Specialist or Generalist: The Great Career Conundrum

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Categories: Agile


by Cyndee Miller

It’s the era of the ultra-specialized niche expert.

Companies don’t just make beer. They brew limited batches of Belgian sour ale with tones of organic blueberry and almond.

Companies don’t just crank out mattresses. They create customized sleeping experiences. Yes, there’s the traditional innerspring model available in countless iterations of firmness. But perhaps you’d prefer a foam number neatly packed up in a box? No prob.

So it stands to reason the trend would follow through to careers. In theory, organizations would seek out project and program managers with super-specialized skills, someone steeped in agile or someone with a complete mastery of waterfall.

But organizations are realizing projects don’t fall neatly into one category in the real world. One project may demand waterfall in the upfront stages then switch into agile or hybrid.

“Organizations are facing complex challenges and competing priorities,” Marivi Briz, PMI-ACP, PMP, global internet of things business development manager at Telefónica Chile, Santiago, Chile, told PMI’s Career Central. “They want project managers who aren’t just applying the same methodology to every project, but are able to build consensus around a particular approach and share a larger vision.”

Agile may get the buzz, but smart organizations know it all comes down to using what works.

“Executives care less about a pure agile or waterfall approach than they do about achieving results,” said Manuel Salero Coca, PMP, program manager director—Latin America, Huawei Technologies Co., Mexico City, Mexico. (Check out Mr. Coca’s comments in the 2018 Jobs Report in the January PM Network.)

In today’s project landscape, Rhonda V. Evans, PMP, envisions a project management office (PMO) that has “all methodologies in play.”

“You are no longer an agile shop or a waterfall-based PMO, you are a methodology- agnostic PMO,” she wrote on LinkedIn last year. “A business case or need is defined and approved. It then goes to the PMO or portfolio management team for review with the executive sponsor or product owner. … The right-fit methodology is then chosen based on several predefined factors. Each inherent framework/methodology will come with its own rules for flexing and growing and changing with the business.”

For project and program managers looking to get ahead in their career (i.e., pretty much everyone), it just doesn’t pay to slavishly follow one approach. They must sharpen their skills across the entire delivery spectrum.

“We’re in a continuously changing world, and project managers don’t want to limit an organization to only one method or the other,” said Jordi Teixido, PMP, chief operating officer at fintech company Strands and project management consultant, KION, Barcelona, Spain. “Project managers should be well-versed in standups and sprints, but also critical path and critical chain.”

And that applies to your professional brand, too. This is probably not the time to proclaim yourself a hardcore agile evangelist or a do-or-die authority on predictive.

“I’ve probably interviewed hundreds of project managers, and those who present themselves as experts in only one methodology seem destined to have limited opportunities,” said Mike O’Brochta, PMI-ACP, PMP, president of Zozer, a project management firm in Roanoke, Virginia, USA.

It pays to position yourself as fluent in all approaches — and build a social media profile that reflects your skills and strengths in each one. Alongside project details like scope, budget and schedule, professional profiles and portfolios should spell out details on the approach used to execute the project, said Wafi Mohtaseb, PMI-ACP, PMP, head of applications support, Kuwait Finance House, Kuwait City, Kuwait.

What are you seeing in your career path?

Posted by Cyndee Miller on: December 01, 2017 11:22 AM | Permalink

Comments (19)

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Flexibility is your key to sucess. Use the approach that will deliver a successful project.
Good blog post.

it all comes down to using what works.
The right-fit methodology is then chosen based on several predefined factors

In today's market, as a professional, we are or should be expected to have at our disposal a set of capabilities and tools in which we can utilize to successfully deliver an array of initiatives.

If I hire a General Contractor, I expect that when I walk them through the house depicting the work I need done, they will be equipped to handle it. I don't expect them to tell me they can only do this or that.

Flexibility and the ability to adapt to any project scenario is what makes a great project manager.

Nicely done. Thanks for sharing.

Dare I say it: we need to be Agile in our career path.

Perhaps a little of both. A generalist, but specialist in one domain. I think in reality many PM's are this way.

Stéphane: That's exactly the thing. And companies will more and more look for those types of project managers, business-savvy in that particular field with a broad range of practical experience in different frameworks . While products get more and more specialized, the world is changing faster and faster and the projects in a company with it. So if you do not want to hire a new specialist for every new project, then what options do you have?

I must have been the lucky one, Thilo. I've had employers who allowed me to try different roles and different industries. My current one even assigned me on a project as an enterprise architect!

Not only has it made me a better project manager for it, but it also fostered a mentality of constantly re-thinking and re-positioning myself. As a result, I value learning and growth above all else.

Very good points on project management adaptability.
Thanks for the read.

Great article, thanks for sharing!

Career path is not a straight line.

Thank you

That's interesting. Thanks.

Interesting perspective. When it comes to project management, of course a rigid approach does not ensure success. One needs to be flexible to adopt agile/waterfall/iterative/V or a blend of these methodologies to be successful. But when it comes to technology, maybe it pays to be a specialist rather than a generalist or jack-of-all-trades !? Along the same lines Mr. Sante Vergini & Mr. Stéphane Parent put forward...

Project managers needs to be more supple to ever changing requirements of organizations to remain competitive. Single approach to handle projects is now a thing of past.

What I think is here in PM Network: http://www.pmnetwork-digital.com/pmnetwork/december_2017/MobilePagedReplica.action?pm=2&folio=50#pg52
Just a little clarification. Generalist helps organization to create more effective solutions according to some world wide research. But it does not matter. What matters is think about "ignorance is bliss". But ignorance, not stupidity. The most forgotten activity is "prepare for elicitation". Each time you are assigned to a new initiative you must prepare to take data and transform the data into project requirements. This action is named elicitation (you can find this new word used into PMI´s guides). To do that, you can find a defined process create by CMU SEI time ago.

This is an excellent post and its really made me think. Thanks for sharing. I believe one should be flexible with their tool-belt, but I'd be wary of anyone who claims to be good at all methodologies--most human beings don't have the ability to master so many techniques (a jack of all trades, but a master of none?). Strength in a few areas with competency in other areas and always learning something new and growing is probably more realistic.

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