Project Management as a career path rarely seems to start as a well informed decision. How many of us who hold or once held the “Project Manager” title actually got into the position with a full understanding of what it meant to be one, how to do the job, or with the knowledge and experience required to be credible and effective? I suspect not many. 

More often it seems, we start as “doers”. We learn a function, a trade or a skill, and over time, we get good at it and become so called “Subject Matter Experts” (SMEs). Our newly found expertise gets us promoted and we suddenly find ourselves leading teams, projects, or both. 

The question is: should subject matter expertise be a pre-requisite to managing projects? Or is project management a domain expertise of its own that should be learned and mastered?

Over time, I’ve come to firmly believe that project management is most effective and efficient when executed as a focused, distinct activity. Here are a few of the reasons why:

1. Let SMEs be SMEs

Project Management takes time. If someone is involved in a project because of their subject matter expertise, chances are that’s just what they want to focus on, not managing the project. Spending time managing the project takes away from one’s ability to focus on what they’re good at, and probably the main reason why they were brought into the project team to begin with: their domain expertise. Managing the project is a distraction they don’t need, neither does the rest of the team or the project.

2. Let PMs be PMs

Subject matter expertise takes time. If someone is involved in a project because of their Project Management expertise, chances are that’s just what they want to focus on… You get the picture... 

3. Method to the madness

Project Management doesn’t just mean project planning or tracking. It’s both those things, and much, much more. It involves establishing clear objectives and brokering consensus around them; using common vocabulary and setting clear expectations to facilitate collaboration; following specific project planning steps that foster ownership and ensure everyone plays a role in defining what needs to get done; formalizing who is doing what, when, in what order; highlighting the effect of one’s work on everybody else’s; knowing how to crash timelines when it becomes apparent that some things aren’t getting done on time. And the list goes on. There are proven ways of doing this. Best to learn one rather than trying to make it up as you go.

4. Neutrality

A Project Manager needs to remain neutral to be effective, and not be influenced by relationships or a particular affinity for a given subject matter or functional area. It is often difficult for a SME turned PM to set aside their own expertise and rely solely on that of others to get things done. It is also more challenging to be truly impartial when you know a lot about a particular topic and can directly relate to some of the issues faced by colleagues and peers. When facilitating difficult discussions in times of crisis, neutrality is your friend. It is much easier for someone without direct knowledge or functional relationships to remain neutral.

5. Cost savings

That’s right. Cost savings. Project Managers are not cheap, but the costs associated with delayed timelines and missed objectives can add up quickly: added time and compensation for personnel and consultants, lost commercial opportunity, ongoing inefficiencies in processes and operations etc. Delays and added costs also create frustration up and down the hierarchy and can result in public relations challenges both internally and externally. In aggregate, these costs dwarf whatever you would ever wisely invest in a good Project Manager.

In the end

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that PMs with subject matter expertise are evil, or that SMEs can’t manage projects. In fact, subject matter expertise can be a real asset for a project manager, so long as it doesn't get in the way of project management activities, or prevent others on the team from fully assuming their roles and responsibilities. What I am saying is that it is important to be clear about everyone’s roles and responsibilities in projects, and to have an equally clear understanding about what project management means, the benefits it provides, and how to go about it. 

In other words: don’t just wing it, it won’t work. Instead, implement a method that will enable everyone to contribute in the best way possible given their respective expertise and affinities. Then make sure the project is managed by a someone whose subject matter expertise includes project management, backed by a proven method and the experience to go with it.

If 5 of your SMEs spend 20% of their time each managing their respective projects, think about how much better off you would be if you had one dedicated Project Manager managing all 5 projects in a consistent fashion, and enabling your SMEs to be near 100% on task, doing what they do best. 

Letting SMEs be SMEs and PMs be PMs simply focuses the right skills on the right activities and as a result, reduces risk, increases efficiency, and maximizes chance for success.