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Build Expertise Where It Matters

Project managers should focus on their expertise in project management, while building foundational knowledge in their industry or business area.

What to Expect

  • Appreciate that project management is increasingly becoming a business function.
  • Learn what project managers need — and don’t need — to understand.
  • Understand how to develop a plan to improve business acumen.

Projects are approved to deliver a business benefit. It therefore follows that project managers should be seen as business leaders as well as project leaders. But does that mean that project managers must be experts in their industry or business function?

The last decade or so has seen a significant shift away from managing to the triple constraint and toward managing to enable business outcomes. Project managers are expected to understand the business context they are supporting, and they need the ability to make decisions that result in the best possible chance of the expected benefits being achieved.
But that’s not the same as saying they need to be an expert in their industry. Instead, project managers should focus on expertise in project management and supplement that with:

  • A foundational understanding of the business areas they support and the context of each individual project. This should be sufficiently strong so that the project manager can speak credibly about the industry and business area.
  • Relationships with the individuals within the organization who are expected to be industry and business area experts. That will include the customer, and potentially the sponsor, but should also include individuals who can provide additional insight into how the business area operates, how it evolves and how the project benefits the organization.
  • The ability to honestly assess the limits of their own knowledge and understanding. This will ensure they know when they are reaching the limitations of their foundational understanding and need to leverage their relationships across the business.

The last of these points is the most critical. Unless project managers recognize when they need to make decisions requiring levels of knowledge and comprehension that go beyond their own abilities, they risk making the wrong choices and damaging the project’s ability to succeed. They will also hurt their own reputation as project managers.

Project managers must recognize that asking for help is not a sign of weakness. It simply means they need insight and information beyond the scope of their own role. That needs to be balanced — project managers who don’t understand the basics of their industry and business areas aren’t going to survive in today’s world. But trying to know too much — or thinking you know too much — is just as dangerous.

To put themselves in this position, project managers need to ensure that their business acumen is as strong as it needs to be. That means working with their line manager and other stakeholders, such as the project management office, to develop a plan that provides:

  • An understanding of the key elements of their industry. Who are the leaders? Where does the company stand? What are its strengths? Where are the opportunities? What’s the long-term strategy?
  • An appreciation for the factors that influence the market and business area. Is the market sensitive to price, or is it more focused on functionality? How important is time to market? What are the key differentiators?
  • A program to maintain understanding as market conditions and business priorities evolve. With the pace of change in today’s world, these can’t be one-time learnings. There must be an ongoing evolution of understanding of business factors.

This kind of commitment by project managers, and those who support them, is necessary to ensure sufficient business understanding to make project decisions that support those businesses. If that is something project managers want to achieve, the opportunities are better now than ever before.

Key Takeaways

  • Project managers need to understand the basics of the industry and business areas they serve.
  • Project managers do not need to be experts in the industry of business they serve. They should instead leverage the existing business experts.
  • Project managers should work with their managers to develop plans for building and maintaining business acumen.