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Do project management skills really transfer between sectors?

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We often hear about transferable skills in project management, but how important are they and can we actually transfer skills between sectors?

In March, I started working at Heathrow Airport, tasked with programme management for reopening Terminal 4 ahead of the summer peak. Having spent much of my career in rail and construction, I found myself reflecting on what I know and how I might apply it to my new situation.

As a consultant embedded in a client organisation, you’re entrusted to deliver and add value from day one. As with all new projects and programmes, it may seem that there is a substantial, and possibly overwhelming, amount of new information, contacts, stakeholders and immediate deadlines. So how do you add value from the get-go?

A marathon, not a sprint

In my view, joining as a new project or programme manager, there are two routes to go down. Option 1 is to dive straight in and immerse yourself, find the problems that are causing the biggest issues and set about resolving them – a real hands-on approach from the very first morning.

The alternative – option 2 – is to take stock of your current position, review the key documents and understand the scope, success measures and health of the project before pulling together a plan. Both options have their pros and cons, and there is not a right or wrong way.

However, while at school and university, during exams I would often fall foul of not properly reading the question before beginning my answer. As a result, and applying lessons learned, I now lean towards option 2: read, review, plan and do. It does not necessarily mean you will achieve things at a different pace, and even when there is an immediate deadline, the expression ‘it is a marathon not a sprint’ can still apply.

Everything is an algorithm

So, when in a new environment, where should you start? Well you could begin by asking yourself what you have learnt over the years and what is applicable to the situation.

I recently read (in Homo Deus) that everything in life can be defined as an algorithm – whether it is a monkey’s risk-versus-reward calculations when finding food in an area where predators might be, or the algorithm that enables a vending machine to dispense a drink. As a project professional in a new context, running scenarios in your head to filter what is and is not applicable at the highest level provides immediate focus.

You know that a short programme that involves multiple business units is going to require a clear, high-level schedule that can be read easily. You also know that the high-profile nature of the programme of works will require regular reporting pitched at the right level for the executive committee. The reporting also needs to be adaptable to align with data that is already available from the business units and teams you are working with to avoid an extra burden on colleagues, supporting buy-in to the common goal.

You also know that you will need to identify the key stakeholders and begin building relationships with them. In a world where hybrid working is normal, stakeholders may be more accessible and have greater availability, but I don’t think you can build strong relationships via video calls; this is much better done in person.

The excitement of being the newcomer

In addition to schedule management, stakeholder management and knowing how to pitch, establish and implement project reports, you can transfer your knowledge of how to resolve conflicts, solve problems and differentiate between project deliverables that are important and those that are urgent. These (and others) are basic principles that apply in most environments. They are genuinely value-adding and can move with you from sector to sector.

During the early stages of my career, when I moved from one graduate rotation to another, I used to worry that, during the first few days and weeks of the new placement, I was the person in the room who knew the least. In hindsight, it can be a great place to be. There is excitement in running an algorithm for what you need to know to get started, how to survive and then thrive. All of this comes with the added benefit of not being involved in the history and relationships that sometimes mar a project and its progress.

Admittedly, my experience spans different working environments and modes of transport, but it is still infrastructure and passenger transport. I wonder if the same skills transfer as easily across multiple sectors and borders. I will have to wait and see.

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  1. Andrew Wain
    Andrew Wain 16 November 2022, 03:04 PM

    Thanks for this thoughtful and well-written article, Zak. I am a strong believer that project leaderships skills are highly transferable across industries