Should Project Managers Be Subject Matter Experts?

Let’s look at two long standing stances on project management:

A skilled project manager can lead any project, from building a house to software development.


Project managers with expertise in the subject matter for their project are more effective.

Photo Credit: Graham Lavender

Both stances hold merit. It is true that sound project management processes performed by a skilled project manager can improve the likelihood of success for any type of project.  It is also true that when project managers have expertise in the subject matter for the project, their implementation of project management practices will be more efficient, especially in terms of risk management, realistic schedule development and issue resolution.

The rub is in the fact that, by definition, projects are unique. Thus, finding a skilled project manager with expertise in all subject matters for a given project isn’t realistic. For example, consider the multitude of subject matter areas for a “typical” software development project:

  • Technology subject matter expertise could include:
    • One or more specific programming languages
    • One or more database platforms
    • Third party software integration
    • Infrastructure platforms
    • IT security
  • Business area subject matter expertise could include:
    • Industry knowledge
    • Organizational knowledge (Ex. how to get things done for a federal government client vs a technology start-up)
    • Regulatory compliance requirements
    • Specific SDLC methodologies
    • Geography – including on-site vs virtual teams

Let’s consider a third stance:

Skilled project managers are most effective when leading teams containing domain-specific subject matter expertise.

A team-based approached to providing subject matter expertise for a project presents a number of benefits:

  • Individuals with specific skills and knowledge for project management may already exist within your organization. If not, someone with a specific skill set is much easier to bring in than someone with a specific combination of skills.  The same goes for subject matter experts.
  • When a project manager is able to rely upon the subject matter expertise of the team, they can serve as an objective voice and drive creativity.
  • Organizations can keep certain knowledge and skills with internal resources and bring in truly temporary knowledge and skills from outside.
  • When your project manager is also a primary subject matter expert, the risk of losing that individual is significant.

It is great if a project manager has expertise in a particular subject matter. However, project management expertise may well outweigh any subject matter expertise for a project manager if such subject matter expertise can be provided to the project in the form of other team members.

Share your thoughts in the comments:

  • What is your take on each of the three stances above?
  • Other than project management expertise, how much subject matter expertise should be required of project managers?

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