project management experience and credentials and a background in skills that may not be an exact match but where there are common areas and where you have the advantage of bringing a fresh perspective.