Why the Expert is not the Best Project Manager


Companies often turn to a pool of subject matter experts to find their next project manager. The theory being that the person that knows the most about the content is probably your best choice as the project manager — wrong!

Experienced and skilled project managers often find themselves on calls discussing potential assignments with an intermediary, only to be turned down, apparently lacking detailed knowledge of the business domain or the system to be implemented. Content knowledge is king. Never mind that the candidate has an excellent track record as a project manager….

This baffles us. One of the first questions always asked when being vetted is “Do you have any experience with system XYZ?” and when you answer "No", it is quickly followed by “Too bad. The client is looking specifically for someone with detailed knowledge of system XYZ”.

And there we are, left behind thinking that they were looking for a good project manager….

The recruiter is looking for someone to organize a rock music festival and the main criteria applied, is whether the candidate has detailed knowledge of rock music and preferably excellent guitar playing skills as well. Apparently, it doesn’t matter that the candidate has previously successfully organized jazz, film and food truck festivals. If the candidate doesn’t know the entire catalog of Metallica, then surely managing a multidisciplinary team to successfully host a rock festival is a bridge too far. Right?

Selecting a project manager purely based on content knowledge instead of actual project management skills is basically appointing the right man for the wrong job.

The project manager is appointed for the wrong reasons, which as a result introduces both a conflict of interest as well as a significant likelihood that the project manager will undermine the work done by the team members.

To start with the conflict of interest, a project manager often needs to balance the tasks and activities with the available budget and time allowed. For this, the project manager needs to be impartial to manage potentially conflicting objectives. However, people that are the system or business area experts are usually too involved in the subject matter to objectively manage this natural conflict. The rock music expert could end up having to decide between allocating budget for crowd safety and a first aid team or... book that additional band the project manager loves so much.

Secondly, subject matter experts are also very likely to involve themselves in too much detail with the work actually assigned to their project team members. Simply because they know too much about it. They cannot help themselves. This behavior will not only undermine the work done by the appointed specialists in the project but will also keep the project manager too low to the ground to properly oversee the entire field. These project managers are so busy second-guessing their own team member operating in the same area of expertise that they run out of time to do what project managers should actually be doing.

These type of project managers are easily recognized. Typically, those are the ones that are able to tell the Steering Committee in great detail why a specific change request regarding a new functionality will need to be approved including all the technical implications. However, they will not be able to provide that same Steering Committee an up to date forecasts on costs and an updated risk profile including adjusted mitigation actions and contingency measures.

Hence, the subject matter expert is wasting time second-guessing team member instead of operating on a higher level as a project manager.

That expert is so busy tuning guitars and running through playlists with the band, that there is no time left to make sure that ticket counters, concession stands, and toilets are being correctly set up.

Far out!


- Photo by Kacper Cybinski from Pexels -