What's So Special About Being a Generalist?

I met with an aspiring PM this week who asked me a series of questions about how to succeed in the field, including one that resonated with my own past challenges as a rising project manager. "I'm a generalist," she told me, "but everyone keeps telling me I need to be an expert in something." Since she effectively hadn't yet declared a major, she wanted advice on which area of focus to select to further her employment prospects.

Specialist or generalist?

Specialist or generalist?

PMs typically get tarred with the generalist brush, which is sometimes a nice way of saying that we don't know enough to be good at anything. I've blogged previously about the misconception that project management is not technical work, which means our day-to-day functions are often (erroneously) swept aside as "admin" work. Senior staff or hiring managers overlook generalist capabilities when seeking a resume to feature in a proposal or a candidate to hire. Yet, in my experience, onboarding a shiny niche expert and expecting them to project manage when they don't have prior PM experience is a recipe for disaster.

I decided to do a little research to back up my personal view that being a specialist is overrated. I quickly learned that I am in the minority. In a recent article about the top skills to cultivate in the AI age, HBR names "content" as the #2 skill, after communications. Their argument is that conducting a Google search only goes so far. Since robots are unlikely to be able to master the nuances of knowledge in your chosen domain, being a specialist gives you a modicum of job security. The other skills on their list, however, require a generalist's perspective to master. If you're a specialist who communicates in jargon and lacks context for how your domain applies globally, your job is ripe for AI takeover. This is especially true if your niche area of expertise comes with a hefty hourly price tag.

One of the things that I love about being a PM (and a generalist) is how difficult it is to get bored. Want to dig into a new knowledge area? Meet new people? Interact with new clients? Simply add a new project to your toolkit and embrace the change. What I've realized over time--and what I advised the aspiring PM I met with--is that your area of specialization has a habit of finding you. Sure, maybe it's not as niche as someone else would like it to be, but chances are that your project portfolio reflects an underlying theme, whether that's IT or healthcare or infrastructure.

PMI's recent report on disruptive technology, as covered by LiquidPlanner, confirmed my suspicion that, as more of the so-called PM "admin" functions become automated, PMs will need to expand the level of subject matter expertise that they bring to their projects. PM models at many organizations already reflect this trend. If you're an IT PM, you should know enough about development to be dangerous.

The other point that PMI makes when it comes to disruption is also good news for us generalists, and that is the capacity to manage change. The only constant is change, and being able to adapt to new circumstances and acquire new skills only makes generalists that much more versatile in the face of future disruptions. So, for those that can't commit, breathe a sigh of relief that the project management profession isn't forcing you to settle down anytime soon.