The Portable Project Manager



Useful in various fields

I’ve heard all of these phrases used about Project Management skills.  The proposition is that if a seasoned Project Manager parachutes into a construction site for a project then is shuttled to a web design firm for her next project, she would be able to use the same foundational skillset to deliver on customer requirements in both places.


I agree with the general idea, but I’ve always wondered whether it was really possible for a PM to change industries.  I know that some of you feel the same, otherwise the question wouldn’t continue to be asked. Can it really be done?

Well…it depends.

I think it is possible, as long as you keep the following in mind:

  1. The PM has to be clear about the value they bring to the table. And I don’t mean clear with the team, I mean with themselves. You need to understand that you are not an expert in anything other than Project Management.  Share your experience on how to pull together a plan, communicate status, identify risk, but let the experts be the experts.  Where your familiarity with your former industry helped you, now any assumptions you bring to this new environment could hurt you. Step back and make no quick assumptions.
  2. The PM needs to work at building on their industry knowledge. Ask questions, pick up magazines, check out web sites. I’m probably exaggerating here, but I would bet that there are at least 50 magazines or on-line journals and blogs for every industry except possibly pig farming. On a weekly basis, nearly all of them trouble millions of electrons to send out junk email. Join their mailing list and learn about your industry. During calls that seem filled with jargon, pick out words and look them up. At all times and especially when the stakes are high, don’t be afraid to ask dumb questions.

I throw these caveats out there because the simple assumption that PM skills can be easily transferred ignore a couple of basic facts:

  1. Project Lifecycles can vary a little or a lot based on…
    – The Environment: Company culture, Industry, etc
    The Tools: Not just the Project Management Information Software, but the tools they use to  communicate status, change requests, and price.
    – The Teams: God created an infinite variety of personalities.  The genes may be the same, but they are grouped in a myriad of combinations.  And each of these unique combinations through life choices and chance end up in different industries.  And each of these unique combinations are mixed even further on teams. In short, there are no interchangeable team members. This is good news for Project Managers who thrive on change and differences. The skills you use to adapt to project change will serve you well here.
  2. Role-specific knowledge can add a lot to your effectiveness
    What you don’t know can hurt you. While it may be hard to accept, understanding or having experience in a field can help you see potential risks in what seems like a simple plan. Previous experience can also give you credibility when you question a plan. Role-specific knowledge makes the learning curve of becoming familiar with a new organization much easier to climb.

I know there are a lot of people with opinions on both sides of this question. Care to share them with me?  Leave me a comment or send me a tweet.  My id is jgodfrey.


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