Domain vs Project Expertise (80:20/20:80)

One of the most common questions we get asked is “What’s more important when trying to get a job in project management, domain, or project expertise?”

Unfortunately, the answer like many others in the field of project management is “that depends!”

Many organisations love employing a SME (Subject Matter Expert) and wouldn’t consider anything but, when looking fill their project management roles. We see it time and time again when clients send us their job descriptions demanding a candidate have 5 years+ experience in their field of operation as well as project management expertise.

For many, this is why project management is still considered as a second career. Potential practitioners need to have gained general experience in the workplace and specific expertise in their industry/Domain if they are to effectively and efficiently transition into running projects. It’s all well and good knowing all the theory behind project management, but it is an experiential profession and you need the battle scars and hands on experience if you are to be successful.

This is not a situation that just impacts individuals who are looking to break into the field of project management; many established practitioners find their job opportunities blocked because they do not have the detailed industry/Domain knowledge that a client believes is necessary. These organisations crush the concept of project management being a transferable skillset across domain. Maybe sometimes, say in a regulated industry there is a thin case but many times it is fear of the unknown that drives this behaviour.

So, as someone who is looking to break into project management, having domain expertise is a great place to start; at least you will have something that you can bring to the table.

The 80:20 Rule

So, in the image below we’re really talking about knowledge and experience (Domain and Project) over time.

Typically, when entering the field of project management, practitioners will have a much higher level in terms of domain expertise than project management. As such, when looking for an opportunity it is more likely that an organisation like Company X, where domain is 80% and project 20% typifies the profile of their roles, could provide an opening.

I would suggest that Company Y and Company Z would be much harder to break into for someone who is just starting out in their project management career.

Company X – may be for example a small software house who need elements of project management but what they actually really want is you to be in the trenches digging in the code being a productive member of the team. The emphasis when hiring here is technical competence. The domain vs project split here will be 80:20 (maybe 70:30).

Company Y – A project manager at this organisation would bridge the gap between the technical and non-technical employees. We recently had a Microsoft Dynamics vacancy that would fit company Y’s profile. The person for that role needed to understand Dynamics, though they weren’t required to be hands on in configuring the product but having that understanding allowed them to manage their team and also the client. The domain vs project split here would be 50:50 or maybe 60:40 in either direction.

Company Z – This company hires you to be a project management practitioner, they want you for your ability to manage and deliver projects. Your team will then have the domain knowledge and relevant skills to allow the project to be delivered. To be a PM here you need to be about people, making things happen, breaking down walls and building bridges. All of the “soft” skills that will make a project successful. This company is the opposite extreme to company X with the domain vs project split being more like 20:80.

As a practitioner, it is important that you are always assessing where you are and what you are doing. You may fall lucky and work for an organisation where the opportunity to grow through the phases outlined above within the single business exist. Alternatively, you may have to plan your career moves to match your ambition. Then along the way you may find that you have a achieved a balance that suits you as an individual. It ultimately comes down to you and what you are looking for from your career.


It can be easy to spend a long amount of time in one organisation and get lost in the way they work and operate when delivering projects. For many it comes as a great shock when they are exposed to the wider market that what they were doing for organisation X as a project manager, organisation Y and Z may well consider to be a project coordinator.

It’s important to remember that an organisation generally shapes its project management requirements and procedures to meet their own business demands not your career and future opportunity. Keep your eye on the market and don’t get institutionalised!

Bridge or engine room?

A final point about domain and one that we always talk to people about, is if the project manager is too heavily weighted towards the domain.

The question is, where will they be in a crisis?

The temptation is that if you’re very high in domain knowledge or domain expertise, you will end up in the engine room, rather than being on the bridge. You’ll be trying to sort out the problem rather than actually looking at the bigger picture and conducting the team to make sure that the immediate issue is resolved, but also is done in the context of the bigger picture.

The balance is so important!

You can learn about this in more detail for FREE in a recent webinar John Thorpe for BCS via the link below:


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