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The debate.JPG

Debating is completely different from speaking from a stage. Despite being the number one fear of many people, speaking is something I feel relaxed and comfortable doing. The groups I present to are generally receptive, engaged and polite. They ask interesting questions and I enjoy the dialogue. In contrast, debating is competitive and unpredictable and adversarial. In short, not really in my comfort zone.

So why on earth was I the lead speaker in a debate a couple of weeks ago? Well the topic was compelling: ‘You can’t project manage a Tube upgrade unless you know the difference between a bullhead and a flat-bottom.’
The crux of the matter was whether or not a project manager required detailed domain knowledge of the area they were working in to be effective. As Chair of the Women in Project Management group in the UK, I’ve met so many people who have moved from one industry sector to another while flourishing as a project manager. Take me as an example: I’ve worked in engineering, consultancy, pharmaceuticals, fast-moving consumer goods and recently I’ve been in industries from utilities and banking through to non-governmental organisations. I know from my own experience that a good project manager who can facilitate others to get things done is able to work across industry sectors. Of course it is tough; of course it is a challenge; of course you need to build credibility quickly. However, it can be done. That’s why I took on this challenge!

An hour before the debate, though, Karen Sagar, my seconder and I were sitting in a coffee shop with butterflies, wondering what we’d let ourselves in for! Still, there was no going back and we joined up with Bryan Barrow and Richard Langedijk (for the motion) and David MacLeod, our Chair for the evening.

Bryan started out on an unexpected tack. Bryan argued very eloquently that while you needed to have some knowledge of the domain, you didn’t need to know everything. Karen and I sat there thrilled that Bryan was building our case so effectively. We agreed with Bryan that a project manager needs to understand project management and have good interpersonal skills. We agreed with him that the PM needs to have a high level overview of the domain they are working in.

I started my opposing talk by reading out a proposal I’d found the day before. It was for a project manager. The requirements included: a track record of working with sheep farmers in Scotland to, wait for it, evaluate breed differentials of commercially available pedigree rams. Everyone in the hall fell about laughing! They don’t want a project manager, they want an expert in rams!

I continued by adding that, while a project manager needs to understand that business context, they also need to have a good relationship with technical experts in order to deliver the objective. Of course, deep domain knowledge will help you get the job – you’ll be credible, you can hit the ground running and identify project risks. But therein lies the biggest risk. You can get too involved in the detail, slowing others down and micromanaging them. This lead to duplication of effort and sometimes even technical experts who are completely fed up! I then told of the story where I had too much knowledge and messed up (You can find it here )

I finished off by saying that project management is by definition about delivering unique things. It’s the glue that gets everyone else to deliver. Effective project managers deliver in unfamiliar domains by:
communicating effectively with the operational business
understanding what’s happening at a high-level
being free to ask ‘dumb’ questions (which are often very clever questions)

Richard continued Bryan’s theme adding in that he was concerned that diluting domain knowledge would lead to ‘good enough’ or mediocre project managers. None of us would want that.

Karen followed with her story of how she went from marketing to nuclear engineering, via a charity. Domain didn’t matter for her – she succeeded wherever she went.

We had a debate around the room with lots of views put forward with passion!

At the end, all but two people in the room voted for the opposition. Despite our butterflies and the eloquence of the other side, Karen and I took almost everyone with us.

More importantly, we had a good time. Everyone who attended rated the event as either excellent or good. Perhaps I should move outside my comfort zone more often!

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