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criticality of domain for project/program managers
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what are your thoughts on project/program managers need for knowing the domain? and where have you seen this being useful
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Rajesh,
Variations of this subject come up frequently and it is highly dependent on the specific role/business culture. PMs working closely with the detailed design teams frequently say that strong technical knowledge is required to make qualified judgements or they are little more than a clerk. Others say that the PM role is domain independent, as they generally manage the metadata rather than the underlying technical product requirements.

As a senior level engineering PM myself, I find that general domain knowledge is required, but the details are left to the experts. I do have a broad technical background which helps me to learn new domains quickly, but I work with too many technical specialties to be highly knowledgeable about them all.

I have also been assigned to implement new technologies where I had no domain knowledge at all. In those situations, my first step is to do a lot of research on the subject to at least familiarize myself with it, but my focus is on what I need to know in order to manage the project, not to second-guess the technical specialists. Instead I ensure the project inputs are peer reviewed by the real SMEs, even if it is a subject where I was once highly knowledgeable.
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In my experience as PM, domain awareness is very important considering new technological ingredients in the project. Without domain awarenes PM influence on team & stakeholders will be reduced
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Domain awareness is a key benefit in project management, without a good level of understanding, the PM stand the risk of creating a lot of mini generals in the organization.
Such mini generals will begin to exercise expert and informational power to influence key decisions which may be autocratic.
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Pretty frequent topic. I'd recommend using the search feature to gain further insight from the other similar threads.

Definitely there is value to having domain expertise, but there is also value bring expertise from another domain. In this case, the different perspective can be beneficial to the discussions offering an 'untainted' view, in other words, looking at the challenge from a perspective of outside the circle of comfort.

The expertise we bring is in project management, and thus, should be transferrable to other domains and industries, though, would be some period of acclimation.
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It is definitely add value if you are familiar to the domain but as per me this is not the must for anyone to manage programs/ projects. There must be solution architect who will help in the functional aspects of the program.
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I don't know about program managers but a project manager that does not have hands-on working experience in a line of work relevant to the project domain would just be a glorified secretary when he/she has to manage the project team.

Don't get me wrong I am not saying that a project manager with no working experience in a relevant line of work would be useless for the project I am just saying that he can't control the work of the project team, he/she can just track it and report it. There are many critical non-technical issues that the PM has to handle on the project but not having control over the team is a big problem.

I know that many people would say that the PM does not have to be an expert or a technical lead as such people are already on the project team and can do these jobs. That's true but what is also true is that those team members would be taking crucial decisions that would impact the outcome of the project and the PM has absolutely no control over those decisions.

Also not having domain expertise can impact the capacity of the PM to manage risks properly.
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Project/Program managers MUST have knowledge about the domain. In fact, domain is one of the four items needed to have knowledge before you start working on a project. Most of the program/project managers forgot a critical activity: elicitation. BUT it does not mean they must be subject matter experts.
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I disagree with Sergio. It depends upon the domain. It is better to have domain knowledge, but not necessary. I have worked many projects where I had no prior domain experience, such as entertainment and philanthropy. I learned the domains and succeed in all of them. I would not however, attempt to enter a field like medical devices.
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2 replies by Adrian Carlogea and Sergio Luis Conte
Aug 02, 2019 10:07 AM
Sergio Luis Conte
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Is what I tried to say Thomas. I was in the same situation including today. So, I fuly agree with you. Beyond that, some project managers usualy forget a critical activity they have to perform each time they are assigned to a project: perform elicitation to prepare theirself for taking the project. To do that I used and teached the method defined by CMU SEI from years and it works for me. You have to understand the Domain (bank, health, etc) and to do that you can use Zachman Framework row 1 as a tool, you have to understand the Conext and to do that you can use PESTLE analysis for global context and Porter´s Five Forces for business contexst, you have to understand the Problems other players have in the industry and you can use PIECES method, you have to understand the "pain" key stakeholders inside companies in those industry are facing and you can use SPIN selling method to do that. The data to fulfil what is required for those tools (no more than one page) is outside there into the internet. If you do not do that it is hard to communicate with your stakeholders
Aug 02, 2019 4:23 PM
Adrian Carlogea
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As a PM you can manage projects in any domain as long as you are not given authority to take important decisions.

There are many project management related activities that can be performed without having domain knowledge, such as requesting resources, ensuring the work is assigned to team members (even if you don't understand the work in details), tracking and reporting, looking after the project budget, scheduling and chairing meetings, facilitating planning, acting as the first point of contact for the project, managing stakeholder communication, etc.

You can be successful in performing activities like the ones above but you will never be successful in taking important project decisions without good domain knowledge. You deserve less credit for the success of the project if you don't have good domain knowledge and haven't taken important decisions.

So yes, theoretically you can manage projects if you don't have domain knowledge and also can have an important contribution but you will never be fully in charge of the project in these conditions.
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Aug 02, 2019 9:42 AM
Replying to Bob Thomas
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I disagree with Sergio. It depends upon the domain. It is better to have domain knowledge, but not necessary. I have worked many projects where I had no prior domain experience, such as entertainment and philanthropy. I learned the domains and succeed in all of them. I would not however, attempt to enter a field like medical devices.
Is what I tried to say Thomas. I was in the same situation including today. So, I fuly agree with you. Beyond that, some project managers usualy forget a critical activity they have to perform each time they are assigned to a project: perform elicitation to prepare theirself for taking the project. To do that I used and teached the method defined by CMU SEI from years and it works for me. You have to understand the Domain (bank, health, etc) and to do that you can use Zachman Framework row 1 as a tool, you have to understand the Conext and to do that you can use PESTLE analysis for global context and Porter´s Five Forces for business contexst, you have to understand the Problems other players have in the industry and you can use PIECES method, you have to understand the "pain" key stakeholders inside companies in those industry are facing and you can use SPIN selling method to do that. The data to fulfil what is required for those tools (no more than one page) is outside there into the internet. If you do not do that it is hard to communicate with your stakeholders
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Nice Topic. My two cents - It is a BIG Plus Point if Project Managers know domain knowledge. The Question is - To what level of domain knowledge PM needs to possess?
It is subjective and depends on kind of Project and type of Organization.
From my own experience domain knowledge helps in following ways: -
1. Trust (your SMEs) but verify
2. Necessity to deep-dive rather than scratching the surface
3. Decide when to use "brainstorm" versus get into "workshop" format especially when you are venturing into relatively new Projects
4. Understand the language when you perform Six-Hats with your Team
5. Perform Risk Management (Plan B) for customer situations
5. Negotiation using the language of stakeholders/customers especially when stake is high (Ex- Scope creep, breach of SOP resulting in losing $. I am sure, as a project manager, you don’t want to create Credit Memo.
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