Project manager as generalist

project manager as obsolete

A generalist is someone who has broad general knowledge and skills in several areas. A project management generalist is a practitioner who is able to do all the general tasks in the area of project management. Project professionals who desire to do more than just survive their careers develop skill sets that are broad, deep and applicable to all projects. These skills traditionally include soft skills, technical skills and skills associated with subject matter expertise. In order to achieve project success beyond ‘getting it done,’ on time and under budget, the project management professional had to be proficient in three mutually complementary areas.

The first of these three areas, and perhaps the most neglected, is interpersonal or soft skills. Projects are completed by groups of people working together and the relationships among the individuals working on a project must be conducive to productivity and creativity. No matter how technically aware or knowledgeable a professional is, if he cannot relate to his customer and team members, let alone inspire and energize them, the project will under-perform.

The second of these critical competency areas is Project Management technical skills: risk, scope, procurement, scheduling, budgeting, etc. These skills are basic to the performance of general project management functions and help one earn the credibility needed to influence project team members, their work and decisions. The key to increasing the depth of skills is to look beyond routine practices such as completing templates and begin to treat each project as a unique endeavor to meet a customer’s need. Project managers who treat every project the same risk stagnating as project deliverables and the tools used to create them take on a normalcy that encourages users of the deliverable and even their creators to gloss over the details. The practitioner’s challenge to execute these technical skills shifts from completing the deliverable to its value, its content and its usefulness toward achieving overall project goals faster and cheaper. These difficulties are the result of project managers’ lacking the skills, time or ambition to make deliverables more meaningful and useful to project teams and customers, which results in a decline in the quality of deliverables and the confidence of customers.

The third critical competency area for project management professionals is subject matter expertise. This means understanding customers and their business. In order to be familiar with project needs, the customer’s business context is critical to the generalist who must lead in spite of his lack of authority. This business knowledge or subject matter expertise is critical to generalists who find their shallow authority challenged or even ignored. To drive transformational change, the ability to know what your customer is experiencing and what they want to transform is essential.

The generalist must be proficient in all three complementary competency areas to successfully manage projects.

Unfortunately, there are several causes of performance dilution of the generalist that are constantly at work in today’s project environment, and project managers, particularly generalists, must be aware of these if they wish to remain in control of their careers. When the environment is heavily standardized, project managers are often left conflicted as to where they will place their loyalties. They are often forced to satisfy requirements for standardization and homogeneous output as defined by the management instead of pursuing the unique needs of the customer. In a rapidly changing environment, this often leads to lower performance and quality of project management services.

Project Managers work in an environment laden with causes of burnout, which occurs whenever energy becomes deficient. One of the leading causes of burnout is stress, “a condition or feeling experienced when a person perceives that demands exceed the personal and social resources the individual is able to mobilize”. (Mind Tools, 1995-2005) Stress has always been rampant in project management, and emerges from both the environment and the project tasks. Environmental stress stems from difficult relationships, sometimes resulting from a lack of soft skills, which are necessary to successfully navigate the conflicts that exist in the project environment. The lack of technical skills or a lack of knowledge of a project’s application area, the sheer volume of work or highly repetitive work, heightened ambiguity and complexity can all raise task stress levels. In short, the project management industry is threatened by performance dilution, as project managers fail to excel at all three components – soft skills, technical skills and subject matter expertise.

The project management generalist is forced to focus on short-term tasks (to keep up with demands) as opposed to long-term customer needs and has little room for personal growth. If performance dilution and the problems inherent in the generalist approach to project manager development are not addressed, the industry faces serious risks as the demands of strategic project and programs overwhelm project managers. Good professionals may be lost to new, more stable and rewarding careers. When the profession loses its best practitioners, service and educational quality will quickly decrease, and customers will find other ways of meeting their project needs. This generalist mentality will have negative performance-related effects on the future of strategic project and program management.

Project Management as a Service

To succeed at project management and leadership in today’s environment, the project manager must understand this dynamic of service and the consumer or customer. What is meant by project management as a service? A service is an economic activity that adds value either directly to another economic unit or to a good belonging to another economic unit (Hufbauer, 1999, p. 2). Consequently, a defining feature of a service is direct interaction between producers and consumers before the service can be rendered.

How does this relate to project management and its practitioner? The economic unit of a project is the group of people that make up a project team and are responding to the customer’s need. The goods belonging to another economic unit are stakeholders who are impacted by the project, which is the economic activity. The economic activity consists of the project team’s efforts. Embedded in this model is a subsequent model for service. The project manager’s economic activity is to add value directly to another economic unit, the project team and its sponsor, customers and related stakeholders, which are the other economic units. For the project manager to add value to these economic units (people), he must have interaction with them in order to understand how to best add that value.

The project manager must think of all of these human stakeholders as consumers of his service. Project management is a service that adds value to the work of the project, its team and all of its stakeholders. Understanding this helps a project manager understand other invisible currents that are driving changes to the industry, its practitioners and its stakeholders. These forces and how one reacts to them impact the careers of project professionals.

New Trends

Organizations are becoming more aware of the benefits of project management, and sponsors are recognizing the impact on the bottom line when projects succeed and fail. Project managers are also in high demand. One may conclude that this increased demand automatically translates into higher wages and a higher degree of professional recognition. However, this unfortunately is not always the case.

Disruption of Supply and Demand

Demand that exceeds supply normally results in price increases and a higher demand for services unless the economic model is disturbed. In the global environment, which has seen significant reduction of trade barriers for services, there are three ways in which this producer (project management service provider) and consumer (project stakeholders, including team members, sponsors and customers) interaction is disrupted from the more traditional interactions between consumers and local service providers. The first of these is direct communications that occur across international borders and continents through technologically driven means such as email, the internet, video conferencing or phone. Secondly, the producer’s organization may relocate to be closer to the consumer; in 2005, foreign-born workers made up 15% of the labor force, and 26% of those were management/professional (US Department of Labor, 2006). For example, individuals with expertise in software programming or other technical expertise often come to the United States. One of India’s largest outsource providers, Tata, supplies highly educated skilled labor to states to perform functions at costs that are sometimes one-third or half those of services attained locally. Lastly, the consumer may move to the supplier’s location (outsourcing), or service providers may move operations nearer to suppliers of project management services (Hufbauer, 1999, p.2, 8).

Interchangable Components

Additional globalization has been achieved through the increased distribution of project management knowledge across the diverse, international project management industry. Project Management Institute’s A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) and the European PRINCE2® standard are widely accepted and available. Each have processes, knowledge components and techniques that promote the “codification” of project management. Technical standards within project management are also maturing; the project management information system has continued to evolve with sophicated technologies to manage projects, programs and portfolios. The technical definitions and standards for critical tools used with the project management industry are increasingly becoming more stable and allowing for interoperability between systems. The standards for calculating a critical path or chain, quantifying risk impacts or measuring earned value support the trend toward the breaking down of wholist project management services into their components. Simultaneously, they allow specialists to enter the market and provide specialized project management services, threating to replace many of the functions of today’s project management generalist.

The widespread application of project management has resulted in people’s working in cost centers instead of revenue centers. Many certified project managers are working in non-billable pay structures, as opposed to professional services such as consulting and systems integration, where project management services are billed to the customer with a multiplier that includes things such as overhead, benefits and a profit margin. These non-billable project managers are a cost of doing business within organizations and are exposed to cost cutting measures.

Communication costs are decreasing, producers and providers are relocating to be near their consumers and consumers are moving to their suppliers. According to Craig Barrett, CEO of Intel, “India, China, Russia and the Eastern Bloc joined the world’s free economic system: 3 billion people. We’ve never had anything approaching that before.” (San Francisco Chronical) International labor markets are quickly adopting standards and quality methods, such as the PMBOK® Guide, IPMA and PMI certifications, and capability maturity models as well as governence methodologies. These factors have further contributed to the globalization and commoditization of project management.

Researchers have studied the evolution and reversal of knowledge-based industries and show their tendency toward the vertical integration of industries during their early periods of growth, then vertical disintegration into their components. (Macher & Mowery, 2004, p.320). A example is the computer industry, in which providers such as IBM would control the all components of the product or service, but as research increased, standards of component integration and the industry matured and niche components suppliers grew in countries where labor was cheap, competition increased and costs were driven down (Macher & Mowery, 2004, p. 337-339). Most have first-hand knowledge of the price pressures on computer suppliers and components and the explosion of interchangeable components involving computers. The provider, instead of competing with these low-cost providers, focused more on high margin knowledge-based services and purchased, integrated and resold the components as an wholist solution. Four conditions usually exist that drive this disintegration:

  • Increased “codification” or dissemination of formerly tacit knowledge within the industry’s value chain (exemplified by the {PMBOK® Guide)
  • The development of technical standards that promote stability and codification across interfaces (growth of the internet)
  • Reduction of barriers to market entry (growth of a global market)
  • A growing market that attracts large numbers of these de novo entrants which intensifies competition (an increase in low-cost suppliers from India, China and other countries) (Macher & Mowery, 2004, p. 319)

The definition of a project manager has alway varied significantly within and across organizations. But as the project management industry matures with a focus on methodologies and certifications, the industry has propogated a view of the project manager as the central knowledge component of the project team. He is viewed as a virtual hub of wholist information that holds together the temporary, often matrixed, team. Thus, the project manager plays the leading role in serving, through sharing both formal and tacit knowledge, with stakeholders. Most of a project manager’s time is spent communicating and this communication is a valued, necessary service.

The project manager should not take much solace in the globalization and commoditization of services, though it may have helped grow the project management industry as a whole. Project management services are being commoditized, low-cost labor is taking away many jobs and the break-down of project management services into interchangeable components is changing the structure of the industry.



Even as project management is being globalized and comoditized, project complexity is increasing, as more and more companies increase in project maturity and begin to align projects and strategy. The enterprise nature of these projects often requires unprecedented and often uncharted collaborations between important constituents both internal and external to the project, which results in projects that are more visible to executives. As a result, strategic projects impact people’s careers; more is at stake and as a result everyone involved is more on edge about achieving the desired results.

Strategic alignment of projects with organizational objectives inherently makes them more enterprise-wide as well. This results in an increase in the level of social complexity, as projects are driven up the organization’s authority chain to higher and higher levels. These enterprise-wide projects then spread themselves horizontally across the organization’s departments, which raises new challenges for communication and cooperation. Different business units, such as sales and operations, will each have individual views on what is most important to the success of the project. Strategic projects that span across all or many of an organization’s business units are impacting more stakeholders both internally and externally.

Information Overload

The information technology era promised to allow technology to drive growth and efficiency through distributed or decentralized operations while leaving decisions in the hands of a central command post. Companies have spent millions of dollars trying to combine knowledge-based job functions and processes in massive centers, only to find out their employees are overwhelmed with information and its complexity. The constraints are not the information itself, but the human brain and its capacity to process the information. (Brynjolfsson, 1991, p. 6-9)

After spending much of the day in meetings, these project managers have to work grueling hours that cut into their personal lives. They work late into the evening catching up on e-mails, reviewing the latest revisions to specifications or requirements, approving timesheets, incorporating the latest PMO templates for the next round of budgeting or reading meeting minutes that are 24 hours old and already out of date. They cannot distinguish which information is most accurate or up-to-date and are prone to making errors, particularly when interfacing with customers.

This is the life of a project professional trying to hold onto the old managerial methods without embracing the new managerial work (Brynjolfsson, 1991, p. 12-13). Successful leaders in knowledge intensive jobs create structures and processes for information that flow freely so workers can use the information to do their job as they see fit. These leaders then provide incentives for good decisions. Many project management consultants and trainers still promote a Taylorist view and train project managers to control decision-making and plan out every detail of the task so workers can complete it in a timely manner without asking questions. Project management literature has traditionally emphasized a Taylorist centralized control and decision making structure for project processes in light of the dramatic evidence that a project manager is limited in his ability to process all the information that is available, assess its accuracy and relevancy and determine the best course of project action in a timely manner. This model, when applied to strategic, complex projects and programs results either in indecision or in poor quality decisions, leading to frustration among team members, customers, sponsors and stakeholders.

A project manager or leader should make decisions. However, as projects get more complex, though not necessilary bigger, the project manager’s ability to process all the information required to make good decisions can be severely limited by the inability to process all the information that is available. (Brynjolfsson, 1991, p. 26)

Summary of Emerging Trends in Project Management

Program and project managers are providing value added services to strategic initiatives which are in great demand in organizations. However, this increase in demand has not led to dramatic increases in earnings or recognition for project managers because of the disruptions in the basic economic supply and demand model. The disintegration (specialization) of project related services is being driven by an increase in the universal codification of project terms and methodology, significant reduction in transportation costs and increases in transporation speed. Together, these enable rapid globalization of services and the supply of low-cost, highly educated labor.

Concurrently project complexity is increasing, as organizations are aligning projects with strategies. Organizational units that had not previously needed to collaborate are now often required to collaborate with speed and precision. Information technology has placed a wealth of information at the project manager’s fingertips, but the amount of information has grown to a point of unmanageability; a single person’s mind does not have the ability to process all of it. More is being demanded of project managers on a daily basis. In short, the current generalist model for project and program managers is doomed to fail.

These emerging trends will benefit professionals who have a steadfast commitment to creating niche value and additional services. Project managers who do not commit to such self-improvement will see their services commoditized.


The industry is poised for dramatic changes to how it views project practitioners. Increased standardization of project processes, globalization of project management, enhanced technologies, information overload and project complexity will drive increased specialization of project management functions. Many practitioners will be forced to focus on a specialized expert area, such as risk, scheduling or procurement. Others will focus on project administration, controls and reporting, while still others will become project leaders. Specialization increases competition, and some skills will be more valuable than others depending on customer needs and project characteristics. Project professionals will experience rapid commoditization of skills as well as pressure to keep the cost of project services down. Industry trends will create three possible paths for today’s project manager. These three specialized roles will be the Project Administrator, the Project Knowledge Expert and the Service-based Project Leader. All three of these specializations are critical to the growth of the industry.

The first of these specializations, the Project Administrator, is a specialist in serving the information needs of stakeholders: reporting, tracking and budgeting. This role is being driven by regulatory requirements such as Sarbanes-Oxley. Executives are demanding accurate, timely information to report to boards. Thus, project administrators are tightly aligned with project offices and their methodologies. The value proposition for such informational services is a promise of sound project initiation and control processes.

The second specialization is that of Project Process/Knowledge Expert. Process and knowledge experts are practitioners who specialize in particular areas of project management, such as procurement, risk analysis, scheduling, scope planning, or resource management. Educational programs are forming to provide specialty knowledge of important project management knowledge areas. Demand for these knowledge experts expands significantly as project complexity increases. Knowledge experts are unique to software or construction projects, such as construction science. Their value proposition is focused on experience and knowledge.

The third specialization, the Service-based Project Leader, creates positive experiences for sponsors, customers and stakeholders through projects that generate positive energy, create value and leave lasting impressions. They initiate the transformation of the people, organizations and systems around them and create means to allow this transformation to permeate and resonate throughout their communities. They go to great lengths to understand the real customer need and align their team’s personal aspirations and needs with the overall objectives of the project. Service-based Project Leaders create meaningful results for stakeholders. Their value proposition lies in leading strategic projects that do not have ready-made solutions.

Choosing Your Role

As a project manager begins to shape his future and plan out his professional development, there are a few things he should keep in mind. First of all, all three roles of Administrator, Knowledge Expert and ServiceBased Project Leader are necessary to the future success of the project management industry; no one role is weaker than any other, but none of them can stand alone. However, certain roles suit themselves better to certain types of individuals and personalities. If one tends to be a process-focused person, the role of Project Administrator may provide the best fit. If an individual has a solid grounding in technical knowledge and has an aptitude for learning the technical knowledge areas of project and program management he might consider the role of Knowledge Expert. The Service-Based Project Leader needs to possess a people-oriented personality, as the Leader’s main strength is his ability to transform people, (including himself), systems and organizations. Service-based leaders grow other leaders while pursuing a unified vision for their customer.

There are three steps project managers can take to determine the role that is best suited to them. The first step is for them to assess themselves and improve their level of self-awareness. By objectively looking at their personality, behavioral patterns, strengths and weaknesses they can better decide what role suits them the best.

A project manager must also assess his natural abilities or preferences in order to find the proper role. This is not to say that certain characteristics are required for a certain role. However, one’s understanding of his style and how it relates to comfort in a leadership role is critical. Whether it is a DISC, Myers-Briggs, or Platinum Rule assessment, self-assessment tools enable a complete view of oneself. They do not explain why someone has certain characteristics, such as an aptitude for focusing on tasks, but they often spur more questions that can be explored personally, generating more self-awareness, which is the intent of these tools. Everyone is unique, and each has talents that flow naturally and others that seem to need continuous practice and work.

Marcus Buckingham and Donald Clifton, Ph.D. have done extensive research on people’s strengths, and promote the concept of focusing on strengths and maximizing their potential as opposed to attempting to focus solely on one’s weaknesses or gaps. A strength is defined as a person’s ability to provide a nearly perfect performance consistently in a specific activity. (Buckingham, 2001, p. 25).

A project manager should assess his natural strengths and strive to align them with a role that enables a consistent nearly perfect performance. Missing strengths are gaps and these must be understood well enough to ensure one does not allow them to become limitations; one must acquire basic competency in this skills to ensure adaptability. But most importantly, an understanding of strengths and gaps allow project managers to surround themselves with people who have these gaps as strengths, enhancing joint leadership through complimentary strengths.

A practitioner’s guide to finding and enhancing his role is made up of four basic steps: commitment, assessment and acquisition of leadership skills, practice and service. (Ferraro, 2005, p. 4-6) Commitment is the alignment of core values and convictions to find meaningful work that has a purpose to the individual. Assessment and acquisition are the continual evaluation of one’s strengths and performance. Practicing is the use of new skills and experimentation in real projects, and service is the giving of these talents freely to purposes that provide a social and moral good, which naturally renews and validates one’s commitment to the profession. (Ferraro, 2005, p. 5)

As a second step to choosing their role, they should become keenly aware of the trends diluting the generalist and examine their work environment in an effort to perceive which trends are putting them at risk. Scanning the environment for these trends and monitoring the value of their performance should become habitual.

Thirdly, they should look for opportunities to adapt to the specific needs of projects and programs to fill niches of specialization. Experimenting with specialization will build knowledge, skills and experience. This will in turn increase competency and expand options for value added services, which can be accomplished through close alignment with project customers and increasing attention to their needs.

(No author) Stress Management Techniques. (1995-2005) MindTools.

(No Author) (2006) Labor Force Characteristics of Foreign-Born Workers Summary. U.S. Department of Labor.

Brynjolfsson, Erik. (1991) Information Technology and the ‘New Managerial Work.’ Cambridge: MIT Sloan School of Management.

Buckingham, Marcus (2001) Now Discover Your Strengths. New York: The Free Press.

Ferraro, Jack, PMP. (2005) Self Directed Leadership Development – Moving beyond the PMP. PMI Global Congress, Edinburgh, Scotland.

Hufbauer, G., Warren, T. (1999) “The Globalization of Services: What Has Happened? What Are The Implications?”

Macher, J.T., Mowery, D.C. (2004) Vertical Specialization and Industry Structure in High Technology Industries, Business Strategy Over the Industry Lifecycle, Advances in Strategic Management. Volume 21, 317–356.

(No Author) (2004) Intel Corp. On The Record: Craig Barrett, San Francisco Chronicle,

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

© 2006, Jack Ferraro, PMP
Originally published as a part of 2006 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Seattle Washington



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