Project Practitioners > Domain Knowledge?

Domain Knowledge?

By Kent McDonald

We ain't got no domain knowledge. We don't need no domain knowledge...or do we? I've heard both sides of the argument. Some, such as those who like to promote Project Management as a profession that will work anywhere, argue that if someone knows the tools and techniques of project management and can quote the PMBOK chapter and verse, they can manage any project in any domain using any technology. Others, those who prescribe to the idea that the best project manager is a subject matter expert, will counter that the project manager has to know the business inside and out to be effective. I think reality exists somewhere in the middle. Project Managers are ultimately responsible for delivering the desired project results, and here's a news flash, which are not solely the identified scope on time, under budget. Project results are really did the project deliver value to the organization by delivering a solution to a problem that needed to be solved. In order to know whether we're providing the right solution that adds value to a problem that an organization needs solved, we need to know something about that organization's business. More precisely it's strategy, strategic plan and business plans.

Projects, when implemented correctly, are actually the tactical implementation of an organization's strategic plan. I need to understand what that strategy is, and which portion of it that my particular project is trying to deliver in order to help the project team make the right decisions. I need to know at least enough about the domain to know when the team is about to make a decision that will tragically impair the business for years to come. No amount of knowledge about knowledge areas alone will help me there. So do I have to understand the ins and outs of the business process that we are imploding and rebuilding on the project in order to be effective? Only if there are no subject matter experts on the project, in which case my first question would be why are we doing this project if there is no one with true vested interest as a part of it. That's not to say that it's OK if I am as ignorant of the process at the end of the project as I may be going in. I need to be willing to learn about the business processes impacted as the project progresses to make sure that the project is staying on track to deliver the right results.

Long story short, here's my perspective on domain knowledge. It won't get you the Treasure of the Sierra Madre, but hopefully it will give you a map to the appropriate level of domain knowledge to be effective:

  • Understand how the project ties to the organization's strategic plan

  • Establish measurable goals that are meaningful to the business and measure changes to the business process, not characteristics of the project

  • Depend on your subject matter experts to be the subject matter experts. If you don't have any, don't do the project.

  • Understand the business process enough to know when the project team is making decisions that will reduce the value the project will deliver. Any more knowledge than that and you are loosing focus on what you really need to be doing.

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