How project managers triumph as generalists in a specialized world

After reading the book “Range. How Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World” by David Epstein, the similarities with project managers came to my mind immediately . The book argues that the success of people does not depend on specialization, but the opposite – the longest possible period of experimentation, interdisciplinary learning and gaining generalist experience. On the one hand, he refers to early childhood and school education, but on the other hand, he continues this in further education and training into adulthood. Epstein reasons that many “wicked problems” of our modern world require experience and knowledge from different fields. Many project managers today tend to describe themselves as “accidental project managers” because they didn’t learn about project management from the beginning. They continued their process of education and came into project management through a different subject. As project managers, however, they quickly realize that in addition to technical know-how, many other skills are required, such as legal or contractual know-how for concluding or executing customer contracts, commercial know-how for calculating project costs, controlling, or negotiating change requests and claims.

For me, competence in dealing with myself and with others was always a great learning field, as I had received little of this in my engineering and business studies. When project managers talk about “stakeholder management,” for example, it is often understood as a methodology that has to be done for the sake of the project. But to do it right, it is necessary to deal with the motivation, attitudes, and expectations of very different people, to establish a dialog through which the necessary information can be obtained and the people can be convinced of the project.

I could now list a whole series of other competences, often referred to as “soft skills”, but this is better explained in the IPMA Individual Competence Baseline, Version 4.0. This standard also shows another field of competences, which is referred to as “perspective competences”. This is about embedding projects in their context, in the closer organizational setting with the relevant organizational structure, culture and processes. It also involves the strategy of the organization within which the projects take place and which, with corresponding goals and expectations (often measured by Key Performance Indicators (KPIs)), is the benchmark for success of projects. In many cases, it continues with the governance systems relevant to projects, norms and standards and interests that need to be considered, and so on and so forth. Where do you learn all these competences, if not in the concrete projects and the corresponding experiences you make in this context?

In their book “Images of Projects”, Mark Winter and Tony Szczepanek illustrate projects as a multi-faceted way of performing certain tasks and describe the competence requirements. Project managers are by no means excellent because they focus on one of these competences or perspectives. They must use them, adapted to the respective situation of the project, a project phase or a sprint, and demonstrate virtuosity from one moment to the next. Or as Epstein puts it, you have to “capture and cultivate the power of breadth, diverse experience, and interdisciplinary exploration within systems that increasingly demand hyperspecialization”. I consider this as an added value that a project manager has to offer, a capability that is becoming more and more important especially in these times, but one that is often not being recognized enough.

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Author: Reinhard Wagner, CEO of Tiba Management Consulting

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