Generalists vs. Specialists – what will the PPM future bring?

Project manager sat adding project information to a small white board in front of her while sat in a room with colleague

It is hopefully not a shock to suggest that over the last couple of decades there has been a general trend across most industries for roles to move from the specialist to the more generalist. This is not to say that specialists in whatever field do not exist, they simply are not as prevalent anymore.

Perhaps the biggest driver of this has been the rise of technology, not just the recent rise in AI and automation, but that of the internet and computers in general. These developments have eroded traditional roles such as specialist typists, those in data entry and many more. Even roles such as mechanics have and will continue to be significantly impacted by the move to self-driving, electric cars.

As the pace of change increases people are much more likely to change role or industry in their career than they once did – and this is perhaps compounding the shift. Becoming too specialist in any one area could potentially even be seen as a risky move for career longevity as it may limit movement later down the line.

This is not different for project managers.

Project managers – generalist or specialist?

As our recently published 2019 PPM benchmark study shows, project managers predominantly see themselves as generalists (54%) and this is a trend which looks set to continue into the future.

This is perhaps not surprising given project management methods such PRINCE2® take a generalist approach. The method can be applied to any project environment and is itself described as “generic”. It therefore follows that a project manager can and should be a generalist, shouldn’t it?

3 block illustrating percentages for whether project managers saw the need to be more generalist, specialist or did not need to change as recorded by AXELOS' PPM Benchmarking Report 2019

But this might be too simple a view

The same study also found that projects which were managed by project managers who identified themselves as specialists, were more successful (see chart below). In fact, in more successful PPM functions, one third were specialists. Now compare this to the fact that only 14% out of the whole sample identified themselves as specialists.

2 Blocks representing percentage of respondents to AXELOS PPM Benchmarking 2019 who say they are specialists in less successful and more successful PPM functions

So why would this be?

The specialist project manager – a future trend?

If we take the aforementioned example of PRINCE2 then actually the method itself has been designed to be tailored (it is a core principle of the method and was heavily reinforced and expanded in the 2017 update). Tailoring is not simple and takes good knowledge of the method, practice and experience of tailoring to a particular project context. Specialist projects managers should therefore be much better equipped to do this.

Specialists will also have much more experience in predicting, avoiding and responding to any challenges that their projects may face as they have worked in that industry, with those products and those stakeholders. It’s not rocket science, yet seemingly goes against the trend of the move towards generalists.

Ultimately it likely comes down to the operational necessities that these organizations, and their project managers, operate within. The benchmark study indeed found that project managers are experiencing:

  • Higher expectations than ever before
  • Being asked to manage and work on an increasing number of projects at any one time
  • A lack of, or limited resources which leads to them being allocated wherever they are needed.

Organizations are under such pressure to remain competitive that they perceive that they cannot afford specialist project managers.

Unfortunately, I can’t provide a simple solution, but I will finish with the sentiment not to underestimate the role and value that specialist project managers can bring. Their experience could ultimately mean the difference between the success and failure of your projects.

Read other AXELOS Blog Posts by Tom Lynam

The Importance of Vision: a case study of the PRINCE2 2017 update

Defining the delta

How to be comfortable with feeling uncomfortable

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