PM vs. SME: The Great Management Debate

    It’s been called the oldest question in management: Is it better to have project management expertise or subject matter expertise?

    Ask most project managers and they’ll tell you process beats subject matter expertise every time. Ask most engineers, designers, doctors or professional knowledge workers and you’ll get just the opposite answer, along with plenty of scorn for bosses who try to manage without knowing a thing about the business.

    Examples abound on either side of the argument.

    The recovery of the U.S. auto industry has been led primarily by non- “car guys.” Alan Mulally took over at Ford Motor Co. from Boeing Co. and has led a spectacular recovery of the blue oval. Ed Whitacre came from the telecom business to lead General Motors Corp. out of its bankruptcy and into a leaner, more results oriented organization that has successfully rejoined the public market. Process, knowing how to run a company and what to do to make it work, seems to be the key element in both these success stories.

    On the other side, take Steve Jobs at Apple Inc., who in January 2011 announced plans for a medical leave of absence. During his previous absence from 1985 to 1997, the company was run by a string of supposed experts. All they contributed was declining market share and near extinction of Apple as a relevant brand. When Steve Jobs returned, the company’s fortunes changed radically. He brought with him the highest degree of subject matter expertise — a computer and electronics guy through and through. It remains to be seen what will be the long-term effects of Jobs’ latest stint away from the Apple helm. Certainly though, in the years prior to his return in 1997, SME dramatically trumped MBA.

    At the core of the project manager vs. subject matter expert debate is a question of results: Which positions a company for better outcomes, a leader with a ready-made tool set honed across industries or a leader with a skill set specifically tuned to a certain business sector?

    Does each industry have its own unique tool set? Is any industry so specialized that it precludes a skilled practitioner of multidisciplinary management from success?

    Looking over the annals of business and project management, I contend an effective manager, an effective executive, can succeed in any industry. Management science and its project management sub-category draw from more than a century of data, case studies and best practices to prepare individuals to lead businesses.

    Unlike other “social sciences,” management and business offer far greater wealth of data and much easier ways to score results. There are definitive behaviors firms exhibit in different circumstances and definable ways to measure the cause and effect of strategic decisions.

    Don’t get me wrong. There is no rulebook or surefire checklist of items to follow that directly ensure success. Ultimately, success always is determined by the customer. What we do have is a body of knowledge that can be studied, understood and implemented across industries.

    So what goes wrong? Why do professional managers fail where subject matter experts succeed? How did Steve Jobs pull off the turnaround at Apple?

    Where professional managers sometimes get it wrong is in the vision, the goal.

    In project management, for example, the best execution in the world won’t get you the results you want if the project’s goal is the wrong outcome for the job. A subject matter expert, a “car guy” with vision, as it were, can see what the market wants, can understand what product or service will sell, and can point the organization in the direction it needs to go.

    But it’s a rare product visionary that can steer the ship.

    In any project, the executive suite needs subject matter experts to determine what kind of products need to be made, but the residents of the suite don’t automatically turn over the steering wheel to every guy with a great idea. Keep the professionals in charge, but make them listen to the market.

    Great executives can determine the tone and the mission for the organization and let the product experts inform the decision on what products and services will best contribute to meeting that mission. Then, they let project managers, the process experts, execute that vision meticulously.

    Mark Phillips is the product manager and lead spokesperson at Vertabase project management software. A highly sought-after speaker on project management and technology, he has presented to numerous professional groups and conferences on the subjects of software design, usability and project management. Mark has consulted for hundreds of organizations on project management and led the development of numerous Web-based and rich Internet applications. He blogs about project management at and can be reached at [email protected].