The question is whether you must have functional competence in a specialty in order to manage projects in that area. This is the well-known "subject-matter expertise," which is possessed by subject-matter experts, or SMEs. Can a non-SME manage a technical project, or a construction project, or a whatever project?
More over-simply, the choice is seen as between management skill and subject-matter skill. Which is better?
Answer: Neither is better. Both are better. You never get enough of both, or nearly never. What you get instead is a reality that rarely fits a handy label.
Examining this matter starts with consideration of management in general, as it is practiced in today’s world of American organizations.
Anyone who has been a manager, or has tried to manage, knows how agonizing it can be. In fact, people who enter seriously into management must find ways to deal with the deeply personal challenges of living as a manager.
All those problems are your problems, and all those people are looking to you for decisions . . . decisions that will damage some of them, and turn them against you (at least temporarily).
That personal trial unfolds concurrently with, and aside from, the demands to actually learn the multiple unfamiliar activities of the job itself. Here, your image and confidence are taking a pummeling.
An important proviso: This is true for people who take the work seriously, and are in an organization that does likewise. Too many new managers do not, and are not.
Neither they nor their organizations have any real, practical commitment to managing their processes to achieve quality. Their evasions and false images take some work, but don’t produce nearly the pain of doing it properly.
Of course, no organization sets out to be mediocre, and no manager will admit to doing so, either. But in too many places, there are no real objective standards of managerial excellence, no coherent systems for supporting suitable staff people in pursuing it and no particular attention to how it is done.
When there is a breakdown or eruption resulting from some act of bad manager behavior, the organization covers it up, makes an example of the offender (or a handy substitute) and/or just blunders along until it all goes away.
Nothing really changes, because no one knows how to do that, or even thinks it should be done. The people up the hierarchy have never considered anything different, because they've never seen anything different, and no one has brought it up.
Every organization is somewhere on a continuum between really bad examples and the rare superb outfit, whether it be commercial, professional or nonprofit.
When you are – or become – a project manager, it always is within or dependent upon an organization. The limits of your opportunity, and the clarity of your role, are fundamentally determined by that relationship.
Project management researchers consider this a major area for measuring project manager success. How does the project manager account for the strategic direction of the organization as well as its political situation and decision-making personalities?
Whatever the organization is, the project manager must deal with it in establishing, planning, leading and executing projects.
Another, closely connected but significantly different set of requirements arise in managing contributors and decision-makers within the project team.
What does this tell us about which area of strength will give us the people best equipped to manage projects?
Nothing, that’s what.
Project managers are managers who don't just oversee processes. They have an additional quality. They also are won’t-quit problem solvers.
Some IT people are excited by engaging the nastier tangles of their specialty; most are not. Sometimes administrative managers eagerly take responsibility for clearing the hassles that have bedeviled workers in some activity; most do not.
Project management, done well, requires a set of personal characteristics that have nothing to do with the formalities of professional preparation.
Those rare go-to people are the class that project managers come from, and we identify the good ones by what happens. We see what they do, and we evaluate the outcome. The formula measures the success of the process and the quality of the result.
Expert is as expert does.