Only the new breed of deep generalist project managers will thrive

Only the new breed of deep generalist project managers will thrive

generalist-specialist-200x200“The specialist learns more and more about less and less until, finally, he knows everything about nothing; whereas the generalist learns less and less about more and more until, finally, he knows nothing about everything.”

– Donsen’s Law (a derivative of Murphy’s Law)

I like this quote because it hits the point home about the dilemma facing many knowledge workers these days due to the accelerated rate of change brought about by information technology.  This is especially the case for those who are project managers since they have to occupy a middle ground between being knowledgeable enough (or getting up to speed quickly) for a particular product or service their project is to deliver, that usually has a highly technical component or is in itself a highly technical product or service.  But in addition, the project manager needs to keep an eye on the overall goals and objectives of the project that requires not getting bogged down into the technical specifications for the project while simultaneously keeping track of all the details to ensure the successful delivery of the project within the triple constraints of time, cost and scope.

This is compounded by the fact that the project manager is also tasked with communicating the status and details of the project both from the technical teams up to executive managers.  This  requires skills in being able to retrieve and synthesize knowledge and information about the project that will resonate with all the stakeholders for the project.  This is whether from the actual implementation team to the upper managers who want to know that all the money being spent on that project is being managed well.  This is vitally important early in the project since the project manager is trying to establish their competency, earn the respect of their teams and management and put forth a perception that they are the right person for the job.

But there’s a recurring (and endless) argument about whether a project manager (or any worker for that matter) should become a generalist or specialist.  This was especially heightened by the recent economic downturn in which companies looking to maximize their HR investments posted project management jobs for a project manager with  very specific skill sets.  I wrote about this before in how this phenomenon is driving the commodification of IT project managers with jobs that require a PM with specific knowledge and experience with a particular technology like Java or SAP.  I think anyone in the profession would agree to avoid this typecasting as it’s more a technical lead position or worse, a position for a technical SME that also happens to have to coordinate and be accountable for all the deliverables of the project outside his/her specialty… the worse of all possible worlds.

On the other hand, you don’t want to come across as so general as to be undefinable.  At the very least, there should be some domain of expertise to identify yourself with such as project management, process improvement, etc. or applicable to a particular industry (though I personally think if you’re a PM, then you have the skills to traverse any industry) such as health care process improvement engineer or media and entertainment project manager.

An idea I really like is the notion of a “deep generalist” that I read about in the book “Clients for Life: How Great Professionals Develop Breakthrough Relationships“, in what I consider to be one of the best management consulting books ever written.  They point out that great advisers are not specialists in a narrow area, but generalists with a broader perspective.  In other words, “the result is a business adviser with technical depth rather than a technical specialist… The idea is that a truly valued professional is the lawyer, accountant, consultant or sales executive who not only brings functional expertise but who understands the totality of her client’s business.”  This is a good reminder that while project managers can have specialized skills, they can serve stakeholders much better if they can understand and communicate how their projects fit within the overall business strategy and operations of the organization.

This graphic by Dave Gray really illustrates this notion visually:


The deep generalist will be able to move easily within all areas of the knowledge territories that belong to their repertoire of technical expertise and will be able to dive deep within each as needed giving them both range and depth of knowledge.  This isn’t to say that this individual needs to dive deep into the technical specialty and implement a solution, but rather that this individual can traverse it far down enough to understand what level of expertise is needed to get the job done.  This is one of the major, if not the most important core competencies of the project manager.

A June 4, 2012 blog post on the Harvard Business Review site titled “All Hail the Generalist” by Vikram Mansharamani, sums it up quite nicely when he talks about this kind of skill being the one that will be most sought after in the future:

Corporations around the world have come to value expertise, and in so doing, have created a collection of individuals studying bark… The future has always been uncertain, but our ability to navigate it has been impaired by an increasing focus on studying bark. The closer you are to the material, the more likely you are to believe it. In psychology jargon, you anchor on your own beliefs and insufficiently adjust from them. In more straightforward language, a man with a hammer is more likely to see nails than one without a hammer. Expertise means being closer to the bark, and less likely to see ways in which your perspective may warrant adjustment. In today’s uncertain environment, breadth of perspective trumps depth of knowledge.

The declining returns to expertise have implications at the national, company, and even individual level. A collection of specialists creates a less flexible labor force, one that requires “retraining” with technological developments creating constantly shifting human resource needs. In this regard, the recent emphasis in American education on “job-specific” skills is disturbing. Within a company, employees skilled in numerous functions are more valuable as management can dynamically adjust their roles. Many forward-looking companies are specifically mandating multi-functional experience as a requirement for career progress.

It’s asking a lot for an individual have both breadth and depth of knowledge, especially when we live in an age where information is changing at the blink of an eye.  But that’s where having a good grasp of the fundamentals principles, practices and process of your particular domain and being able to synthesize, contextualize and apply them to your particular situations at hand that will enable you to rely less and rote memorization and the technical minutia of your project’s scope, and to always keep in eye on the overall goals and strategy of your projects within the “big picture”.

Only the new breed of deep generalist project managers with this skill will thrive in the future.

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