Form versus Knowledge for Project Managers

I selected Dr. Safarians to be the person for my interview for various reasons, and I am very happy that I did interview her. She was a project manager at the time, but her presence and knowledge was intimidating. She was speaking to my boss’s boss at the time and I happened to walk into the room requesting an approval on a protocol when I caught her discussion on her current project. She left a lasting impression on me, and I have respected her ever since.

Dr. Safarians had been promoted many levels in the past 9 years since I met her first. She had become a Director of Implementation. It is hard to describe what exactly this role does, as it is very complex and ever evolving as the realm of her responsibility changes, but it is a cross between a Director of Operations, Project Manager and Program Manager.

What brought Dr. Safarians into project management is that, “everything is a project, the only difference is the scope.” One of the items that she mentioned is that in undergraduate you learn about the projects and findings of others. You learn how others worked through problems and how they were able to solve the problems for others to grow from to lead to other discoveries. In graduate school to learn how to think for yourself to make those discoveries for others to learn from. Dr. Safarians earned her doctorate so that she could have the creditability to work on of her choosing projects and to demonstrate that she is a source of authority on matters pertaining to her field of expertise.

Her educational background has helped her because she can give substance to the project. Dr. Safarians stated that, “project managements have to be masters of form, not necessary knowledge. Project managers give the form to the discussions and schedule’s, they give shape to the deliverables. They do not have the technical side. They need to become technically savvy to understand. A project manager that manages to the schedule are not able to facilitate to the project.” With her knowledge she is able to embrace constructive discussions and understand the various perspectives of an issue in the project to give a better solution to a problem, or break down a barrier.

            There are two points that I would your response to. The first is, has your journey to get your MBA helped you gain credibility in your job when it comes to making decisions, and if so how? The other is, the discussion about form versus knowledge. I have worked with project managers that have facilitied and have lead, and only after interviewing Dr. Safarians did I realize that project managers do not always have to be the point of author or decision making, they can be guides or intermediates for knowledge. What are your thoughts on form versus knowledge?

9 thoughts on “Form versus Knowledge for Project Managers

  1. To your second question, Fareed, I feel that depending on the structure of the organization, Project Managers may need to be guides or intermediaries OR they may need to be subject matter experts. In my particular organization, generally, Project Managers need to possess the critical project management knowledge and skills to manage the project and team, but do not necessarily need to have the technical knowledge because there are Functional Leads specifically aligned to the project to provide that perspective.

    In my experience, I’ve found that the most effective project managers are those who focus on form, but also acquire a high level of knowledge about the subject matter of their projects which would enable them to have an intelligent conversation about any issues that arise with scope, schedule, risks, etc. If the Project Manager completely overlooks the knowledge aspect, in my opinion, they cannot successfully manage a project and will serve only as a coordinator for the work rather than a leader in getting from point A to point D.

    I don’t believe that additional degrees are necessary to prove your knowledge and abilities as a project or program manager, but having some credentials to show you have a baseline understanding of the industry and subject matter is definitely perceived positively by anyone who is judging whether you’re competent to lead the project to begin with. A bit contradictory, I know, but the reality is that most people would perceive a person differently if they have some credentials or schooling around a specific topic than if they do not.

    Good post!

  2. My MBA experience has encouraged me to make opportunities to discuss such approaches with my and even officer-level managers in my company. They all seem to be genuinely interested to participate in a “scholarly” talk and give honest opinions about the trends they’ve experienced over their careers.

    During one of my most recent discussions on the subject of form vs expertise, I found that form matters more the higher up the ladder you go. Of course, when it comes down to the details there is no replacing the skill and familiarity that a subject matter expert will bring to the discussion.

    Though I am currently a manager, I bridge the role of a subject matter expert and a project manager. I would say from my own experience that the weight of my opinions and gravitas are increased when people know that I am pursuing my MBA. This is especially true when speaking to someone that has already obtained their degree, where perhaps respect is formed on some sort of comradery. While I find that expertise is useful, someone may not consider you a trustworthy peer until your skills are validated by a degree.

  3. Good form will win every time.

    I believe, that at a minimum, a project manager needs to be somewhere just beyond conversationally literate in the subject matter. In order to leverage the efforts and talents of others, a PM really needs to appreciate the specialization that subject matter experts(SME’s) bring to the project. Although not mandatory, I regularly take advantage of available technical training. As a technical project manager, I even ask the SME’s opinion about my scheduled technical training. Sometimes leading a conversation is just knowing what questions to ask.

    Fareed, your interview sounds fascinating. You are fortunate to have access to someone like that.

  4. I agree this is a very interesting post. To me it seems that form is a sort of knowledge that encompasses leadership, motivation, and getting everyone to see the big picture that will ultimately be a lead and a touchstone on the way to the projects completion. In this way i would say form is a greater challenge than just applying technical knowledge. You have to be trained or be familiar with a multiplicity of fields to be able to lead everyone and create group cohesion. I would be very interested in reading the transcript of the interview.

  5. I agree to your post. I believe that having a form will take you far depending on how well you show yourself. I have been in the industry for only 3 years, after seeing that many project managers have the proper knowledge to what they are doing, it doesn’t mean that it came from just education. The big picture is to see what type of leadership and motivation one has to apply there knowledge in different types of way. After reading about Dr. Safarian, I agree with the post.

    When I worked at Walgreens, I would oversee a project managers roles and sometimes he would be dealing with different projects and coordinated all sorts of events which takes more then knowledge it takes incredible stress levels.

    Everyone had such great responses and amazing post.

  6. I found this post very interesting due to the fact that I didn’t know that all project managers are not necessarily the one’s with the most knowledge. However, I strongly believe that a project manager needs to at least have a general knowledge of the project’s subject. The reason being that, the people being managed need to have trust and confidence in what the project manager is saying. Also, I agree with Dr. Safarians on the part of her statement where she said, “project managers have to be masters of form”. They need to be experts in figuring out the best ways to approach and complete a project. Overall, I agree with much of what Dr. Safarians is saying, but I also believe that some level of expertise must be there for a Project manager to be truly effective.

  7. I really liked this post in the sense that we are comparing real life to the idea of knowledge versus form. I truely think form is a lot more important than knowledge because form set a structure for all of the rest of you workers. I am a eagle scout and to become an eagle scout we must create and manage a project. For all of my workers I had to lay out what we were trying to accomplish so they can help me accomplish my goal. By laying out a structure it gave some kind of “form” to the project.

  8. I found both Dr. Safarians experience/knowledge and your take on it to be very interesting. While I think that both good form and knowledge are important, I believe that good form will prevail before knowledge does. The problem solvers and “worker bees”, if you will, should make up for most of the knowledge in the project’s team. I think it is necessary for the manager to have a basic and working knowledge of the subject, a manager’s thorough knowledge of the subject will only do so much for the team. As a member of a project’s team, I would much rather be working under a “master of form” rather than a master of knowledge. Thanks for a great post!

  9. To answer your question about form versus knowledge, I believe form is much more essential than knowledge. I interned with a large corporate finance company in their internal consulting department. My mentor was a great project manager and did not have hardly any expertise on many subjects of her projects. Her expertise was in putting together a team with a wide range of knowledge and then mediating their conversations. Her ability to keep conversation within scope and move the team forward towards decisions was very impressive. She may not have known much about the topic, but she did not need to. She was an expert at putting together a team and mediating conversation, the kind of expert the best project managers are.

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