Are Project Managers Generalists or Specialists?

Strategic thinking and technical know-how are both important

March 7, 2018 | Helen S. Cooke

When discussing new hires, organizations often categorize candidates as either generalists or specialists. Specialists are typically sought for technical jobs while generalists are steered toward staff or junior management roles. But more and more, with businesses in a constant state of flux, the really good managers need to be both generalists and specialists. This is especially true for project managers, who must be strategic thinkers while also understanding the technical roles of the teams they manage.

Project Management is a burgeoning field because projects emerge to shape and control areas of significant change—and these days, change is the norm. In today’s rapidly evolving business environment, survival hangs on top management’s ability to anticipate critical shifts in the business climate and get ahead of the curve. The old adage “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is a luxury today. Savvy leadership anticipates the shift and fixes it before it breaks. So strong capabilities in the application of inductive reasoning, otherwise known as “strategic thinking,” is critical at top management levels. Moving up into management requires not only that type of strategic thinking, but also the leadership wisdom to take the organization in a new direction.

This is where project managers—who also excel in strategic thinking—earn their keep. The significant changes in how we do business, or shifts in how we operate, cannot be made incrementally through “continuous improvement.” Big changes require a project to deliver results. And it’s not just the result of the project that represents big change; the ways in which we perform our work may change as well. Strategic projects shimmer with volatility, and only the best strategic thinkers and best performance controllers are trusted to carry them out.

Successful project managers know a great deal about the key lines of business, and another great deal about every area of top management responsibility. The technical candidate is typically strong in deductive reasoning, able to take a problem and break it down into enough detail to resolve it, integrate it, and move on to the next technical problem. While technical specialists command higher entry salaries and accelerate quickly, eventually they level off, faced with career choices of becoming a permanent senior tech, or moving into another line of the business or another employer. Some technical specialists have the combination of deductive and inductive reasoning to move into management. Some become line managers. Others become project managers.

Project management remains, first and foremost, a management profession. Years ago, executive search categorized management candidates as “king on the mountain” managers or “crag-to-crag” managers. The first moves up the ladder and fights at every rung for dominance, ultimately thriving on a position of broad control in line management. The second takes charge of a peak initiative, masters the variables and delivers the results, and then moves to a larger peak with more difficult and challenging variables and more volatile performance environments in which to deliver those results.

Many leading corporations have senior project managers on the executive team. At that level, they may no longer be called project managers, although that is their function. Often those really big projects are called strategic initiatives, and their leaders may carry the title “director.” But the application of inductive reasoning to spot the abstract trends of change in the business environment, and the deductive choices required to shape the best response, both seem to beg for the “crag-to-crag” manager who has delivered strategic results time after time in the past.  Somewhere in that person’s background is a history of delivering results on major initiatives. Big projects. Big splash changes in the headlines. Big bucks on the line.

Many project managers are hired from large consulting firms, where they made their living delivering results on big projects. Most new or entrepreneurial companies are headed up by the “crag-to-crag” manager who simply kept piling on one successful project after another. They deliver results under the most trying and volatile circumstances. Their projects are supported by “specialists” who have formal training in project management as a discipline, and also deep technical knowledge of the sorts of project management technical specialties that a very large project requires: spectacular software deployment; sophisticated estimating of time and resources; financial modelling and adequate data for projecting resources in a rapidly changing financial environment. In large consulting firms, these managers also have at least passable team leadership skills.

For executives, the challenge lies in distinguishing management professionals who have delivered management results “crag-to-crag” throughout their careers from the technical specialists who support that manager in large projects. Project managers at the highest level are skilled at delivering management results again and again. To do so, they must grasp the technical details of the desired end result, but also be skilled in extrapolating abstract trends in the marketplace, the financial environment, the competition, and emerging risks.

Every team member on a strategic project should be trained to distinguish the difference between managing line operations, and managing a challenging project in times of change. But not every member on the team will themselves have that sophisticated mix of strategic and technical knowledge, wisdom, and experience to lead the project to a successful end. Team leaders lead technical teams. Project managers manage the project. Executives must learn to avoid putting technical managers in a strategic manager position. They must also avoid putting line managers in charge of strategic projects.

Employers invest heavily in their key staff, and losing the best to the competition is neither good for business nor good for the bottom line. Identify your organization’s up-and-coming strategic project managers, test them in larger and larger projects to ensure they are really up to the task, and then trust them in securing results, even when the delivery environment is faced with myriad changes and challenges.

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  • About The Author
  • Helen S. Cooke is a 20-year project management veteran with experience in Fortune 500 companies, universities, the service industry, manufacturing, government, military and defense. She is a PMP® and a PMI® Fellow, and an experienced management consultant. She has worked on five continents and was elected a Fellow of the Project Management Institute in 2005. Helen was a PMI officer and served six years on PMI’s Global Board of Directors.

    Helen led a profit and loss practice at Deloitte for 10 years, was a mid-level manager in the federal government, and was a university administrator. She headed the Project Management Center of Excellence at McDonald’s Corporation and implemented SEICMM Level 2/3 and a PMO at United Airlines. She has taught project management systems at the graduate level at Keller Graduate School and a PMO course at DePaul University in Chicago. She is the author of several books about project management and organizational project management maturity.