Being able to communicate effectively, manage people, quickly solve problems, or be organized are essential skills for any good project manager. Being a leader is even better. Knowing how to employ project management tools and techniques is key. But having domain knowledge, or a broad understanding of what the project is creating, is not usually considered an essential skill even though it can be crucial for planning a project properly, creating realistic schedules and work breakdown structures, and understanding the complexity of the team’s tasks.
What is Domain Knowledge?
Importantly, domain knowledge should not be mistaken for technical knowledge; one can have domain knowledge but not be an expert. It is true that sometimes it is not a good idea to have a project manager that is also a technical expert because a project manager needs to manage the people who manage technical tasks, and not perform the tasks in their place. But domain knowledge is essential considering the bulk of a project manager’s job is communication.
The Need for a Common Language
Communication is what takes up most of a project’s manager time, and effective communication is likely the common trait of good project managers. There has to be a common “language” between the team and the project manager, and this implies domain or even technical knowledge. First of all, the project manager needs to effectively exchange information and ideas with the team members. This would be impossible or just ineffective without domain knowledge. Second, the project manager needs to keep all key stakeholders updated with the project’s evolution. Knowing the technical terminology helps the project manager gain the stakeholders’ credibility.
Benefits of Domain Knowledge
From another stand point, a project manager that has first-hand knowledge of what the team is doing should -at least theoretically- earn the project team’s respect or trust more easily than a project manager who is an alien to the project domain. A project manager with solid domain knowledge is able to quickly grasp if the team’s schedule estimates are realistic, although this would be more a question of being a good project manager: earning the trust of the team and using historical data, like lessons learned, to back up the team’s estimates. In many cases, estimates are optimistic; other times, some team members might come up with overestimates just because they assume the domain-alien project manager has no idea of the tasks’ complexity and how long they take to complete.
Essential or Desirable?
Many smaller companies do not have a classical project manager role, but one that blends with the role of a team leader and sometimes even a project resource, like in participative management. In this case, a project manager with domain or, better, technical knowledge is more valuable for the company than one with no knowledge of how the team executes the project. As a result, many small companies recruiting for project manager positions list domain or even technical knowledge as a prerequisite for candidates to be considered for the position, thus elevating domain knowledge to the status of essential skill for a project manager.