The following article is a modest update of an article written by Kiron Bondale back on January 5, 2016 and posted in Articles, It was originally republished here as a Musings in July 2016. Given the extraordinary times we currently live in with the covid-19 pandemic, we think it is worth publishing again because so many have experienced a break in their careers and need to get restarted again.
Published here November 2021.


Musings Index

Crossing to a Different Industry

The issue is: "I have X years of experience in the Y industry, can I transfer that knowledge to a different industry?"[1]

Naturally, you don't want to "start all over" in the project management field, but rather you want carry at least some of your experience with you. So the answer to the question is "Yes, but —." The reality today is that there is a serious shortage of competent leaders in most fields of the labor market, and now is a good time to make a move. However, you cannot just walk in as a project manager of any sort and expect a leadership role, you have to be able to play the right cards and play them right.

Kiron Bondale explains it this way.

First we have those project management purists who believe that subject matter notwithstanding, a project is a project. The same hard and soft competencies that are required to successfully manage a project in one domain apply when managing a project in another. However, in spite of how successful a project manager has been in one domain, their effectiveness inevitably decreases when they have to manage a project in a different one.

It really depends on a few factors including economic conditions and your own situation.

If you happen to be transitioning across domains within your own company, you have a track record of successful delivery in your existing role. You also have an established network of champions within your current department as well as the one you wish to enter. So, 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 that a project manager can pursue. In addition, the explosive growth of the project management profession over the past two decades has resulted in a good supply of project management talent in many parts of the world. However, the number of qualified project managers with the necessary experience of a given industry is often limited and that is the deciding factor.

In some respects, this is similar to the debate as to whether or not one should obtain a project management credential in the first place. Certainly, there is no doubt that one can be a successful project manager without getting certified. But 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, you could be lucky. However, 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 that 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 may be 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 in the technology that you will be newly experiencing

It is true that knowledge is no substitute for experience, but you do need to be able to talk the talk if you are lucky enough to be granted an interview.

Here are some specific examples of things to discover and learn:

  • The common jargon associated with the work.
  • The rules of thumb that are worth learning and practicing.[2]
  • The so-called best practices specific to the industry.
  • The common sources of risk and risk events.

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 that could be applicable to your 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."

If that is true, let's hope you are lucky.

Kiron Bondale and Max Wideman

1. For example from software programming to building construction, or vice versa.
2. Such as parametric estimation models for cost estimating.
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