This question always manages to stir up a lively debate!
First we have those project management purists who believe that subject matter notwithstanding, a project is a project. The same hard and soft competencies which are required to successfully manage a project in one domain apply when managing a project in another. This group will bring up tales of uber-project managers who crossed multiple industries, successfully managing projects across all.
In the other corner, we have those who believe that in spite of how successful a project manager has been in one domain, their effectiveness decreases when they have to manage a project in a different one. This side will recall the horror stories of project managers they had worked with who tried to apply their expertise in one domain to another, only to abjectly fail.
So which is the correct view?
IT DOESN’T MATTER.
It really depends on a few factors including economic conditions and your own situation.
If you happen to be transitioning domains within your own company, you have a track record of successful delivery in your existing role, and you have an established network of champions within your current department as well as the one you wish to enter, the lack of experience in the new domain could be successfully positioned as an area for short-term development rather than a showstopper.
Similarly, if you have the good fortune to work in a geographic location where the demand for competent, experienced project managers exceeds the supply of such talent, you could be offered a role in spite of your lack of specific domain expertise.
Unfortunately, neither of these situations might apply to your case.
Few companies are large or broad enough to provide the lateral, domain-switching opportunities which a project manager may wish to pursue. In addition, the explosive growth of the project management profession over the past two decades has resulted in a surplus of qualified talent in many parts of the world. Yes, there are some regions where demand still exceeds supply, but the number of qualified project managers willing to relocate significant distances remains low, and the economic or political conditions within some of those regions might not make them suitable for many professionals.
In some respects, this is similar to the debate as to whether or not one should attain a project management credential. While there is no doubt that one can be a successful project manager without getting certified if human resources staff or recruiting agencies within your region are using the lack of a certification as a low-effort means to weed out candidates, the argument is moot if you have no other means of getting past these gatekeepers.
So what can you do?
First, make sure you really want to go through with this. Have you really exhausted the opportunities within your own domain? Is this more than just a “grass is greener” desire? Seek out an experienced project manager who can help you learn the good, the bad and the ugly of the new domain.
We all know that the majority of vacant positions are not advertised. Lacking the domain expertise which would elevate your visibility with recruiters, the next best thing is to have some influential advocates who can put in a good word for you when an opportunity arises. This is easier said than done, but here are a few ways to do it:
- Make sure everyone in your network is aware that you want to go through with this transition
- Join a community of practice or special interest groups for the new domain and actively participate in their events
- Attend a conference or take a course
Knowledge is no substitute for experience, but you need to be able to talk the talk if you are lucky enough to be granted an interview.
Specific things to learn include:
- Common sources of risk and risk events
- Good practices specific to the industry
- Rules of thumb such as parametric estimation models
Leverage peers in your network to learn which of your skills will be most transferable. If you get invited to an interview you are likely to be asked how you will overcome your lack of domain expertise, so be prepared with scenarios from your past experience which are applicable to the new role.
Geoffrey Moore’s 1991 book, Crossing the Chasm, addressed the challenge faced by companies who wish to sell disruptive innovations to a mainstream audience. His quote should resonate for all project managers wishing to cross the domain expertise chasm: “The number-one corporate objective, when crossing the chasm, is to secure a distribution channel into the mainstream market, one with which the pragmatist customer will be comfortable.”